Let’s admit it. As political provocateur, Donald Trump has a dizzy kind of genius. He feints to the right, then he spins to the left. Either way, the hot subject for political chatter becomes Donald Trump.
This week, while people everywhere were fretting over his violent talk, the candidate came to Washington and dropped a peace bomb on the neocon editorial writers at The Washington Post and the war lobby. Trump wants to get the United States out of fighting other people’s wars. He thinks maybe NATO has outlived its usefulness. He asks why Americans are still paying for South Korea’s national defense. Or Germany’s or Saudi Arabia’s.
“I do think it’s a different world today and I don’t think we should be nation-building anymore,” Trump said. “I think it’s proven not to work. And we have a different country than we did then. You know we have $19 trillion in debt. We’re sitting probably on a bubble, and, you know, it’s a bubble that if it breaks is going to be very nasty. And I just think we have to rebuild our country.”
Will anybody give him an amen? Yes, lots of folks. People who read The Nation (myself included) have been saying something similar for a long time. So have libertarian Republicans on the right. But this sort of thinking is mega-heresy among the political establishment of both parties. The foreign-policy operators consider themselves in charge of the “indispensable nation.”
This new Trump talk is definitely career-threatening for the military-industrial complex. It was particularly playful of Trump to choose The Washington Post as the place to drop his bomb; after all, it’s the Post that has made itself such a righteous preacher for endless war-making.
The Donald, usually bellicose in style and substance, is singing, “give peace a chance.” What does his detour portend for national policy? We can’t know for sure, since Trump also has a tendency to casually contradict himself before different audiences. Later on the same day, he addressed AIPAC’s convention and sounded a like a warrior for Zion. He got thunderous applause after making the ritual promises that candidates from both parties always make at AIPAC meetings.
But Trump has, in his usual unvarnished manner, kicked open the door to an important and fundamental foreign-policy debate. It is far more profound than the disputes we usually hear between hawks and doves. He’s proposing a radical standard for testing US policy abroad, both in war and peace: Is it actually in America’s interest? Or has US global strategy become a dangerous hangover from the glory years, when Washington armed and organized nations for the Cold War?
Whatever happened in past decades, Trump insists that this US ambition always to be in charge is now actively damaging our country, wasting scarce treasure and drawing us into other people’s conflicts. ThePost opinionators must have choked on his words.
“I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up,” Trump told the editors. “And we’d build another one and it would get blown up. And we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn.… at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves. So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that but at the same time, our country is disintegrating, large sections of it, especially in the inner cities.”
Trump has thus shrewdly articulated what ought to be a vital subject for debate in 2016. Instead, I suspect, he will be inundated with lordly rebukes by the policy elites. And the editorial writers will explain how half-baked and dangerous his ideas are to the future of mankind.
We can imagine the labels they’ll haul out from history: Protectionist. Nationalist. Isolationist. America Firster. His challenging proposition reminds me of my childhood, because I grew up in idyllic small-town Ohio, where those skeptical views of “foreign entanglements” defined the Republican Party (there weren’t many Democrats in my home town, and they mostly kept quiet).
As teenagers, we grew up as Robert A. Taft Republicans and deeply suspicious of the “Eastern Establishment,” who looked down on us as Midwestern bumpkins. The decisive election was 1952, when Taft lost the GOP nomination to a genuine national hero, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. We were heartbroken. In the Midwest we lived in the middle of a great big country and could reasonably feel that we should stay out of other people’s troubles. The Cold War pretty much destroyed that common sense.
Ike’s victory ratified America’s commitment to developing a new world order of global alliances and foreign military deployments. That order seemed like the right thing to do 60 years ago, but now it falls to an outsider named Trump to demand fundamental reconsideration.
I suspect most Americans would agree with Trump’s tough questions but are not sure of the answers (neither perhaps is he). Plus, in these insecure times, people do not wish to sound unpatriotic. In my hometown, we quickly fell in love with Eisenhower the moderate Republican, who resisted the party’s hard right (who thought Ike was a commie).
At the end of his second presidential term, Eisenhower, the general who won World War II in Europe, was warning us about the dangers of something he called the “military-industrial complex.” I wonder what he would tell us today.
Even as Donald Trump woos working-class voters by trashing Washington politicians, he is sending a reassuring message to the business-financial establishment: Don’t worry, I’m on your side, he’s telling corporate execs in coded language. Trump the dealmaker has signaled that he’ll deliver mammoth tax “forgiveness”—worth hundreds of billions—to the largest multinational corporations.
Trump delivered this message during his victory speech in Florida on Tuesday, but it was couched in evasive and deceitful terms that only insiders were likely to understand. Business and financial leaders will certainly get it, because they’re lobbying intensely for the same deal: massive tax reductions for gold-plated names like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and scores of other globalized American corporations.
The companies have $2.1 trillion in overseas profits parked offshore and untaxed, and they won’t bring the money home until Congress agrees to give them another “tax holiday” and permanently reduces the corporate tax rate.
Except Trump makes it sound like the multinationals are the victims—held hostage by dirty politicians. In fact, it’s the opposite. The tech companies, mega-banks, and drug makers are carrying out the corporate version of highway robbery: If Congress doesn’t give in to their demands, they threaten to pull the trigger by moving to Ireland or other low-tax hangouts.
“I’m disgusted with it; I’m tired of seeing it,” Trump told his adoring fans. “People can’t get their money back into the country because the politicians can’t get along, they can’t make a deal…. Companies are leaving our country in order to go and get money—that’s their money—because there’s no way of bringing it in.”
Trump says he would change all that instantly as president. The dealmaker would introduce a cooperative spirit of compromise. “If I sat down with a few of the senators, or a few of the congressmen, you could make a deal on that in 10 minutes,” he said.
Like so much of his campaign rhetoric, Trump turns reality into baloney. The multinationals can bring their profits home anytime they wish. Like right now. They merely have to pay the taxes they already owe. The threat to American citizens is that both Democrats and Republicans will cave in and collaborate in giving the corporate tax dodgers what they want. The rest of us will pick up the tab.
Campaign reporters and cable-TV talkers missed the story entirely, though it’s not exactly their fault, because Trump distorted the true meaning of what he was promising. I imagine campaign reporters ignored this talk because it sounded like more of Trump’s goofy stream-of-consciousness soliloquies.
The only reason I caught his drift was that Trump was talking about the very subject of my recent Nation blog, “Democrats and Republicans Are Quietly Planning a Corporate Giveaway—to the Tune of $400 Billion.” Senator Elizabeth Warren has already denounced this bipartisan political scheme as “a giant wet kiss for the tax dodgers.” Indeed, it is another stunning example of why Washington deal-making enrages citizens.
Most voters don’t have a clue. They certainly do not realize that this working-class hero named Trump is actually a willing agent of the 1 percenters. Who will tell the people, if reporters covering the presidential election think it’s only a horse race?
Trump, I suspect, is turning a corner in his campaign. Having bonded with millions of hurt and angry working people, he’s attempting now to assure elites that he can also play “presidential” in a convincing manner. After ridiculing Marco Rubio mercilessly for months, Trump congratulated the young man on his campaign and predicted a promising future for him. Ho-ho-ho.
Trump also had a nice talk with the Grand Wizard of GOP obstruction, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who urged him to go light on the violent lingo. Trump also made nice with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
I expect this next phase of the Trump campaign will test the Republican temperament generally. Will party regulars depart on principle if he wins the nomination? (Not many have, so far.) Or will they hop on board in the vague hope that Trump is a winner who might “mature” in the cauldron of presidential responsibilities?
I imagine Trump is imperially pleased with himself. He chuckles when he does his hair. Not sure himself which way to go, he knows it will be great.
ï»¿Hillary Clinton’s recent op-ed in The New York Times, “How I’d Rein In Wall Street,” was intended to reassure nervous Democrats who fear she is still in thrall to those mega-bankers of New York who crashed the American economy. Clinton’s brisk recital of plausible reform ideas might convince wishful thinkers who are not familiar with the complexities of banking. But informed skeptics, myself included, see a disturbing message in her argument that ought to alarm innocent supporters.
Candidate Clinton is essentially whitewashing the financial catastrophe. She has produced a clumsy rewrite of what caused the 2008 collapse, one that conveniently leaves her husband out of the story. He was the president who legislated the predicate for Wall Street’s meltdown. Hillary Clinton’s redefinition of the reform problem deflects the blame from Wall Street’s most powerful institutions, like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, and instead fingers less celebrated players that failed. In roundabout fashion, Hillary Clinton sounds like she is assuring old friends and donors in the financial sector that, if she becomes president, she will not come after them.
The seminal event that sowed financial disaster was the repeal of the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which had separated banking into different realms: investment banks, which organize capital investors for risk-taking ventures; and deposit-holding banks, which serve people as borrowers and lenders. That law’s repeal, a great victory for Wall Street, was delivered by Bill Clinton in 1999, assisted by the Federal Reserve and the financial sector’s armies of lobbyists. The “universal banking model” was saluted as a modernizing reform that liberated traditional banks to participate directly and indirectly in long-prohibited and vastly more profitable risk-taking.
Exotic financial instruments like derivatives and credit-default swaps flourished, enabling old-line bankers to share in the fun and profit on an awesome scale. The banks invented “guarantees” against loss and sold them to both companies and market players. The fast-expanding financial sector claimed a larger and larger share of the economy (and still does) at the expense of the real economy of producers and consumers. The interconnectedness across market sectors created the illusion of safety. When illusions failed, these connected guarantees became the dragnet that drove panic in every direction. Ultimately, the federal government had to rescue everyone, foreign and domestic, to stop the bleeding.
Yet Hillary Clinton asserts in her Times op-ed that repeal of Glass-Steagall had nothing to do with it. She claims that Glass-Steagall would not have limited the reckless behavior of institutions like Lehman Brothers or insurance giant AIG, which were not traditional banks. Her argument amounts to facile evasion that ignores the interconnected exposures. The Federal Reserve spent $180 billion bailing out AIG so AIG could pay back Goldman Sachs and other banks. If the Fed hadn’t acted and had allowed AIG to fail, the banks would have gone down too.
These sound like esoteric questions of bank regulation (and they are), but the consequences of pretending they do not matter are enormous. The federal government and Federal Reserve would remain on the hook for rescuing losers in a future crisis. The largest and most adventurous banks would remain free to experiment, inventing fictitious guarantees and selling them to eager suckers. If things go wrong, Uncle Sam cleans up the mess.
Senator Elizabeth Warren and other reformers are pushing a simpler remedy—restore the Glass-Steagall principles and give citizens a safe, government-insured place to store their money. “Banking should be boring,” Warren explains (her co-sponsor is GOP Senator John McCain).
That’s a hard sell in politics, given the banking sector’s bear hug of Congress and the White House, its callous manipulation of both political parties. Of course, it is more complicated than that. But recreating a safe, stable banking system—a place where ordinary people can keep their money—ought to be the first benchmark for Democrats who claim to be reformers.
Actually, the most compelling witnesses for Senator Warren’s argument are the two bankers who introduced this adventure in “universal banking” back in the 1990s. They used their political savvy and relentless muscle to seduce Bill Clinton and his so-called New Democrats. John Reed was CEO of Citicorp and led the charge. He has since apologized to the nation. Sandy Weill was chairman of the board and a brilliant financier who envisioned the possibilities of a single, all-purpose financial house, freed of government’s narrow-minded regulations. They won politically, but at staggering cost to the country.
Weill confessed error back in 2012: “What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking. Have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be too big to fail.”
John Reed’s confession explained explicitly why their modernizing crusade failed for two fundamental business reasons. “One was the belief that combining all types of finance into one institution would drive costs down—and the larger institution the more efficient it would be,” Reed wrote in the Financial Times in November. Reed said, “We now know that there are very few cost efficiencies that come from the merger of functions—indeed, there may be none at all. It is possible that combining so much in a single bank makes services more expensive than if they were instead offered by smaller, specialised players.”
The second grave error, Reed said, was trying to mix the two conflicting cultures in banking—bankers who are pulling in opposite directions. That tension helps explain the competitive greed displayed by the modernized banking system. This disorder speaks to the current political crisis in ways that neither Dems nor Republicans wish to confront. It would require the politicians to critique the bankers (often their funders) in terms of human failure.
“Mixing incompatible cultures is a problem all by itself,” Reed wrote. “It makes the entire finance industry more fragile…. As is now clear, traditional banking attracts one kind of talent, which is entirely different from the kinds drawn towards investment banking and trading. Traditional bankers tend to be extroverts, sociable people who are focused on longer term relationships. They are, in many important respects, risk averse. Investment bankers and their traders are more short termist. They are comfortable with, and many even seek out, risk and are more focused on immediate reward.”
Reed concludes, “As I have reflected about the years since 1999, I think the lessons of Glass-Steagall and its repeal suggest that the universal banking model is inherently unstable and unworkable. No amount of restructuring, management change or regulation is ever likely to change that.”
This might sound hopelessly naive, but the Democratic Party might do better in politics if it told more of the truth more often: what they tried do and why it failed, and what they think they may have gotten wrong. People already know they haven’t gotten a straight story from politicians. They might be favorably impressed by a little more candor in the plain-spoken manner of John Reed.
Of course it’s unfair to pick on the Dems. Republicans have been lying about their big stuff for so long and so relentlessly that their voters are now staging a wrathful rebellion. Who knows, maybe a little honest talk might lead to honest debate. Think about it. Do the people want to hear the truth about our national condition? Could they stand it?
Reading details of the Secret Service’s failure to protect the president, I was jolted by a sudden premonition. Our country is once again risking “the fire next time.” James Baldwin’s dreadful prophecy—a phrase he borrowed from an old Negro spiritual—was published in 1963 when the civil rights movement was approaching its climactic triumph. Yet the novelist’s resonant warning came true a few years later. Cities across America were in flames. This is not a prediction of what is coming, but my fear. We should talk candidly about this risk before it is too late.
Let me be explicit about what I imagine might occur. If something bad should happen to hurt President Obama or his family, the “fire” could be ignited again by people’s rage and sorrow. Some will object that my warning is inflammatory, but I see silence as a greater danger.
The basic fact is this: there are demented Americans who do want to harm the president and have repeatedly threatened his life. Nobody knows how many or how dangerous they might be. Threats are a standard circumstance for the presidency, but the alarming difference is that threats against Barack Obama have been three times higher than for his predecessors, according to The Washington Post, which first revealed the Secret Service lapses. The explanation is obvious. This president is black, so is his family.
“Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about fearing for her family’s safety since her husband became the nation’s first black president,” Post reporter Carol Leonnig wrote. “Her concerns are well-founded. President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors, according to people briefed on the Secret Service’s threat assessment.”
After the Post reported this elevated risk assessment, The New York Times was told by a Secret Service spokesman that the threats against Obama have subsequently subsided to more typical levels. Given recent episodes in which the agency withheld embarrassing facts, even from the president, it is hard to judge which estimate to trust.
My larger point is this: the country is again becoming a racial tinderbox. We have witnessed many warning signs in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where another white cop shot an unarmed black teenager. Politicians mostly look the other way, perhaps fearful of provoking stronger emotions. But some politicians have actively encouraged racist resentments. The political system is implicated in stoking social discontents, white and black, because it has been unwilling (or unable) to do anything about the economic distress. It feels as though the society is stymied too, people waiting sullenly for some triggering event that might express their pain and anger.
Specifically, I accuse the Republican Party of adroitly exploiting racial tensions in the age of Obama in order to mobilize its electoral base and gain political advantage. Black Americans know what I mean. They have endured such political tactics for many generations. Indeed, as black leaders told Peter Baker of The New York Times, many African-American citizens are suspicious of the Secret Service failures that exposed the black president to danger.
When Barack Obama was elected six years ago, I wrote a short editorial for The Nation, “This Proud Moment,” that celebrated his historic achievement and the country’s. “Racism will not disappear entirely,” it said, “but the Republican “Southern Strategy’ that marketed racism has been smashed.” That seemed true at the time, but now sounds foolishly premature.
The Republican Party has not given up on racism. It has developed new ways to play the “race card” without ever mentioning race. With Obama in the White House, the GOP does not need to run TV ads featuring “black hands” taking jobs from “white hands” or the one that shows Willie Horton, the black rapist. Obama’s own face on television is sufficient. It reminds hard-core supporters why they hate the man.
Instead of obvious race-baiting, the GOP plan was to demonize Barack Obama right from the start. He was portrayed as an alien being, a strange character and not truly an American. Maybe he was African like his absent Kenyan father. Where is the birth certificate? And he’s a socialist like those foreigners in Europe. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley revealed that Obama’s health care reform includes “death panels” that will decide when old people must die. The half-baked Donald Trump was invited to Republican forums to mock the black guy.
When the “birther” movement ran out of steam, the ideological accusations hardened in its place. Fox News and other TV talkers upped the ante. Obama wasn’t just a political issue. The black guy was a threat to America’s survival as a nation of free people. The “takers” were the lazy Americans (read: blacks on welfare) who lived off virtuous Republicans who are the “makers.”
Barack Obama was uniquely prepared to liberate politics from its racial taboos, and he had the courage to try. He had grown up biracial and at home in both cultures. He understood that he could not prevail if he became the “black candidate,” since that would inflame some voters and make the election about race. Obama adroitly avoided that pit—but perhaps did not anticipate that white Republicans would find ways to demonize anyway. He kept searching sincerely for compromise. They kept pinning inflammatory labels on him.
The clearest evidence that agitating racial malice was the Republican subtext for brutally disparaging Obama’s intelligence, character and loyalty was reflected in the behavior of their Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. On the eve of Obama’s first inauguration, McConnell informed fellow Republican senaors that there would be no working relationship with the Democratic president—none. The GOP would oppose everything and block every measure the White House proposed.
“If he was for it, we had to be against it,” said Senator George Voinivich of Ohio. “All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.” Vice President Joe Biden, who presided in the Senate, was taken aback by McConnell’s hard line. It crippled the Obama presidency, but also did great damage to the country. Biden heard from seven Republican senators who told him the same thing. They said, “Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything. We can’t let you succeed.”
This take-no-prisoners strategy does not by itself prove that McConnell was purposely agitating racial resentments but the fact that his leadership style was so stubborn and single-minded suggests that Republicans had committed to a strategy that would exploit the racial memory of white Southerners and other conservatives. McConnell was not himself racist when I knew him slightly in the early 1970s, when he was then a young staffer on Capitol Hill and an upfront liberal Republican, especially on civil rights. I expect his views on race are not changed.
But as a white Southerner, he cannot claim to be ignorant of what he was doing. With his hard-nosed strategy, McConnell was shamefully agitating old racial stereotypes, hoping to make the black guy a one-term president. He failed at that, but he still poisoned the political atmosphere for the country. I am not accusing the Republican Party and its leaders of plotting to harm the president physically. I am accusing them of deliberately inflaming racist attitudes that might inspire others to commit malicious acts. They deserve shame, however the elections turn out.
Even more shameful in my book, the Supreme Court and its right-wing majority have collaborated in this partisan effort, aiding and abetting the Republican party’s racial politics. The Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito are, measure by measure, destroying rights that citizens won in years of hard struggle. In the process, they are also destroying the Court’s honorable reputation.
The party of Lincoln moved south forty years ago and embraced the die-hard remnants of white supremacy. The country will not restore two-party representative democracy until the southern segs are once again overcome.
The war whoops of the pundit class helped propel the nation into yet another doomed military adventure in the Middle East. Ghastly beheadings by a newly discovered enemy were the frightening flashpoint. The president ordered bombers aloft and US munitions were once again pounding battlefields in Iraq—as of last night, in Syria. The president promised to “degrade and destroy” this vicious opponent.
Here we go again, I thought. This is how modern America goes to war. When superpower Goliath is challenged by sudden savagery, it has no choice but to respond with brute force. Or so we are told. Otherwise, America would no longer be a convincing Goliath. When war bells clang, politicians of every stripe find it very difficult to resist, lest they look weak or unpatriotic. And the American people, as usual, rally around the flag, as they always do when the country seems threatened. Citizens and members of the uniformed military are tired of war, but both in a sense are prisoners of the media-hyped hysteria that is the usual political reflex. Shoot first, ask questions later.
Only this time something different seems to be unfolding. Some of the most belligerent political commentators like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times are beginning to sound, well, wimpish. The new war is only a few weeks old, but Friedman and other prominent cheerleaders are already expressing sober second thoughts.
“How did we start getting so afraid again so fast?” Friedman asked. He ought to remember because Tom Friedman was a leading fear-monger a dozen years ago when the United States invaded Iraq with “shock and awe” destruction. Now the columnist wants us to be cautious. “Before we get in any deeper,” he wrote, “let’s ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing?”
Radical indeed. In 2003, he celebrated US intervention as a generous gift to the Iraqi people. “The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today,” Friedman boasted, “is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by both sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.”
What did Americans learn at the Iraq War? We learned not to believe cocky pundits with their grandiose ideas about how America would use its awesome military weapons to civilize other countries. That war-of-choice doctrine has been America’s foreign policy for the quarter century since the Cold War ended. We have deployed troops and weaponry around the world, looking for trouble in scores of countries. Sure enough, trouble found us.
The big media have been an important component of the US war machine because they transmit and amplify any potential dangers we are supposed to fear. Then the big-foot columnists act like theater critics, righteously questioning if the government performance has been sufficiently vigilant and aggressive. President Obama resisted these go-to-war pressures, hoping foreign policy could be gradually demilitarized. In the end, he surrendered to the battle cries.
Belated second thoughts by elite media may simply be an attempt to paper over their past failures and perhaps dodge blame for this new borderless war they helped promote. The evidence of how the press failed the country in that last war is so overwhelming, bringing it up again is like shooting fish in a barrel. If some pundits feel guilty, they have much to feel guilty about.
When George W. Bush’s war turned sour, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offered an incredibly lame explanation for the media’s failure. “In a sense,” Ignatius wrote in 2004, “the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate of their own.” The press is not supposed to stir up things on its own? That narrow notion of what reporters and editors are not supposed to do bluntly explains why media heavies in Washington serve their sources among the governing elites, without thinking much about the broader public.
Then Ignatius provided an even more damning excuse for not asking tough questions. “Because major news organizations knew the war was coming,” he explained. “We spent a lot of energy in the last three months before war preparing to cover it—arranging for reporters to be embedded with military units, purchasing chemical and biological weapons gear and setting up forward command posts in Kuwait that mirrored those of the US military.” War is exciting, war is a chance to dress up in camouflage suits and play like real soldiers.
Like Tom Friedman and others, Ignatius is elaborating on reasons why this new war in Iraq and Syria might not work out so well. His columns cite many critical questions, but without actually opposing the intervention. This is progress of a sort, but not so different from what he said during the last Iraq war. Ignatius apologized many times then for overlooking key factors but always retained his support.
”I don’t regret my support for toppling Hussein but I wish…” “I still think the war was a just cause but I worry…” “My own gut tells me this is a war worth fighting but I’m bothered…” “My own mistake was thinking more about the justice of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime than about the difficulty of building a new postwar Iraq.”
In the sophisticated milieu of Washington policy makers, it is acceptable to question specific policies or strategies, so long as you do not go overboard and denounce the administration’s overall objective. If you do that, you may discover that valued sources will no longer take your calls.
So it is possible that the various commentators criticizing elements of Obama’s war policy are actually reflecting what their government sources tell them and want to see published. The press is often used in this roundabout way by agencies that want to lobby the White House on sensitive policy debates but without getting blamed. Sophisticated readers know, for instance, that David Ignatius is regarded as the CIA’s go-to-guy at The Washington Post. His deep sources at the agency trust him not to violate their anonymity or intrude on dark secrets like torture or assassination. Washington insiders know how to read between the lines of unsourced stories and figure out who is pushing on whom.
In that regard, David Ignatius has raised some smart questions about how this war will be fought and the tension with Obama’s vow not to deploy uniformed American ground troops. The CIA, Ignatius pointed out, could help solve the problem if it is given the management role for special forces and for running paramilitary units covertly, the kind of war the agency often directed in the past.
“Let’s be honest,” Ignatius wrote. “US boots are already on the ground and more are coming. The question is whether Obama will decide to say so publicly, or remain in his preferred role as covert commander in chief.” Ignatius conceded that covert war by the CIA would quickly be known by the enemy. Only Americans would be kept in the dark.
These tactical issues will generate a lot of controversy in Washington, but they do not address the larger question facing American war-making. The US notion that it can pursue lots of little wars wherever it sees bad guys is a doomed concept. Not only do these wars fail their objectives—establishing peace and order—but they literally build recruiting strength for our so-called enemies (most people resent having their village bombed by Uncle Sam). If not this war, then maybe the next war will finally persuade the American public (if not Washington policy hounds) that this open-ended search for enemies is plain nuts. The United States must somehow find ways to back out of its exposure as the singular Goliath willing to fight on limitless fronts. Getting out of this trap won’t be easy, for sure, but neither is the foreign policy of endless war.
The best news I see in Washington right now is that scattered voices in the media and government are beginning to ask the right questions—the same questions Tom Friedman posed but did not quite answer. What exactly are we afraid of? What would happen if we did nothing? Among leading columnists, I have seen only two who are framing the American dilemma in a more straightforward way.
Columnist Eugene Robinson is a lonely voice at The Washington Post arguing for a fundamental shift. He has no touchy-feely illusions about holding hands with jihadists. But he knows repression by military force insures the cultural collision will get worse.
“Political Islam cannot be bombed away,” Robinson wrote. “If it is not somehow allowed constructive expression, it will make itself heard, and felt, in more tragic ways.”
Robinson is a liberal. The other columnist exploring similar terrain is Ross Douthat of The New York Times, a conservative. Douthat suggested a hybrid strategy of containment and attrition that avoids a larger war in Syria and backs away from the illusions that ground warfare leads to nation-building. “It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003 and that hard experience should have disabused of by now,” Douthat wrote. “But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.”
Never mind the stalemated Congress, demonstrators for immigration reform showed up again at the White House on Monday—Barack Obama’s birthday—to make more speeches and deliver fresh petitions urging the president to take unilateral action on their issue. To the astonishment of veteran activists, Obama has already assured them he intends to do so. According to movement leaders who met with the President at the White House on June 30, a bombshell announcement is planned for right after Labor Day—an executive order that could liberate millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation. Republicans are sure to go bat guano.
Of course, Obama could always change his mind and back off his promise, as he has certainly done before with Latinos and allied groups campaigning for immigration reform. But this time the reform leaders sound quite confident of his word. “I’m shocked,” one leader admitted to me. “It seems totally out of character for Obama. But it appears the White House’s resolve has not been totally demolished by the kids on the border crisis. In fact, they seem determined to do what they can on undocumented workers and deportations as a giant ‘screw you’ to the Republicans.”
Political reporters have already written off the Obama presidency and moved on to hyper-speculate about the horse race for 2016. The plot twist on immigration reform could jerk their chain if it succeeds. It might even refresh Obama’s presidential persona if the public reacts favorably to aggressive action. When Obama took a gutsy initiative in 2012 on behalf of immigrant children, it turned out to be quite popular. Like this new move, it also revealed the shrewd politics of the Latino-led immigration reform movement. It turns out that making life difficult for a leader who disappoints and doesn’t keep his word can produce dividends.
“The good news of this story,” the anonymous leader explained, “is that after two or three or four years of confrontations with the White House about deportations, the movement will get a victory. And I think that’s a very big deal.”
With Obama in office, other Democratic constituencies tended to be more deferential and accepting. But Latinos repeatedly confronted Obama at the White House with in-your-face complaints about his failures to follow through. His desire to find common ground with Republicans, they warned, was futile. Republicans had no intention of finding a legislative compromise. The White House pleaded for patience, but the reformers only turned up the heat. Obama expressed his resentment after all he had done for them. They dismissed his efforts as unsatisfactory.
But in the last four or five months, the White House tone softened. At the meeting in late June, the president told immigration reform leaders he had a change of heart. I agree, he said, the Republicans are not going to move on legislation. So Obama said he is now preparing to use his executive authority to immunize more immigrants from deportation. He couldn’t cover 11 million of them, he said, but he would go as far as the law allows.
Someone asked at that June meeting about the children flooding the border but Obama ruled out any unilateral policy changes as unrealistic. It would open US borders to the world, he said. That touched off a tense exchange but the president stood his ground. Reformers fear that in coming weeks a lot of children are going to be flown home to the dangerous circumstances they had fled.
The exact actions that could help millions more of other undocumented migrants are still being developed at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. The options include granting immunity to parents of the children already exempted from deportation under the DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Obama could, for example, broaden the categories of immigrations afforded this immunity to include people with long-established records of US employment or long-term residency in the country.
Democrats are hoping that Republicans will react to Obama’s daring intervention by doing something stupid, like impeaching or threatening to impeach the president. Otherwise, Dems are fearful of a disaster in this fall’s midterms. If impeachment becomes the issue that can fire up the Democratic base—not just Latino voters, but also other core constituencies.
This is high-risk politics but, given his declining popularity, Obama has decided to double down. What does he have to lose? It will inflame Obama haters of course, but it may also persuade voters to take another look at the president. In recent months, his administration has taken a series of actions that are not hot political topics, but still speak directly to segments of working people. And Obama’s style has become more flavorful in the process. He is taunting the Republicans in an amused manner, teasing them for their obvious contradictions. One day they accuse him of acting like a monarch, the next day they complain he hasn’t acted strongly enough.
Whether or not Obama wins his political gamble, it seems the Latino dreamers are already winning theirs.
To put it crudely, the dilemma facing the Democratic party comes down to this: Will Dems decide next time to stand with the working people, or will they stick with their big-money friends in finance and business? Some twenty years ago, Bill Clinton taught Democrats how they can have it both ways. Take Wall Street’s money—gobs of it—while promising to govern on a heart-felt agenda of “Putting People First.”
It worked, sort of, for the party. Not so much for the people. New Democrats prevailed. Old labor-liberals lost their seat at the table. Among left-wing malcontents, Bill Clinton became “slick Willie.”
Now economic adversities have blown away the Clinton legacy, which is rightly blamed for much of what happened to middle-class wage earners. New voices like senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherod Brown are demanding a new new politics—big governing reforms that really do put people first. The old New Dems are stuck with their moderation and obsolete economic doctrine that is utterly irrelevant amid the nation’s depressed circumstances.
Sooner or later I expect politics will change, because the injuries and adversities will not go away in the absence of stronger government interventions. For now, however, the Clintonites are the Democratic Party, having deliberately excluded liberal thinkers and activists from the ranks of government policymakers for two decades. Economic experts recruited by the Obama administration are more likely to have been trained at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. They do not personally share the public’s anger.
So here is the unspoken subtext for 2016 and beyond: What does the Democratic Party actually believe? Democrats argue among themselves, but try not to provoke fratricidal accusations. The question is sufficiently hot that it is no longer a subterranean discussion. The Washington Post and The New York Times are chewing on it too.
A recent Post article warned Democrats to lay off the “inequality” talk for fear of sounding like “class warfare.” Well, yes, it is. As billionaire Warren Buffett remarked, the class warfare has been underway for some years . “Our side won,” he said.
The president has made several fine speeches on the issue, but the Post says the White House has already decided to drop it. Talk specifics, but keep it cool. Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for America’s Future, suggests this is a recipe for “passive voice populism.”
The New York Times produced a tougher piece on the Dems’ intramural debate. It described in disturbing detail how closely Hillary has relied on the financial constituency. “As Wall St. Faces Scorn, It Warms to Clinton,” the headline said. She was, after all, a senator from New York. And when she ran for president and lost in 2008, organized labor was enthusiastically on her side.
Still, Hillary Clinton is dangerously out of step with the new zeitgeist. If she already has the 2016 nomination locked up, as her campaign gremlins keep telling us, it’s hard to imagine she would desert the finance-friendly politics that supported her rise to power.
The Hillary question has many corners to it. On one hand, it could achieve the epic breakthrough of electing a woman. On the other hand, it might postpone the restoration of progressive economic polices for another four years.
For that reason and some others, Clinton could run and lose the election. Still, many Dems see her as as the best prepared candidate and the best compromise among contending party factions. Dems do realize the need to hold onto the White House and Supreme Court appointments in order to derail the Roberts Court’s attack-happy right-wingers. Or, who knows, maybe she will decide not to run.
In other words, this dilemma will not be resolved by one election, or maybe several elections, because it is larger than individual candidates and their personal qualities. Nor is it limited to Democrats (witness the nervous breakdown of the Republican Party). We are really looking at the capture of representative democracy deformed by the deadly embrace of capitalism.
Only the people themselves can dig themselves out of this trap. My personal hunch is that Democratic office holders will not find the courage to embrace the future and the reform vision that some of their colleagues are advocating until their party feels threatened by its own constituencies. That is, the Dems need to experience more of the surprise rebellions that took down some old bulls in the GOP. If the people cannot get either major party to lead the way, maybe they will need to create a new party that will.
The War Party in American politics is beating its drum and once again, mobilizing hawkish politicians and policy experts of both parties to wage a high-minded war of words. Hawks are salivating because they see the world’s current turmoil as a chance to rehabilitate themselves and the virtues of US military intervention. Three hot wars are underway and the United States has a client state in each of them. Civil wars in the Ukraine and Iraq plus Israel’s invasion of Gaza give Washington’s armchair generals fresh opportunity to scold President Obama for his reluctance to fight harder. They are not exactly demanding US invasions—not yet anyway—but they want the dovish president and Congress to recognize war as a worthy road to peace.
“In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining the world order since the end of World War II,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “Perhaps we can move away from the current faux Manichaean struggle between straw men and return to a reasoned discussion of when force is the right tool.”
“Reasoned discussion,” that’s the ticket. By all means, we should have more of it. But please don’t count on it from Professor Kagan. What he neglected to mention in his stately defense of American war-making is that he himself was a leading champion fifteen years ago in stirring up the political hysteria for the US invasion of Iraq. Why isn’t this mentioned by The Washington Post when it publishes Kagan’s monthly column on its op-ed page? Or by The New York Times in its adoring profile of the professor? Why doesn’t the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that employs Kagan as a senior thinker?
Kagan was the co-founder of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, the neocon front group that heavily promoted pre-emptive aggression and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. You might assume Kagan was reacting to 9/11, but his role as propagandist for war actually preceded the terror attack by three years. Back then, Kagan and William Kristol also co-founded the Committee for a New American Century that was meant to restore American greatness through military power. They attacked the United Nations and warned that “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by misguided insistence on unanimity at the UN Security Council.” To Iraq’s lasting sorrow, George W. Bush took their advice.
Words matter in the doctrinal wars of Washington, not so much as facts but as a way to frame the argument and limit choices for the governing politicians. Both parties do this but Republicans are better at it, perhaps because they are closer to business, marketing and advertising. Academic figures lend authority and an illusion of disinterested expertise. But in Washington circles it is considered bad taste to go back and dredge up old errors to show that Professor X was full of crap or manipulated politicians with blatant falsehoods.
I suspect that is why the neocons are eager to stage a comeback now when they can dump the blame on President Obama. Academic authorities are undermined if people realize these thinkers were personally implicated in the bloody disaster of Iraq. Major media like the Post and Times are aiding their rehabilitation. Kagan was an adviser to Senator McCain when he ran for president in 2008. Kagan also advised Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Recent gossip assumes he is sure to be at State or the National Security Council if she becomes president. Someone should ask her.
Kagan slyly promotes the possibility of a Clinton presidency. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else,’ he told the Times.
Brookings has other Iraq experts who also get generous media exposure but have the same handicap as Kagan—a past they do not like to mention. Maybe the think tank could create a war registry—something like the registries for child molesters. It would alert the public on which Brookings experts were right about Iraq, which ones were wrong.
A few days after Kagan’s column, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings also appeared in The Washington Post urging President Obama to send American troops back into Iraq. Maybe 5,000 US soldiers and no more than 10,000, O’Hanlon promised. This would be “a bitter pill” for Obama, he conceded, but “it is what may be needed to keep America safe.” A decade ago, O’Hanlon was a media favorite (though, as I recall, he was against the war before he was for the war).
Ken Pollack was another Brookings cheerleader for war whose comments were frequently used by media. Now he is a lot less bullish but Pollack alo wants to see the US to clean up the mess America left behind. He says he has a plan. He told a recent Brookings forum the plan “would involve both the United States being willing to assist in a wide variety of different ways, military and nonmilitary, but only if there is a political component to it. We’ve got to recognize that military force without that critical political component will at best be useless and at worst could be counterproductive.” At this late stage, his insight sounds like a non sequitur.
Indeed, the facile commentaries of the Brookings thinkers made me think of small boys playing toy soldiers on the living-room rug. They enjoy the game of issuing sweeping strategies to cure the world of problems. They pretend their ideas would succeed if only events and other nations cooperated. Of course, they know this won’t happen. But it’s not their fault.
This is governing is by empty platitudes. No one goes to jail or loses their foundation grant or gets shot at. They continue to think hard and deep without personal consequences. Professor Kagan, likewise, reduces the bloody reality of what he helped to cause in Iraq to a harmless discussion of bland abstractions. Did America err by doing too much or by doing too little? Yes, yes, tell us the answer. He doesn’t have any answer.
“The question today is finding the right balance between when to use force and when not to,” Kagan solemnly concluded. “We can safely assume the answer lies somewhere between always and never.” This lame double-talk is not harmless. People died, people are still dying. The best news for the nation is that the people at large don’t believe any of Washington’s cheap talk and want nothing more of its war-making adventures. The public consensus is bipartisan and overwhelming—a firewall against more interventions anywhere.
In these circumstances, maybe the Brookings Institution should organize a truth and reconciliation commission where the architects of the US disaster could come forward to tell the truth, confess their errors and ask to be forgiven. I believe the US government’s poisonous stalemate is likely to continue until something as dramatic occurs. That is, face the truth of our damaged position in the world and change ourselves.
The War Party would object and resist; it seeks the opposite kind of cleansing—wipe away bad memories and pretend nothing happened. Yes, they would say, the US messed up here and there, but America is still the world’s all-powerful good guy. “I feel that we Americans have beaten ourselves up enough,” Michael O’Hanlon insisted. “By the end of 2011, the Iraqis did have a pretty good basis for moving forward. We struggled very hard, put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention. I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity.”
Despite all we did for them.
This article originally appeared at The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.
The Justice’s dissent in the Michigan college admissions case was courageous, as the attorney general said, because she dared to identify an enduring remnant of “white supremacy” still clinging to American democracy. Of course the justice did not use that odious phrase. She would have been accused of sensationalizing the issue. But her Republican colleagues in the majority on the Supreme Court must have felt the sting of her accusation.
The Michigan case, Sonia Sotomayor explained, is simply the latest example of an old and familiar abuse of the Constitution. The white majority used its power to change the rules in the middle of the game and deprive racial minorities of a fair shot at acquiring their just political rights.
“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process,” she wrote, “it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to the process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals.”
Chief Justice Roberts harrumphed in reply. Justice Scalia ridiculed her reasoning. Yet I have a hunch Sotomayor’s dissent will be read and taught in classrooms long after the names Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy have faded from historical memory.
At issue was the statewide referendum at which Michigan voters amended their state constitution to forbid consideration of “race-sensitive issues” in the admission policies at Michigan’s public universities. Black enrollment predictably plummeted afterwards. The majority rules, people declared. In this case, the Supreme Court agreed. Sotomayor reminded them of the long, brutal history of American apartheid when the Supreme Court was compelled, again and again, to set aside “majority rules” in order to secure the constitutional rights of minorities.
At first, she said, states acted with an open contempt for the Fifteenth Amendment adopted after the Civil War to grant liberated slaves the rights of citizens. “Certain states shut racial minorities out of the political process altogether by withholding the right to vote,” Sotomayor recalled. “This Court intervened to preserve that right. The majority tried again, replacing outright bans on voting with literacy tests, good character requirements, poll taxes and gerrymandering.”
Fraud, intimidation and violence were standard tactics that continued in the 20th century. Texas adopted a law in 1923 that prevented racial minorities from voting in party primaries. When the Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional, Texas passed another law that gave the parties the right to decide who was eligible to vote (the Democratic party said only white Democrats). Oklahoma required a literacy test but exempted anyone whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote before 1866 (naturally, no African-Americans need apply). Other states built legal barriers to prevent blacks from winning election to local offices — sometimes abolishing the offices or having the governor appoint the office holders, not voters. School desegregation spawned new tactics of resistance (abolishing public schools in Virginia or an entire county in Alabama).
This pattern of extreme responses became established across the South. Each time racial minorities achieved a foothold in the political process, state governments would change the rules and nullify their accomplishment. It was a bitter contest, often fought out in the intimacy of small towns. Black people would organize and push for change, often backed up by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. If they finally won something, the white electorate and legislature would intervene. Majority rules, ha-ha-ha.
Sotomayor’s incendiary accusation is that Michigan’s fight over race and college admissions policy resembles the same crude political combat, only this time the Supreme Court has come down on the other side.
The debate, she pointed out, was not about affirmative action, which is easily demonized as racial quotas. The question was whether the majority can disable the “equal protection” political rights of the minority by cementing the prohibition in the state constitution. Repeal campaigns are extraordinarily expensive and effectively beyond the capacity of minority communities. They can sometimes win by organizing normal political actions, like citizen lobbying or electing new office holders. In fact, Michigan went through those battles in a series of electoral contests. Minority voters and university allies successfully defended the race-sensitive admission policies. But then the opposition trumped them with a high-powered campaign to ratify the constitutional amendment. Majority rules.
A Michigan citizen can lobby university regents or organize pressures on the governor and legislature in favor of other admission factors — recruiting good athletes with poor grades or favoring the children of alumni, for example. But they cannot propose race and racial diversity as valuable elements in education. That prohibition might sound fair to lots of white people. It will sound familiar to lots of non-white people.
Sotomayor described the consequences for people: “A white graduate of a public Michigan university who wishes to pass his historical privilege on to his children may freely lobby the board of that university in favor of an expanded legacy policy, whereas a black Michigander who was denied the opportunity to attend that very university cannot lobby the board in favor of a policy that might give his children a chance that he never had and they might never have absent that policy.”
Beyond the legal reasoning, Sotomayor offered a poignant expression of why race matters. “Race matters,” she said, “because of the long history of racial minorities being denied access to the political process ... because of persistent racial inequality in the society ... Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching other tense up as he passes ... Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown and then is pressed, no, where are you really from ... Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce the most crippling thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.'”
The Roberts Court wants to ignore all that. In fact, talking so much about race may do more harm than good, the Chief Justice said. Time to move on — the voters have spoken.
One wonders how conservative Republicans will feel about “majority rules” in a generation or two white people are no longer the majority of American citizens. I suspect they may change their minds.
Given the election results, the question Barack Obama has to decide for himself is whether he really wants to be president in the fullest sense. Not a moderator for earnest policy discussions. Not the national cheerleader for hope. Not the worthy visionary describing a distant future. Those qualities are elements in any successful presidency, and Obama applies them with admirable skill and seriousness.
What's missing with this president is power -- a strong grasp of the powers he possesses and the willingness to govern the country with them. During the past two years, this missing quality has been consistently obvious in his rhetoric and substantive policy positions. There is a cloying Boy Scout quality in his style of leadership -- the troop leader urging boys to work together on their merit badges -- and none of the pigheaded stubbornness of his "I am the decider" predecessor, nor the hard steel of Lyndon Johnson or the guile of Richard Nixon.
Obama has patience and the self-confidence not to insist that his solution is the best and only one. On many vital questions, he went so far as to not even say what his solution was. Such a governing style is too nice for real-life politics, where Boy Scouts get their heads handed to them.
Some politicians may enjoy Obama's generous spirit, but many despise him for it. Washington always takes the measure of a new president and tests him early on. Congress and the surrounding power centers, swiftly reading weakness in this president, decided they would fill the vacuum Obama left for them.
A friend and longtime warrior for liberal reforms described what unfolded in harsh but accurate terms: "First he was rolled by the bankers, then he was rolled by the generals, then he was rolled by the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who had no interest in going along with what he proposed." Obama seemed exceedingly tolerant of resisting forces and even cooperated with them. Or maybe he privately agreed with them. He never made it clear.
Perhaps because he was young and relatively inexperienced, Obama surrounded himself with savvy veterans of Washington's inside baseball. He inherited his economic advisers from Robert Rubin, his political team from former Senate leader Tom Daschle and center-right Clintonistas like Rahm Emanuel. Together with old friends from the academy, the administration was overstaffed with intellectual abstraction and short on street-smart politicians, especially any harboring liberal instincts. That pretty much ruled out the "change" many voters had expected. It produced a tone-deaf seminar of policy thinkers in which Obama assumed he was hearing all sides.
Republicans, who are masters of deceptive marketing, seized on Obama's most appealing qualities and turned them upside down. Their propaganda cast him not as soft but as a power-mad (black) leftist, destroying democracy with socialist schemes. The portrait was so ludicrous and mendacious, the president's party hardly bothered to respond. Egged on by the Republican Party and Fox News, right-wing frothers conjured sicko fantasies and extreme accusations: the president is not only a black man (bad enough for the party of the white South); he is not even American. The vindictive GOP strategy is racial McCarthyism, demonizing this honorable man as an alien threat, just as cold war Republicans depicted left-liberal Democrats as commie sympathizers.
Even Obama supporters began to ask, Where is the fight in the man? Some critics blame a lack of courage, but that neglects the extraordinary nerve Obama displayed in his rise to the White House -- a young black man with an unusual name and limited experience who triumphed through his audacity. Obama's governing style is a function of his biography -- a man who grew up always in the middle, both black and white. He succeeded by learning rare skills, the ability to bridge different worlds comfortably and draw people together across racial, political and intellectual divides. He learned to charm and disarm, not to smash and conquer.
For the first time in his life, those qualities seem to have failed him. Indeed, he may have been misled by his high regard for his own talents. This is really his first encounter with devastating political defeat. The question now is, What will he learn from his "shellacking"? Possibly not much, since it is always very hard to rethink and adjust in midstream. But remember, this man is an unusually observant politician with a great thirst for self-reflection. One can reasonably hope that as he absorbs the hard knocks, he will make calculated changes in how he governs.
Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can't split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won't act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you've got to hit back.
Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn't believe this intelligent man was that clueless.
Popular forces can blow away the fuzziness. They can mobilize to demonstrate visible support for the president's loftier goals and to warn him off the temptation to pursue a Clintonesque appeasement of the right. Given the fragile status of his presidency, Obama needs to know that caving in is sure to encourage enemies and drive off disheartened supporters. People should, likewise, call out the president's enemies and attack them with the harshness that's out of character for him. The racial McCarthyism of the GOP establishment is a good place to start.
People who still have great hope for Obama can help revive his presidency, but only if they toughen up themselves. Stop holding his hand (he's an adult) and start building a people's agenda that compels the president to change his. Obama won't like this at first -- his own supporters talking back -- but he can learn to draw strength from their courage. If people fail to step up with their own message, the president will likely fail with his.