Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dear Barack

cross-posted at Dagblog

Dear Mr. President-

I'm a big fan of pragmatism. And I've been a big fan of yours, defending you in the intramural arguments of Left Blogistan. I'm not even especially angry about this particular compromise with the Republicans, which was better than I'd feared it would be. But apparently you're angry. Your press conference yesterday made that very clear. And instead of being angry at the conservatives who've hobbled you, you're angry at the liberals and progressives who've phone banked for you, knocked on doors for you, and written you campaign checks. And that's not okay. So let me break some hard news to you:

You are not a pragmatist.

Don't kid yourself. If you want to put results ahead of abstract principle, that's great. I'm all for it. And most of your critics on the left would be pleased with that. We're not angry because you don't quote Howard Zinn enough. We're angry because you do not get results.

Pragmatism is about facing reality and dealing with it. Ten percent unemployment is a reality, and it needs to be dealt with. (I know, it's "only" 9.8%, up from "only" 9.6%, and next it will officially be 9.92% and then 9.9871% and then 9.999661%. Save it. Everyone who buys groceries understands what $2.98 on a price tag means.) Your economic strategy, trusting the big-money players to fix the economy from the top down, has been a colossal bust. The massive corporations you counted on to get things moving are enjoying record profits while letting the rest of the economy go to hell. This is reality. You have to deal with it.

I know, I know, you have to deal with the reality of what's practical in Washington, given the Senate rules and the Republican opposition and Ben Nelson's mood swings. You think of yourself as a pragmatist because you're dealing with the way the game is played. You're wrong. Dealing with the "realities" inside a Beltway that refuses to cope with what's actually happening to our country doesn't make you a realist, or even a political realist. Didn't that midterm election get through to you? You can't win by the old Beltway rules. You shouldn't play by them. You had a tax proposal that the voters like, and the Republicans had one the voters don't like. But they could defeat your plan in the Senate with only 36 votes. The game in Washington no longer reflects what the voters want or what our national economic crisis requires. If you play the game by the existing rules, you will not be able to fix the real problems. If you are not able to fix the real problems, you will be punished, no matter how principled your efforts were. You need to change the game.

I know this is not the presidency you wanted. Radical change was never on your agenda. But the Presidency of the United States has never been the job that the President wanted it to be. It has always been the job that history demands at that moment. John F. Kennedy had no intention of taking on civil rights, let alone becoming a civil rights president. Abraham Lincoln did not want to be a war president, let alone a civil-war president. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be a limited-government constitutionalist, until Napoleon offered him a very large piece of real estate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was talking like a traditional laissez-faire capitalist in 1928; it took the Depression to turn him into someone else, and World War II to transform his presidency yet again. You will not be measured by the success of the agenda that you originally planned. That agenda is already out of date. You will be measured by your response to a changing world.

For you, that means taking on a major structural overhaul of our economy and a structural transformation of our politics. If that sounds like idealistic hype, it usually would be. The things that you need to do now would be folly in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. A surgeon who operates on patients who could be treated with aspirin commits malpractice. But so does the surgeon who prescribes aspirin to a patient who needs a triple bypass. Necessity is the heart of pragmatism, and you can not call yourself a pragmatist if you do less than is necessary.

I know you don't view yourself as the messianic figure that some voters wanted and needed you to be. I know that image strikes you as a fantasy. But the voters really wanted and needed that savior figure. They had reasons for voting for him. Those reasons aren't fantasies, but responses to the hard realities around us. We're not talking about the voters' psychological needs. We're talking about their everyday practical material needs. I know you are not that guy. I know you don't really want to be that guy, or feel equipped to be him. But the country voted for that guy because the country needs him. If it hadn't been you, it would have been somebody else. But our country really does need that guy, and you're all we've got.

Wake up, Barack. Reality is calling.

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