Interpreting Obama’s Motives and Behavior

Many people believe Obama’s Second Inaugural and more combative stance signals an ambitious second term.  Progressives regard his first term as something of a failure, from which he has “learned his lessons” about Republican depravity. 

In reality, his important legacy was his first term, and further efforts are mostly designed to entrench that legacy.  Yet in the Progressive imagination, Obama came to office horribly naïve and was constantly stomped on by Republicans, while he has now learned to win and win and win.  Symbolically important recent events such as a reelection victory, an in-your-face Inaugural, and “victories” on the Fiscal Cliff and debt ceilings make more of an impression on them than substantive things like the stimulus and ObamaCare, and for that matter erase the sting of Obama’s substantive cave-ins to the 2010 GOP Congress.


Progressives tend to fluctuate between believing Obama is a heroic champion and that he is a naïve punching bag, really much too good for much of the country he governs.  In the glory days of 2008, they believed Obama had, through rhetorical genius, made evident to the country the rightness of attitudes long held by the more articulate and educated segment of the public.  Why shouldn’t the more intelligent sort of people be better at politics if they put their minds to it?  The Bush years had shown such people the danger of complacency or cynicism, and of willingness to leave politics to the stupid.  The idea that Bush’s stupidity was responsible for the failures of our political system gave such people greater optimism about what politics could achieve than anyone had held in many decades.

Obama’s rhetoric tapped into that optimism and spread it throughout the country.  This optimism was based on the idea that cynical, narrow partisanship of the Clinton and Bush years could come to an end.  Partisan battles during those years tended to center around matters of little significance.  When there is substantive consensus about broad questions, people turn to minor things (should the top marginal tax rate be 39% or 35%?  Should John Ashcroft be confirmed as Attorney General?  Should Bill Clinton be impeached?  Should the Department of Homeland Security be unionized, or not?) as outlets for their political energies.  But Obama meant to be a transformational President, directing our energies toward grand purposes, calling on us to put away childish things.

Once Obama and his policies lost their popular appeal, progressives tacitly returned to cynicism.  After first believing Obama represented the superior intelligence would allow them to sweep away their backward enemies and transform politics, they came to the conclusion that he represented the superior but naïve morality that made them no match for their more ruthless opponents.  Obama’s optimism was nothing but a failure to understand the true depths of the abyss of Republican nihilism.*

In 2012, as it began to appear Obama would win reelection, and especially after he did so, progressives’ attitude changed again.  Once again, Obama stood in for people of superior intelligence, assuming their dominant place.  This time, however, the narrative was not that BHO’s rhetorical superiority swept away traditional politics.  It was, rather, that Obama and his campaign used superior analytic ability to dominate traditional politics (and Nate Silver, their latest icon, used his to predict correctly), while Republicans’ anti-science narrow-mindedness prevented them from realizing their situation and sealed their doom. 

Progressives took further delight in Obama’s ideologically combative Second Inaugural, and his superficially victorious negotiating posture on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling.  But without realizing it, they had given up their hopes that Obama could transcend ideology through rhetoric and transform politics rather than merely playing the game well.  Obama was at last, they believed, learning to understand and match GOP ruthlessness**; but in doing so, he was silently lowering his sights.


Even the supposedly bold, new, proudly progressive Obama dare not actually mention ObamaCare; but he’s taking his game outside the Beltway to defend his vision of government which he believes he failed to adequately defend in his first term, being too busy getting things done inside the Beltway.  It’s certainly an unusual approach, getting an agenda enacted, getting reelected, and then selling said agenda. 

On top of the rhetorical offensive in the Inaugural, Obama has staged a series of petty battles with Republicans that make him look good but achieve little of substance for his side, similar to Clinton’s approach after losing Congress.  This is certainly better for Obama than looking like a loser, as he did in battles with Congress between 2010 midterms and 2012 reelection. 

But the point is he’s pursuing public perception over actual results.  The one area where Republicans might be willing give Democrats something they theoretically want is immigration, and he seems to be trying to polarize the issue so that they don’t do so.  Immigration reform would threaten the Permanent Democratic Majority, and the goal of the second term is to entrench that majority and to entrench the first-term legacy, not to build a further legacy.


The reason why Obama’s first term didn’t feel successful to progressives is because, although ObamaCare passed, it wasn’t popular and was repudiated at the polls in 2010.  Relatedly, although Big Government theoretically looks like it’s here to stay (you wouldn’t win elections by promising seriously to get rid of it), the “new, bold Obama” hasn’t even tried to raise the middle class taxes that would be necessary to fund it.  What we are left with is a health law that struggles to find popular legitimacy needed to make it work, and a state as a whole that struggles to raise revenue to pay for the programs that attach people to it.

There are three ways for a President to get something substantive done: have a united Party in complete control of government (as Obama had during his filibuster-proof majority); compromise with the opposing Party; and use a rhetorical offensive or otherwise force the issue to get the other Party to relent. 

Obama must know he is unlikely to have the first method available.  He has probably given up on getting Boehner to willingly reach a Grand Bargain agreement.  This seems to leave a rhetorical approach, but Republicans were able to give him small victories over the Fiscal Cliff and debt ceiling without seeing any need to strike a Grand Bargain and bail him out with middle class tax revenue; and it would take more rhetorical skill than anyone possesses to get the median voter to pressure the median Congressman to raise middle class taxes.

It is true that Obama has stopped caving as thoroughly as he did to the 2010 Congress.  Yet negotiating results have had more to do with actual leverage than the kind of test-of-will some political writers like to imagine.  The progressive/mainstream media story in which Obama used to be naïve and let Republicans walk all over him, and now he’s learned that all you have to do is stand up to a bully and the bully will run away crying, just doesn’t fit the facts.

Obama won the fiscal cliff battle because he simply had all the cards- and even here, the supposedly badass new Obama only got tax increases on 450k+ earners, not 250k+ as he wanted.  When Obama had leverage in the past, he was able to get things like financial regulation and DADT repeal by moving at least some Republicans in his direction.  His approach of trying to deal with Congress actually worked in getting the START treaty with Russia ratified.  And in situations where he doesn’t have leverage, he still shows he’s more than capable of caving.  Remember Susan Rice? 


* “Yes,” they thought they heard Karl Rove cackling, after the 2010 elections, “I’m afraid the death star is…fully operational.”  “At last,” they discerned John Boehner saying after the debt ceiling battle “young fool…only now, at the end, do you understand.  Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side.”

** “Your hate has made you powerful.  Now, fulfill your destiny.”


Thoughts on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

According to the introduction to the copy I just read, some critics think the book is a allegory, where Elinor represents Sense, and Marianne Sensibility. This is of course obviously wrong, as the author of the introduction, a person called Peter Conrad, notes. The lead characters have depth, which a didactic interpretation in which they are Sense and Sensibility, personified, would not allow,* and of course ultimately Elinor has sensibility, and Marianne has some sense.

And as Conrad demonstrates, the book shows sense and sensibility to be connected in complicated ways. Marianne’s romantic doctrine of following one’s feelings can be a more rigorous moral code than conventional social propriety, which is designed to not be lax enough that people can follow it and leaves people free in their own feelings as long as they pay a few hypocritical tributes. And, on the other hand, if instrumental reason is left alone without passions to guide it, what is it going to do?**

Besides his idea that sense and sensibility are at bottom the same, however, Conrad has dubiously decided that insofar as they are seperable, Elinor has only artificially taken on a sensible character, and Marianne a sensibilitous one, in order to seek out individuality and distinguish themselves from one another***; that Elinor was actually born to be sensibilitous, Marianne to be sensible; and that by the end of the book, each has switched to her proper role, and also the two have melded into “dialectical union” with each other.****

After trying to rescue the book from critics’ dogmatic categories, he plunges it right back in for his own purposes- frying pan, fire. Thus, “Jane Austen has made the ideas into siblings by embodying them in Elinor and Marianne.” And, “The sisters so far outgrow the categories inside which they begin that at the end they exchange places.” And, “[the book ends with the sisters’] dialectical union, as each assumes the quality formerly represented by the other.” As if turning a book into a “dialectic”***** frees it from dogmatism, and as if having characters switch between rigid categories is a way to reveal complexity.

As far as I can tell, Conrad gives no evidence whatsoever that Elinor and Marianne have put on their characteristics in order to achieve individuality and distinction from each other. That is a prism through which he reads the book, based on his own ideas about family development. As far as their switching places, that is a terrible oversimplification of Marianne’s fascinating and brilliantly-constructed development, and in Elinor’s case doesn’t even have a grain of truth.

The cautious and sensible Elinor falls in love with a hopeless passion which fictional magic, abolishing difficulties contrives to reward; the ecastatic Marianne condescends to a sensible connection with ‘a man…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married.’

– Conrad

His evidence that Elinor has switched sides is extremely flimsy. “The cautious and sensible Elinor falls in love with a hopeless passion which fictional magic, abolishing difficulties, contrives to reward.” She falls in love very early in the book. She finds out midway through the book about her lover’s previous engagement, so her passion becomes the “hopeless passion,” but the whole point is that her response to this passion forms a contrast with with her sister’s response to Willoughby’s. The only slight change at the end is that, when she mistakenly learns that her lover has married his fiance, she finds this has crushed a hope, and thus that all her sense had never been able to bury that hope (this isn’t a change in character as much as a slight self-discovery.)

As for the abolition of difficulties, that is a matter of plot, not character. Nor is it less real than anything else in the book- it is part of an imaginary story, like all the rest. Why should it be so difficult for Lucy to throw Edward over? He hardly has any money, and she ends up doing quite well for herself, and nobody breaks character.

“The ecstatic Marianne condescends to a sensible connection with ‘a man…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married.” Yes, and what begins to change her mind? A change in her own character, yes, but also she learns of his capacity for feeling. He is not just a middle-aged man anymore, he is a man with a tragic past, still pursuing happiness against all hope, she finds out, and begins to respect him. Let us talk no more about “sensible connections!” Marianne’s romantic ideas, again, tended at first to harden into their own rigid convention, for instance the idea that a man of thirty-five is past romance. In the more sensible, so to speak, parts of the review, Conrad makes this point. Here he seems to fall into her error of believing that marrying a man of his age is giving up on romance.

Elinor’s mother, who takes after Marianne in being following sensibility more than sense, favors Col. Brandon as strongly as Elinor does. “With such a confederacy against her – with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness – with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else – burst on her – what could she do?” You’ll notice there is no mention of Col. Brandon’s wealth- unlike with Elizabeth Bennett, there is no record of her being attracted to her man’s house; she had shown far more interest in Willoughby’s, incidentally.

Elinor all along badly wants Marianne to like Col. Brandon as she likes him herself, because she thinks he deserves it. Increasingly, she wants her to marry him. This is not because she is trying to mold Marianne into a copy of herself. She does not herself want to marry Col. Brandon, despite her deep friendship with him- having co-heroines gives Austen the freedom to fully develop this relationship, without much danger of its becoming romantic, and so lets us fully appreciate the colonel and Elinor’s friendship while not wanting them to get married. Elinor thinks he is a good man for Marianne, as she is. She worries that he is not the kind of man who can attract Marianne; she never doubts that he Marianne would be happy with him.

Brandon is much more on the “sensibility” end of things than Elinor. Elinor cringes when Brandon tells her he once fought a duel with Willoughby (not over Marianne.) When Marianne openly stands up for Elinor against veiled attacks at a party, rather than engaging in the convention of veiled counterattacks, Elinor is embarassed, but Brandon admires her for it (as does the reader.) Ordinarily in a book, women and men who are “just friends” have to eventually become “more than just friends.”

But, “[Marianne] with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship [married Col. Brandon.]” Score one for Conrad, right? Not quite- note “sentiment” and “lively.” “Instead of falling sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting, – instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on, she found herslef at nineteen, submitting to new attachments….Marianne found her own happiness in forming his…Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.” Score one for me.

To return to Elinor, supposedly so gone over to the sensibilitous side, she does indeed leave the room and cry uncontrollably with joy when she finds out Edward is free to marry her. She also, however, tells him to insincerely ask his mother’s forgiveness for his engagement to Lucy, and to be humble about reporting his engagement to herself, so that he can extract more money from her.

* Are we to interpret Darcy as a stand in for Pride and nothing else, and Elizabeth a stand in for Prejudice, just because the book is called Pride and Prejudice? By the way, I always thought it was the other way around. Although Darcy’s pride is mentioned hundreds if not thousands of times in the book, my recollection is that he refused to ask Elizabeth to dance due to her mere lower-middle-upper-class social status, and vetoed Bingley’s marriage to Jane on these same grounds, whereas Elizabeth judged him only after these things happened (no PREjudice), and her wounded pride over the dance snub long colored her view of him.

** By using the word instrumental, I have nicely evaded the dispute over whether reason is solely instrumental. Among those who hold that it is, a “conservative” like Hume and a “Romantic” like Rousseau don’t disagree that reason is a slave to passion; they will just disagree about how this should best happen.

*** Such identity creation being, Conrad says, an actual expression of sensibility in both cases- as indeed it would, if his interpretation were correct.

**** Seems like those claims are contradictory, no?

***** In one of the sensible parts of this schizophrenic review, Conrad writes “Jane Austen is not treating ideas, but their decomposition into modes of thinking and feeling – not the antitheses of romantic philosophy but the paradoxes of romantic behavior…” You can’t have a dialectic without antitheses, can you?

Obama’s Second Inaugural

I didn’t watch the Second Inaugural, but I found it was much talked about.  The consensus was that BHO reclaimed from the Tea Party the mantle of the Founding, on behalf of progressives, and given the most ideologically or philosophically explicit speech of his career.  I figured he had restated Wilsonian doctrine.

But while Obama undoubtedly thought he was doing all this, his philosophy was far more vague and general than what Wilson or the Roosevelts articulated, or what Reagan or Thatcher or Paul Ryan articulate.  I myself could find only a little to disagree with in the ideological section.

“What binds this nation together is an idea, ‘we hold these truths, etc.’  Truths self-evident, not self-executing; execution depends on connecting idea with the realities of our time.”  Well, who could argue with that?  The moral principles of the Declaration are unchanging, how best to instantiate them is contingent on circumstances.  So far, so good.  I am willing to accommodate changing circumstances in to this extent- I would be a fool not to.  “[P]reserving our individual freedoms ultimately means collective action.”  Ignoring the intended and unjustified implications, who would disagree with that statement?

A truly intellectually ambitious inaugural address would have argued either that Obama’s policies have been consistent with the Constitution and the founding principles, or that this document and these principles themselves are obsolete.  It would engage the actual opposition arguments.  It would defend the Obama record, including ObamaCare, in light of these principles and of the Constitution.


Now, many of Obama’s opponents believe that elements of his program violate the principles of the Declaration, and the Constitution.  Applications of principles will change with time. 

The Constitution is not a statement of principles, but a legal document, similar to an organization’s charter, concrete enough to have defined meaning but general enough not to tell the organization what, specifically, it must do throughout its existence.  The French Constitution, on the other hand, tries to cover everything, going into bureaucratic minutia combined with airy principles that can be interpreted however one wants.   It is both too general and too specific.  For instances of the first fault, consider:

France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis.  Statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts as well as to position of professional and social responsibility….The principle of the Republic shall be: government of the people, by the people and for the people….Political parties and groups…shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and democracy….Statutes shall guarantee the expression of diverse opinions…The President of the Republic shall ensure due respect for the Constitution.

Some people believe the U.S. Constitution is such a document as this, so that because it cannot possibly tell government what to do in every situation, we can only derive from it some abstract purpose such as freedom or human dignity or self-government, and then decide what we want those things to mean.

The Federalists, such as Hamilton and Justice Marshall, believed that government needed flexibility to operate, and that such flexibility was consistent with the Constitution and its restraints.**  Jefferson’s Republicans were famously much more restrictive in their ideas of what it meant to follow the Constitution.  They opposed the Bank of the United States, because in necessary and proper, necessary means necessary.  They treated the Louisiana Purchase as a one-time violation, justified by the tremendous benefits it brings, rather than as falling under the treaty power. 

But supporters of today’s big government really are closer to the Jeffersonians in their understanding of the Constitution: it doesn’t really provide any kind of adaptability to circumstances.  Therefore, they believe, we ought to not take it very seriously, and popular ratification of all the tremendous benefits that come from routine violations of the letter of the Constitution are a much more important source of legitimacy than that ancient document.

* Any anarchocapitalists out there?

** “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional,” Chief Justice Marshall, McCulloch vs. Maryland; “If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.” – Hamilton