President Obama has been mocked for having “community organizer” on his resume, but that particular job experience aligns him with the self-image of a rebellious public. As can be seen from this application, the community organizer is expected to denounce, accuse, and demand change. The change itself is pushed off to some other responsible party – usually a government agency. The organizer deals in negation. And negation – from the online rant and the Hollywood blockbuster to the Occupy and Tea Party movements – sums up the spirit of the digital age. We are all against.
Recent mobilizations by the public have exploited a new strategic advantage: control of the information sphere provided by digital platforms. But the public on the march has also faced a strategic problem: having originated in a political vacuum, it lacked a unifying organization, ideology, program, or plan. The solution has been an unrelenting focus on the particular wrong or injustice under assault at the moment. Negation, digitally amplified, has been the glue holding together a multifarious public.
Thus the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square comprised many ideals and opinions, all united in hostility to the Mubarak regime. The Tea Partiers opposed big government, exemplified by the stimulus and health care laws. The Occupiers were against an economic system which favored the “one percent.” Advocating a positive program would have shattered these groups: participants felt energized by what they opposed, but were murky and divided about what they stood for. Indeed, when circumstances demanded that they spell out an alternative to the status quo, all three faltered and splintered.
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Barack Obama earned his political spurs as an opponent of the Iraq war, and was first elected to the presidency by running against the legacy of the Bush administration. The moral vehemence of his condemnation, combined with his self-portrayal as a non-ideological, data-driven decider – rather than, say, the embodiment of a concrete program or philosophy – fit perfectly with the digital zeitgeist. The 2008 Obama campaign enjoyed unparalleled success raising money and recruiting volunteers online.
The president ran as an insurgent from the Border, but it was clear that, initially, he wished to govern from the Center by implementing big programs in the tradition of FDR and LBJ. This was a tricky pivot, and the president never managed to pull it off. The programs he espoused became a drag on his popularity. Those that were implemented into law, like the stimulus, sparked an uprising by the public which dismantled his ruling coalition in the 2010 midterm elections.
After the Democrat’s midterm disaster, President Obama reverted to form. Whether by instinct or by plan, he resumed the posture of a righteous outsider calling out a corrupt establishment. Few observers, then or now, grasped how deeply against the grain of history this approach was. American presidents are expected to be doers and achievers – masters of legislation, policy, and politics. President Obama seemed uninterested in fitting into that mold. He had risen on a tidal wave of hostility against authority, and he had been smashed down when he, in turn, was perceived to be the authority. The public was angry and disgusted with government. He decided to be the voice of that anger and disgust – to embrace and reinforce the public’s distrust of the established order.
The president became chief accuser to the nation. Liberated by the partisan divisions in Congress from the need to pursue a positive legislative program, he could wrap himself in the warm blanket of combative rhetoric, while ignoring the policy and political storms blowing outside the White House door.
The broad features of the Obama style can be identified in a recent address to Planned Parenthood. The president first selects a divisive issue – in this case, abortion and birth control. He then frames the question in terms of vague but powerful forces which wish to trample on the rights of ordinary citizens. “Forty-two states,” he warns, “have introduced laws that would ban or severely restrict a woman’s right to choose.” A new law in North Dakota he characterizes as “wrong, absurd… an assault on women’s rights.” One would expect the president to argue at some length the case against this egregious injustice, name the culprits, and propose a fix. But this is precisely where President Obama differs from his predecessors. Despite the apparent severity of the assault on women’s rights, few specifics and no solutions are mentioned.
Here is how he concludes his remarks: “I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you fighting every step of the way.” The battle and even the battleground appear to be rhetorical, but the implication seems to be that, without his accusatory voice, the anti-women forces would conspire in the shadows and triumph.
Between 2010 and the presidential elections in 2012, an astonishing number of circumstances earned President Obama’s condemnation. I won’t dwell on them here, but all fit the same divisive “wedge” profile – the murder of Trayvon Martin, the inequities of the market system, the putative oppression of women, gays, illegal aliens. In a remarkable maneuver, the president’s re-election campaign once again portrayed him as an insurgent battling the status quo. His opponent, Mitt Romney, found that a successful career in business now condemned him to the sinister club which really ran the country. The president, as accuser, could shrug off the burdens of incumbency. He won re-election with relative ease.
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That difficult time has now come for President Obama which many previous presidents endured in their second terms – what the news media loves to call “scandal.” The Internal Revenue Service has admitted targeting, before the 2012 elections, the Tea Party groups which so tormented the Democrats in 2010. The Department of Justice, in the pursuit of leaks, has been caught issuing subpoenas of unprecedented scope against journalists at AP and Fox News. The killing of four American foreign service officers in our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, perpetrated under confused circumstances by Islamist attackers, still hovers like an uncertain rain cloud over the political landscape.
In each case, President Obama and his people have made a show of underlining the vast distance between the president’s chosen identity – Jeremiah chastising sinful Israel – and the dull machinery of government. He was said to have learned about the IRS investigation on television news. His senior staff supposedly had been informed earlier, but concluded that it was not a matter worthy of his attention. A former aide blamed the misbehavior on “some folks down in the bureaucracy,” adding: “Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you because government is so vast.” The president himself asserted that he “certainly did not know anything” about the IRS report until it was “leaked to the press.”
In another politician, that would sound like an artful dodge. With President Obama, if there is a dodge, it’s altogether on a grander scale. Although the highest political authority in the land, he has won two presidential elections by his rhetorical separation from all authority. He’s a man of negation: a prophet in the wilderness. For the president and his inner circle, the government exists an immense moral distance “underneath” them, and is staffed by grubby little people who often abuse their perquisites and thus deserve the mistrust of the public.
A critic of the president sees in his current predicament a crisis of authority. But such a crisis preceded and will outlast this administration. President Obama’s contribution has been an uncanny ability to de-legitimize authority from the top of the political pyramid.
Some of his supporters perceive in all the talk of scandal a crisis of democracy. That may well be at hand, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the wins and losses scored by one president – and those who blame democracy for political setbacks aren’t exactly working to stave off the crisis.
Most surprising has been the shock President Obama’s detachment from the levers of government has caused among people generally friendly to his administration. These people had believed the president to be a promoter of big programs and activist government – the Obama of 2008-2010 – and consider his present passivity something of an abdication. Thus Dana Milbank chided “Obama, the uninterested president” in the Washington Post. Calling him “President Passerby,” Milbank noted that he “wants no control over the actions of his administration.” New Yorker made the same point in a brutally funny satire titled “Obama Denies Role in Government.”
President Obama used his weekly radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has “played no role whatsoever” in the US government over the past four years.
“Right now, many of you are angry at the government, and no one is angrier than I am,” he said. “Quite frankly, I am glad that I have had no involvement in such an organization.” [. . .]
Mr. Obama closed his address by indicating that beginning next week he would enforce what he called a “zero tolerance policy on governing.”
“If I find that any members of my Administration have had any intimate knowledge of, or participation in, the workings of the US government, they will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.
But it is precisely the divide between the accuser, wielding a rhetoric of denunciation, and the office-holder, stuck with decisions and revisions at the center of a paralytic bureaucracy, which has enabled President Obama to survive the public’s relentless assault against authority. The cost to democracy and to government itself can be debated, but it seems contrived to ask that the president in his hour of trouble become something other than the rhetorical phantom he has so successfully represented for years.