There is an important parallel between those who believe all criticism of Obama to be illegitimate and those on the Right who despise him without pause. The latter is every bit as personality-driven as the former: they despise Obama not for any specific policy decisions (often, those are aligned with their ostensible views), but because of personality caricatures they’ve adopted: he’s a narcissistic, vacant, Socialist Muslim and therefore nothing he does is right. That is simply the opposite side of the same coin as those who revere his personality and thus believe that nothing he does merits real criticism.
That’s unsurprising, given that many of the most vehement Obama-haters were the same ones who most loved Bush and now love Palin: this is all about cultural identification and personality admiration and has nothing to do with the factors that ought to be used to judge political leaders.
I supported Barack Obama. I still do. If I had to vote tomorrow between Obama and Tim Pawlenty, or Sarah Palin, it wouldn’t be a choice that required a whole lot of thought. He’s done some good things. He’s restored some confidence in the United States among foreign leaders. We had something of a revolutionary regime for eight years under George Bush, and Obama has put the United States back into the club of rule-abiding nations, at least to some degree.
But I’m a little mystified by the letters I’m getting from people who suggest that being a supporter of a politician means that you should “give him a break” on this or that shortcoming, and behave more like a fan than a citizen. The above post by the always-intelligent Glenn Greenwald perfectly describes this mindset — he talks about this bizarre phenomenon of Obama fans threatening to “leave the left” because of criticism of Obama trickling up from those ranks. I was particularly struck by his analysis of the now-infamous video of Sarah Palin book-buyers explaining to a snarky interviewer how they support her despite the fact that they can’t really identify any of her positions. Greenwald notes the obvious parallel:
The similarity between that mentality and the one driving the Obama [supporters] is too self-evident to require any elaboration. Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies.
I completely agree with Greenwald and I know that what he’s saying is true because I did exactly the same experiment the Palin interviewer tried — at Obama’s inauguration. I interviewed dozens of people and almost without exception the answers to the question “What specific policies do you expect the new president to enact?” were of the following character:
“I think he’s going to bring people together.”
“He really cares about us.”
“I believe that he’s going to help people.”
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this — it’s not against the law to vote for a guy just because you like him, or connect with his demeanor on some unconscious level. But where it gets weird for everybody is when that mindset becomes blinding. And we’re seeing that a little with Obama’s supporters now, I think.
I’ve gotten some letters lately from people complaining about this whole concept of “purity,” i.e. critics of Obama (like me) slapping him with some unrealistic “purity test.” According to these letter-writers, such demands are unfair and journalists and politicians who are critical of Obama should recognize that a president sometimes has to make tough political decisions and is often forced to “work with” unsavory characters in order to “get things done.”
First of all, we should get one thing out of the way — it’s not any citizen’s job to give a politician credit for his political calculations. In fact, that should rightly be part of the calculus of any political calculation; a politician should have to weigh the benefits of making, say, an unsavory insider alliance against the negative of public criticism for that move. If a leader doesn’t have to earn the admiration you give him, then a) that admiration doesn’t mean anything, and b) he will surely spend all his political capital on the people who do make him earn it.
Anyone who wonders why the Obama administration seems to be bending over so far backwards to appease conservatives and industry leaders in the health care debate and Wall Street in the financial regulatory reform debate can find their answer there: those groups make Obama pay for their financial/political support with real actions and policy concessions, while Obama’s “base” will continue their feverish support in exchange for mere gestures and marketing hocus-pocus, for news about the new family puppy or an appearance on Jay Leno.
Anyway, just a few thoughts on a Sunday morning. I encourage everyone to read the Greenwald post…