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Why Has Obama Been So Weak Against the Republicans? I: The Mystery

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(Good question, this has frustrated me for Barack Obama’s entire presidency. I mean, heck, the Republicans had a meeting on the night of Obama’s first inauguration, in which they vowed to oppose anything he did. They promised to make him a 1-term president and make him “fail.” At that point, you know, just f*** ’em and ram through your legislation! You know they’d do the same! – promoted by lowkell)

I have never been as excited about a political leader as I was about Barack Obama at the time of his election in 2008.  A year later, in considerable distress, I published as an op/ed in the Baltimore Sun , an open letter to the president calling upon him to stop giving his power away to his enemies so that he could do the job he was elected to do.

It is because of your failure to fight back that the Republican Party – behaving more scandalously than any political opposition in memory – has grown stronger, while you have grown weaker [I wrote in late 2009]… Your opponents are relentless, single-minded and ruthless in their efforts to weaken and destroy you. This is a continuation of the same struggle for which Americans chose you to be their champion. It’s your job not to ignore the battle but to fight and win it.

That was a year before the Republicans swept away the huge Democratic majority in the House of Representatives with their own huge majority, and the problem I wrote about in 2009 persists still.

The Republican opposition has consistently treated President Obama as an outright enemy.  They’ve done everything they could to make him fail.  They’ve successfully delegitimized him with their base. And they’ve treated him with contempt, far from according him the usual degree of respect that has traditionally been given to a president even by his political opponents.

Meanwhile, with a few scattered gestures aside, President Obama has never fought back with anywhere near the intensity — not to say the ferocity — that his enemies bring to their fight against him.

It is remarkable, really-even bizarre.  No one becomes President of the United States without having an extraordinarily strong desire for power.  But here is a man who labored long and hard to gain the most powerful position on the planet who then showed less acumen in coping with a power struggle than the average boy on the playground.

In the years I’ve been discussing this astonishing failure to stand and fight effectively, I’ve found that a great many of the president’s other supporters are eager to maintain that he’s doing the best that can be done under the circumstances.

He’s black, runs one excuse, and the American public would respond adversely were he to act like “an angry black man.” But he could making his enemies pay a price for their disgraceful and destructive conduct without a display of anger.  Besides, President Obama has thrown a good jab here and there, almost always succeeding with those more aggressive gestures in moving the political struggle his way.  The problem is that every time he gets his opponent on the ropes, he backs off and lets his opponent regain his strength.

He came into office at a time the economy was tanking, runs another argument, so his hands were tied.  But FDR came to power in the depths of the Great Depression, and he used that circumstance as an opportunity to transform the country.

(People on the far left, meanwhile, often “explain” the president’s inability to fight with the assertion that he’s really in cahoots with the Republicans.  He only pretends to favor what he says he wants, this argument goes, so every time the Republicans prevail Obama is actually winning also.  I don’t buy that, either.  When in American history have we ever seen collusion of this sort, and when have we ever seen a political leader voluntarily arranging for himself to appear weak, thwarted, and defeated by his political foes?)

So what explains this incongruence, this man who – against all odds – succeeded in gaining power and then showed so little ability or inclination to fight against those whose main desire was to strip that power from him?

I don’t know how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent pondering this question, some of it publicly in written form. But I’ve never been satisfied with any answer I’ve come up with. That we’re dealing with something at the level of character structure seemed clear, but I didn’t have much of a picture of what it was.

Now a new idea has come to me. It is but a speculation — call it a “clinical insight” – but I do think I’m onto something.  And I will articulate these new thoughts in the next installment.

  • ConsDemo

    No offense, but this article assumes 1) President hasn’t been fighting, and 2) could easily do a ton more than he is doing.

    In response to 1) If you listen to the GOP, the President has been demonizing them and acting outside the law by going around congress via ruling making and selective enforcement of laws.   I would argue he is justified on both counts but, in any case, the GOP certainly doesn’t think he is being a pushover.

    As for 2)

    Let me respond in particular to this statement.

    you know, just f*** ’em and ram through your legislation!

    Um, how?  If the House won’t vote for a bill the President favors, he can’t exactly arrest them.   You are ascribing powers to him that 1) he doesn’t have and 2) creating a false expectation that he does.

    Yes, LBJ could “ram through legislation” but he also had a Congress dominated by his own party and significant share of Republicans who selectively cooperated with him.   Obama has neither.   Thanks the ideological polarization, gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of Democratic voters, almost all House Goppers represent districts that didn’t vote for the President.   They have also concluded that they will win the mid-terms by default.   I hope they are wrong on that count and Obama’s recourse is to try to make them regret that conclusion wrong by picking up Democratic seats next year (which few expect to happen).   Either way, there is no plausible “ram through legislation” scenario.

  • Jim B

    Just one example of legislation that he signed that should have been vetoed was the sequester. Would his fellow democrats have voted to override? I hate think how he will react to shutting down the govt. if the repugs so choose.

    I still support the president because he was simply better that the other guy, but I think Andy is right.

  • Bumble Bee

    Perhaps Hillary can put the whammy on them in the next go around!

  • fendertweed

    He has been a weak President and getting worse, not better.

    He started by squandering his legislative majority.  Then he moved on to negotiating against himself time and again with a rabid, insane zealot mob on the other side of the aisle who would never be won over by any concession.  But his arrogance in assuming that his brilliant logic, etc., would just bowl them over played out repeatedly, leading to one travesty after another.

    On a micro level, he gets a “D” or lower in ability to govern.  I had lunch today with a friend who deals with the White House & agencies in his government relations firm and said he’s never seen an administration like this, where the White House doesn’t talk to the agencies and doesn’t know what their positions are when you talk to them (WH) about this legislative item or that.  And this person is a Dem.

    It’s a pretty sorry record overall.  Add to all this the stark embrace of outrageous surveillance positions and apparently little or no respect for constitutional and other privacy rights and it’s a pretty fetid stew IMO.

    You cannot blame all this with partisan thinking saying it’s all the nasty Republicans’ fault.  They are horrific but even more’s the shame that Obama doesn’t have the skill to give them the pasting they deserve and set themselves up for.