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Thursday, 02 December 2010 03:10

Does Obama Have a Politically Fatal Character Flaw: He's Averse to Conflict and Believes in the Mythical "Center"?

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When thinking of Barack Obama these days, political progressives tend to find themselves haunted by a wide range of emotions, many quite negative. But one thing in particular, I think, predominates - utter and compete bewilderment. How, we keep asking ourselves, could the politically brilliant candidate we saw in 2008 have, so quickly, morphed into the politically tone deaf president who so often confounds us today? Yet, the evidence of his decline insults our senses every day.

Given the choice between bargaining toughly with a remorseless GOP as opposed to simply begging them for mercy, Obama seems always - yes, always - to choose the latter. Capitulation has become his preferred negotiating strategy; first he gives away the farm, and only then does he ask the other side for something in return. Thus, a few days ago, the Democratic base watched in disgust (again) as the president adopted (again) GOP talking points in calling for a wage freeze for federal employees, doing so without first asking for anything in return. And in response, the GOP kicked sand into his face.

But, hey, at least it made Michele Bachmann happy.

Here's a frightening thought: could it be that Obama's habitual refusal to fight back against the GOP isn't, as so many of us have been assuming, the result of a poor political calculation? That it is, instead, simply an expression of the man's character?

We've all known people like that, of course. They're often wonderful and gifted human beings, but folks who, for whatever reason, are constitutionally incapable of handling conflict. It is their nature to always seek consensus, to always give ground easily, even when dealing with people who refuse to play fair in return.

Looking back, the possible presence of this aspect of his character can be seen in his writings. Several years ago, back in the heart of the presidential campaign, I posted a piece titled, In Search of the Real Obama, giving my take on his book, The Audacity of Hope. I found it troubling:

There's just something far too convenient in where he draws the lines for his deeply felt beliefs.  He thinks (correctly) that the death penalty doesn't deter crime and is dangerously flawed . . . yet (there are an awful lot of yets with Obama) he still thinks it's appropriate for society to execute the really, really bad murderers as opposed, I guess, to the only sort of bad murderers.  Being the unquestionably brilliant man he is, Obama must know this is a distinction without meaning, and utterly beyond definition.

But given the public's view on capital punishment, it is a convenient one to draw.  This convenience of belief recurs often, troublingly so.

And no, of course, this makes him no worse than any other politician.  But you see, I was hoping for something better than no worse.

There is also an unmistakable element of intellectual dishonesty in how Obama tries to paint his self-portrait as the sensible man in the middle - as the one reasonable soul in an ocean of partisan fanatics.  He often commits the sin of false equivalency.  Yes, conservatives are bad about this, he will say, but then he will always quickly add that liberals are equally bad about that.  But the truth, of course, is that usually they aren't.  How could they be?  As of the time he wrote the book, liberalism had been all but politically powerless for over a decade.

As you can see, what troubled me most about Obama at the time was the political convenience of much of what he said. His words struck me as more as a reflection of a persona he wanted to sell, as opposed to the man himself. Now, two years into his presidency, I'm beginning to think I may have been wrong. That something far more troubling is actually at play.

It may just be that a tendency to embrace convenient centrism, while all the while refusing to fight for principle, or for that matter to fight for anything other than his own office, isn't just an unwise political gambit, but actually a true reflection of the man's character. When you think about it, this thought starts to makes a lot of sense. A man of Barack Obama's brilliance would surely have figured out by now that his strategy of chronic capitulation has been a political disaster and have changed course, if political calculation was all that's been involved. But a man's basic character is a harder thing to change.

So, contrary to the theme of my old essay, it may be that I did find the real Obama in his book after all. And, my God, what a bummer that would be.