The Fierce Cynicism of Naiveté

(white house photo)

(white house photo)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is losing patience with Barack Obama’s patience:

But it really hit me yesterday when Obama claimed that health care reform “shouldn’t be a political issue.” Really? Then why did he hand it off to a gaggle of politicians? Why is he even talking about it? Then Obama shouted out Chuck Grassley, who has aided the spread of death panel rumors, as an example of a Republican whose been “working very constructively.” Grassley returned the favor by calling Obama “intellectually dishonest.”

I have no idea what will happen, ultimately. Moreover, I’m not sure that most voters are bothered by any of this. still, it this whole escapade smacks of Obama being too clever by half–of an Obama who can’t get over his own high-mindedness and holds out the bipartisan spirit as a kind of fetish, a gimmick. It’s all so unserious.

He’s obviously right about the “shouldn’t be a political issue” business. This is one of the most annoying ticks of political rhetoric out there. The implication is, I guess, that whatever we’re talking about is too important for mere politics, but coping with the big issues is actually exactly what politics is for. That said, the claim that something or other “shouldn’t be a political issue” is actually a classic of political rhetoric. There’s just no way that Obama and the rest of his team have somehow failed to notice that fact. In general, it’s probably best to assume that Team Obama is not full of stupid people who can’t grasp the obvious fact that health care politics is inherently political and the GOP leadership has no intention of cooperating with him. What we’re watching isn’t a blunder, it’s a strategy.

Eric Alterman has a smart piece on this that the Daily Beast gave an inflammatory title “Obama’s Fake Bipartisanship.” The point, however, isn’t that Obama is “fake”—which implies he’s lying—but that Obama’s political strategy involves a very studied self-presentation as a non-political figure. As Alterman says, this worked well for Obama during the campaign.

My worry would be that it strikes me as very plausible that a political strategist could overlearn the lessons of his own success. The fact of the matter is that Obama’s margin of victory was more-or-less exactly what you would expect based on fundamentals-driven models of presidential elections. We know that the strategy Obama employed “worked” (he won, after all) but there’s no clear evidence that it was particularly brilliant. But you can easily imagine Obama and David Axelrod and other key players becoming overconvinced by their own success.