Temperament: Obama’s American Vision

It’s become official: pragmatically, reasonably, thoughtfully, cautiously, carefully, open-minded, with consensus and coalition-building and mature foresight apparent above all, our former candidate, now president, of hope and fundamental change of the way things are done in Washington and the way America is imagined has nominated for the Supreme Court of the United States an intellectual, political, bureaucratic kindred spirit.

This nominee is someone who embodies the intelligence and craftiness not to have ever developed a clear ideological position, always and apparently playing it close to the vest, rarely passionately making oral or written commitments on issues that matter most to people regardless of ideological position. How best to encapsulate Obama and his pick, Elena Kagan, to replace Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who retires at the end of the court’s summer session this year?

Ambition without a cause?

Harsh, maybe. True, as far as I can tell based on representations of her personal, intellectual, legal, and bureaucratic history so far.

I’ve already written critically about President Obama’s political, intellectual and cultural limitations–self-imposed, unconscious and calculated–that make him less a visionary of change and hope and more a servant of institutionally racial and ideological masters. (See, for example, “Will it be Barry or Barack”  February 9, 2010 and “Can you spell a-p-p-e-a-s-e-m-e-n-t?” March 3, 2010) And I see little in his choice of Kagan to alter my opinion of his now predictable overly cautious, even fearful approach to political engagement. How best to describe it?

Apolitical with a dose of passivity thrown in.

Obama has lost support on the left and in the African American community (in particular, the Congressional Black Caucus), because his rhetoric as presidential candidate that alluded to positive change even if it wasn’t always really specific about progressive social change, has turned out to be a hollow expression in light of his health-care reform “lite” which caved to the insurance industry; the Wall Street bail-out without financial reform; the Afghanistan “war” escalation (what threat until recently did the Taliban pose to the United States prior to the war escalation there?); the current BP oil spill on the heels of Obama’s expressed commitment to expanding off-shore drilling; a minimal rhetorical challenge and mild rebuke of Arizona’s passage of SB 1070 suggesting only that the Arizona law and its application be monitored; Eric Holder’s recent suggestion that the administration wants to revisit and possibly expand Miranda exceptions for terrorist suspects; and an inadequate White House response to issues facing the African American community.

I’ve already addressed the issue of giving him a break as the first president of color, that the pressures to play the institutional political game are unimaginable from the outside and inside. But if he is such a pragmatist–and I assume that pragmatism is fundamentally about learning from one’s experience, not committing to any particular ideological position–that he must have learned even after only some fifteen months in office that his consensus-building, bipartisan political approach is as effective and empty as a political signifier as his presidential candidacy’s “change” platform now appears to be.

Indeed, what appears to be, and has always been, Obama’s platform is “temperament.”

That’s why he apparently likes Kagan so much. She’s Obama’s long lost philosophical fraternal twin. (Fast political/bureaucratic rising star with an ambiguous, short resume just waiting to be interpreted to fit her next job.) The one who will help him cajole the Supreme Court into getting along, creating a harmonious group of good-natured souls in positive coalition-building fashion with the best interests of the nation’s juridical system of fair and balanced, right and wrong decisions at heart. (Justice is blind? Funny…)

Obama/Kagan will teach us, will lead us down the path of truth and goodness, away from the tragic world of messy political polemics and particular vested interests. The nation will be renewed because we will collectively see the errors of our ways, of following and arguing, much as the founders predicted we would, our passions rather than our reason. Obama/Kagan will teach us to be reasonable, rational, cautious, careful, even hesitant to a fault so as not to say or do anything rash or foolish. We will finally act as grown-ups, thinking selflessly about our better selves in healthy collective fashion. We will all be patient, thoughtful, gregarious, engaged community organizers with nothing other than the good of the nation in mind!

But if I have learned anything from Mr. Obama, it might be that learning to be dispassionate, circumspect, always fully considerate of all options, even respectful of everyone and all information might mean we won’t do anything at all, might not take a stance or a risk to actually confront injustice and inequality, might even be willing to sacrifice our expressed principles of collective improvement and change in the service of appeasing the same folks who simultaneously scream the loudest irrationalities and are the most powerful financial, cultural, and political constituencies.

Whatever it takes, I suppose, if the objective is to leave a legacy of unqualified, good-intentioned temperament.

Of course, the Obama/Kagan legacy of temperament will not win over conservatives, Tea Partiers, and the non-coincidental returned-with-a-vengeance militia movement. (Obama, the pragmatist, should have learned months ago that his coalition-building, bipartisan approach is an utter failure for many reasons including the rampant racial disrespect for him as president.) Independents seem to doubt Obama’s pragmatic clarity. And I’m waiting for the eventual abandonment of the Obama/Kagan temperament “movement” by the liberal left, the African American, and Latino communities once and for all when they finally tire of waiting to see a greater commitment to social justice, immigration, and economic reform efforts that benefit their communities and interests.

Perhaps the only way to get Obama’s attention will be to completely withdraw support from him. Republicans seem to have figured that out, not that their consistent resistance has been a serious political calculation. (They see Obama’s weakness and fear and prey on it.) But we futilely wait and hope that he will change and make change. We give him our support because we don’t want him to fail even if it means appeasing the wrong constituencies. A compromised politics like this makes little sense with a Democratic congressional majority and administration, but that’s been the example and experience so far. (Someone needs to introduce a new word or two into their political lexicon: fearless leadership.)

Such has been the Obama “temperament.” Start from a position of weakness and compromise from there until potentially good legislation is negotiated down to huge public losses and incredible private gains. (The irony is that those who have gained the most already are the privileged classes! Their melodramatic whining is evidently quite efficacious. Oh yeah, forgot about their lobbyists and the cozy relationships with the Obama administration and Congress. Shucks, is that how it works, Barry?)

I am open to being surprised with a change from a vague notion of reasonable and cautious temperament to some kind of vision “thing”  even if it’s pragmatic in character, but nothing in Obama’s political and policy history signals such a move in the near future.

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