Rebuttal #2: Ronald J. Granieri
I have a few somewhat related thoughts in response to what has been said so far.
We need to fight against the persistent myth that being universally respected and loved is the essence of leadership. Obama’s real or feigned belief that he could triumph over all disagreement and be adored by being adorable was doomed from the start. Doomed for the simple reason that making policy means dealing with disagreement. We all want to believe that the positions we take on issues are so self-evidently reasonable that any honest and rational person HAS to agree with us. But that is just a convenient and comforting fiction. More than that, it is also a backhanded way to belittle and insult people who think differently than we do by dismissing them as either stupid or mean-spirited or both.
There are many possible answers to any policy question, and (at the risk of sounding more like a relativist than I am) many of them can be right at the moment. Only in retrospect can we say for certainty what worked and what did not. In the meantime, we will disagree. And that is a good thing, because disagreement is the life blood of a competitive electoral system. It is pure folly to believe that you will get your way because your opponents like you. You get your way by taking clear positions and defending them within the existing system. (Though of course the system itself needs to function properly—that’s my shout out to No Lablesl!) You need to show what you believe, and what you are willing to do in pursuit of those beliefs, not wait for other people to agree with you before you take a position. Your opponents will criticize you no matter what you do (they will call you weak when you defer, and arrogant when you push forward), so why surrender pre-emptively? It is risky to take positions, but there is no reward without risk. True leaders take risks.
This myth of being universally loved is fostered by the hagiographies that come after a famous politician dies. The best example here is President Reagan. Upon his death all we have heard is how terrific he was, and both media personalities and politicians of all stripes have downplayed the controversies of the Reagan era. Frankly, that is an insult to his memory and to anyone with actual historical sense. For all his sunny optimism, Reagan was intensely controversial, and neither his fans nor his detractors do him justice by pretending he was not. Indeed, his opponents often hated him most of all because he was so goddam genial. He pushed hard for things he wanted, made compromises when he thought it made sense to do so, but he did not shy away from decisions in hopes that his opponents would agree with him before he made a move. Anyone who lived through the 1980s knows what the political debates of those years were like.
President Obama is a smart man, and I am convinced he means well. But his entire political career has been built around avoiding controversy when possible in order to help him take the next step. His career is fascinating because he started from such an unlikely position and managed to steer his course to the top by avoiding risk as much as possible. Thus all those “present” votes in the State Senate, thus the carefully modulated and vague statements on so many subjects, thus the pre-emptive concessions on the stimulus and on single payer. The often unspoken logic is that one has to save up political capital for some future rainy day—after this next election, then we can do this or that, but we have to wait, lest we lose a vote here or there. The President is not alone here; the same logic led Democrats in the Senate like Hilary Clinton to vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution in 2002, hoping that avoiding taking a stand would help them evade criticism in the upcoming midterm elections. (And of course earned her such withering criticism from outsiders like Obama, it must be noted.) Thus the President and the Democratic leadership consciously chose not to present a budget or to deal with the debt ceiling before the 2010 elections, because they feared any concrete position would provide a weapon to their enemies. In both cases, refusing to take a stand committed them to policies they came to regret, and did not save them from partisan criticism. Heck, it didn’t even help them win those elections!
As easy as it is to say from my present perch, it needs to be said again. Leaders lead. Yes, in a republic, those leaders have to win elections to lead, but that does not mean winning elections is a leader’s only motivation. It is not enough to keep promising that the real battle is somewhere over the next hill, after the next election. The real battle is here, now. There is no need to pick fake fights with muscular guys around the card table. There are plenty of actual issues that need to be addressed. Take a stand, explain your position, and let the voters decide.
There is a message in this for Mitt Romney as well. Romney has also tried to be all things to all Republicans, and it has earned him a solid 25% of the vote and constant scorn for being a wishy-washy flip-flopper. As the nomination nears, he also need to show he can take clear positions. Plenty of people will never vote for him; his goal should be not to win all of them over, but to make sure that the people who do vote for him know what they are voting for.