Unequal to the Moment

Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama By Eric Alterman, Nation Books, 214 pages, $14.99

Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House By Richard Wolffe, Crown Publishers, 312 pages, $26.00

How do we explain President Barack Obama's failure to rise to the challenge that history dealt him, and the inversion of a Franklin D. Roosevelt moment into a new period dominated by the corporate elite and the far right? After the epic 2010 midterm defeat, the optimistic scenario for progressives would be for a damaged Obama to squeak through to re-election in coalition with an almost certain Republican Congress. The pessimistic picture would be for Republicans to capture both branches. Either way, the national narrative increasingly blames government rather than market excesses for the economic catastrophe. And the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party stays in the wilderness for several more years.

Obama has already adapted to the Republican takeover of the House by moving further center-right. When he named as his new chief of staff Bill Daley, more a Wall Street lobbyist than a "business leader," Obama won praise from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, all of whom want nothing so much as to destroy Obama's presidency. As our colleague Robert Reich recently observed, "Obama's failure is that he won't challenge this Republican narrative." He has governed as if his sole task were legislative, rather than seeking to move public opinion and thereby generating popular pressure for deeper reform.

The first batch of books from relatively friendly analysts of Obama's presidency falls into two broad categories. Some, like Jonathan Alter, Richard Wolffe, Bob Woodward, and David Remnick, were so taken with the man, his life odyssey, and his intellect and decency (as well as their access to him) that they cut him a huge amount of slack. He was, after all, facing a severe recession, the collapse of the financial sector, and a dysfunctional political system in which 41 determined senators could block any legislative action. Others, such as Ari Berman, emphasized the fragmented Democratic Party but also faulted Obama's failure to convert a campaign movement into a governing strategy.

Eric Alterman has single-handedly created a third category in his important new book, Kabuki Democracy. This short volume, an elaboration of an influential essay that he published last year in The Nation, is surprisingly kind to Obama -- maybe a little too kind -- and instead takes systematic stock of structural barriers to American progressivism. Others have worked this territory, but Alterman goes well beyond the standard checklist (big money, the filibuster, right-wing media) and gives us a more complete and depressing grid.

The Beltway view of Obama, Alterman reminds us, is that he just tried to do too much -- "moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction," as Alterman quotes Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib. The far right simply brands him a socialist. This talk drives progressives nuts, given Obama's rather modest and conciliatory approach to everything from economic stimulus to banking reform and health overhaul. For the left, Obama quickly gave up inspirational change in favor of small-bore deal-making. But all of this is mostly beside the point, according to Alterman.

For the truth, dear reader, is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination. Nor are the strategic mistakes made by the Obama team really all that crucial, except perhaps at the margins of any given policy. The far more important fact for progressive purposes is simply this: the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us.

Alterman then takes stock of all the ways in which the system is rigged, and it's quite a tour d'horizon. Hence his book's title: "If our politicians cannot keep the promises they make as candidates, then our commitment to political democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise" -- whose failure to deliver only depresses faith in government and in democracy itself, further weakening progressivism, which depends on both.

Some of this will be familiar -- the time bombs left by the Bush-Cheney presidency; the weakness and ideological division within the Democratic Party compared to the GOP ("conservatives enjoy a genuine political movement"); the multiple tools and uses of legislative obstructionism; the increasing dominance of big money; and, of course, the asymmetric power of right-wing media. Though we've read some of this before, Alterman's contribution is to add new insights and to connect more dots, since all of these dynamics are mutually reinforcing. His richest chapter is the one on the area he knows best -- right-wing media.

I have two quibbles with this very useful and readable book. First, Alterman is too gentle on Obama's plainly disappointing leadership and strategic style. Why, he asks, wasn't the health legislation stronger? "Well, it wasn't the president's cowardice, his short-sightedness, a lack of character or an absence of cojones. ... Without powerful interests lined up on Obama's side, the battle for reform would have been lost before it had begun. As it was, Obama won it by the skin of his teeth."

But that static view of the array of political forces lets Obama off the hook too easily, because it ignores the unique role -- or absence -- of presidential leadership in occasionally transforming public opinion. You could have written a book similar to Alterman's about all of the structural forces arrayed against Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933 or against Lyndon Johnson's efforts to finally enact civil-rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. But somehow these leaders rose to the occasion and broke through, with their potent combination of insider leadership, mobilization of public opinion, and alliance with social movements on the ground.

The second weakness is what my friend, the late Bennett Harrison, called "the Chapter 10 problem" -- what do we do about this depressing picture? Alterman's concluding chapter offers the right Hail Mary passes -- build a movement, leash political money, reform Senate obstructionism -- but is short on what it would take politically to bring them about. As consolation, he quotes Obama, speaking after the 2010 election loss: "It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize." Well, yes, but leaders of those radical movements detested lectures about patience and gradualism. And they required allies in government who did not set back their cause.

Alterman's is the opposite of an insider book. It reflects a smart synthesis of materials available on the public record and displays the mind of an astute observer of politics. Richard Wolffe, by contrast, has written the ultimate insider book. After his fawning treatment of the Obama campaign in his earlier book, Renegade, Obama and his aides allowed Wolffe the run of the White House for two months and then gave him several additional interviews with every senior West Wing official from the president and vice president on down. They will not be disappointed by the resulting book, though other readers should be.

With this sort of access, a journalist can complement his insider interviews with other reporting and deliver a telling account. Or he can mainly hope to be invited back. Wolffe chose the latter course. You would think such a book would produce new insights on how the Obama White House works -- the fault lines and the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's leadership. What it produces mainly is adorable quotations, such as this one from adviser David Axelrod speaking of his leader: "He's the first person to be concerned if you're having a bad day. He's attuned to people's moods in ways you don't expect."

Wolffe concludes his narrative just after Obama's come-from-behind win on health reform. So his is a story of defeat and redemption, or as he puts it, "From the depths of a brutal winter inside the Oval Office to the beginnings of spring in the Rose Garden, this is a tale of despair and discovery, or survival and revival." Unfortunately for Wolffe's story line (and for the country), the win on health care was prologue to another roller-coaster descent into the political pit.

In order to create some dramatic tension, Wolffe divides Obama's top aides into "revivalists" and "survivalists." The former, according to his interviews, wanted to rekindle something of the insurgent spirit of the campaign, while the latter were more minimalist and transactional. Clearly the ultimate leader of the survivalist camp is the president himself. Wolffe's quotations, both attributed and anonymous, are mostly predictable, pedestrian, and often just plain lame. After a period of bitter tension between Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Wolffe credulously quotes the president on their blissful relationship: "'I don't think Nancy is difficult to negotiate with at all," he told me. "I think that Nancy is very mindful that she is leader of her caucus. ... I actually had fun negotiating with Nancy.'" Since he is embedded in the White House, Wolffe evidently doesn't pursue Pelosi's side of the story. His story is reconstructed from White House staff interviews and press clips.

What passes for analysis is poorly written, almost like filler between the quotations of extended interviews. For example, Wolffe reports a sense of crisis when CIA agents were lured into a trap and killed in the Afghan mountains near Pakistan. He then writes: "Would the Afghan attack weaken the president's will to reform a failed system to defend the homeland? He seemed to veer between challenging the intelligence community and threatening the terrorists." Say what?

One can fault other insider books, such as those of Bob Woodward, for also being too soft on their willing collaborators. But at least Woodward manages to break news. Not Wolffe. The most interesting few pages come in the section on Larry Summers, who was evidently even more of a bull in a china shop than previously reported. "Summers," Wolffe writes, "clashed with almost every other member of the economic team and his love of contrarian argument seemed to aggravate technical policy differences." The book is worth reading, mainly for the occasional nugget, but sheds little useful light on what makes this president tick.

Everyone has heard of the Great Man theory of history. But what about the Lesser Man theory? Historians will long be debating the relative weight of systemic constraints versus Obama's personal weakness as a leader, in what is shaping up as one of American history's epic missed moments. Alterman, at least, is asking the right questions.

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