“Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Constitution, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand. If only that were true. We can all taste the bitterness now.”
—Rodger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope
“I want an exit strategy.”
—President Barack Obama, from Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars
Whether or not something has actually died, the obituary has already been written for President Barack Obama’s promise of progressive reform. You can hear it in the newly-daring manner of newscycle carping, the scent of blood in the water that energizes the right’s media drones while leaving the left’s version of same looking for ways to pretend that they knew all along that it was going to end up this way. It’s there in the slightly embarrassed way that Obama voters shuffle their feet and study the ground when the subject of his shortcomings arises. It’s in the way that knock-kneed Democratic politicians now back quietly out of the limelight they once clamored to share with the president, and pray for the strength to endure one more quavery-voiced Tea Party shouter at their next town hall.
All politicians look for the exit just as assiduously as they avoid picking up the check for lunch. (Are you sure? Why, thank you very much. They do an amazing salmon here, don’t they? And you’ve given me a lot to think about regarding clean coal. Yes, the EPA does have too much power, I agree. I would hate to see you forced to move that mountain-clearing operation to another district and to stop those checks for that community center I’ve been trying to build. We’ll see what we can do on that bill. It’s for the people, after all.)
It is, then, of no surprise that when the president’s poll numbers sag and wilt, his once stalwart allies will melt away like so much frost before the glare of morning sun. Republicans ran just as swiftly from George W. Bush once he became the president everybody wanted to forget had ever been there. So while elected officials may not shift their positions with the agility of cable news pundits, once the winds shift, they shift with them.
Writers operate on a different timeline, most needing to research and think and formulate before delivering a world view. If you have a cable news show or a spot on the Senate floor, one can just fire away, fact-checking be damned. But when something is written down, stamped on paper and bound between two stiff boards, there is a longer development cycle.
So we find ourselves nearly at the two-year mark of Obama’s historic election, and our authors just now seem to be catching up to the reality. There have been a number of election accounts, which either feel like daily news dispatches padded out to book length (all this-then-that reportage with little larger picture sense) or hagiographic portraits of one man’s ability to transcend the nation’s legacy of racism in one grand victory.
Several conservative scriveners have already rushed their volumes of apocalyptic freakouts into stores, but fantasies don’t require much in the way of primary research. One imagines that Michelle Malkin already had her Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies and David Limbaugh had his Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama written before the election and just hit “print” once the final poll numbers came in.
The less said about the likes of The Roots of Obama’s Rage (at least as it was articulated in the 27 September issue of Forbes), Dinesh D’Souza’s bleary-eyed vision of Obama as some anti-colonialist Mau-Mau (a perfectly Fox News-ready creation that’s one part Black Panther poster and one part elitist lefty intellectual caricature) come to destroy America once and for all, the better. This is all manufactured cottage-industry rage, meant only to feed the shouting beast of talk-radio and lay the groundwork for the seemingly inevitable call for impeachment, which could well become the price of entry for any Democrat who gets themselves elected president in the post-liberal era.
Finally, a couple writers with a modicum of sense have caught up to the dissonance between the gauzy, flag-waving dreams of November 2008 and the grotty reality that followed. But neither his Beltway eminence Bob Woodward, who appears content on grinding out a continual running history of the modern American presidency, or former Harper’s Magazine editor Rodger D. Hodge, whose crushing disappointment with Obama drips off every acid-soaked page, can come close to capturing the true soul of the moment. What both writers make crystal clear that the optimism has gone, the dreams have given way to waking life, and the promises of a new dawn seem impossible, indeed.
The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism
(Harper; US: Oct 2010)
Disappointment is the name of the game in Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, which opens with a torrential outpouring of all that Obama has not accomplished despite his “great promise.” Hodge then turns his finger of blame away from the expected parties to excoriate those on the left who refuse to condemn the president with as much fervor as does he:
It is no surprise that innocent children, naïve European prize committees, and professional Democratic partisans continue to revere the former heroic candidate, despite everything he has done and left undone. Nor is it surprising that the Republican Party and the broken remnants of the old white supremacy coalition hate and fear the man and will oppose him without quarter (excepting, of course, his war and torture policies, which flatter their nationalist impulses)… his most knowledgeable admirers assume the burden of Obama’s sins, bite their tongues, and indulge the temptation to frame his shortcomings as America’s own. Obama is not to blame; we are to blame. Obama has not failed us; America has failed him.
In this artfully constructed but somewhat fervid passage, Hodge outlines both his book’s great strengths and also its salient weaknesses. With a clarion’s power, he lays out the sins of the administration, the great gulf between its gauzy rhetoric and its granular accomplishments (a fact made even more embarrassing by their having Democratic control of the Senate and the House). His lacerating vehemence, a violent vituperation that liberal writers tend to reserve for those on the other side of the aisle, targets also those so naïve as to think that a dialogue of change is the same as change itself.
However, when Hodge takes a little poetic license and recasts the words of those liberals who would argue against criticizing Obama, he lets his frustration crowd out what was up to then a strong argument. By letting it rip against these imaginary enemies, Hodge loses track of what should have been his thesis: how Obama has failed to be even a shadow of the progressive he both promised to be and who his more soft-headed critics like Glenn Beck claim him to be. Who indeed are these people cautioning against this kind of critique of Obama? Hodge doesn’t say.
Hodge also takes his good time getting around to explaining the damning charge of betrayal contained in the book’s title and subtitle. His early chapters jab at the Obama halo of saintly inevitability and mock the teenybopper gushes that passed for much election coverage. They also detail how the supposed candidate of “change” didn’t seem to have much change in mind, as he was taking money from all the usual deep-pocketed parties and bringing on an economic team whose outlook didn’t appear all that different from that propagated by the previous administration.
Here, Hodge’s snark gets the better of him time and again. His prose rolls its eyes at the foolishness of all those who fell for the Obama promise, engages in snide little asides (Vice President Joe Biden gets tossed off as a “plagiarist buffoon”), and argues that ultimately there is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans, that they both just serve slightly different corporate interest in “the mundane corruption of our capitalist democracy.”
By going all the way back to James Madison and showing how far America as a country have fallen since his articulation of the principles of American governance, Hodge deflates his own argument. For if the system was well broken before Obama even arrived on the scene, and the country’s progressive tradition (such as it was) already in tatters, what was there for Obama to betray? By thinking anything could have been different, isn’t Hodge falling prey to the same delusions of the Obamacons whom he mocks so mercilessly?
Be that as it may, where The Mendacity of Hope truly fails is in presenting a coherent view of Obama as a president. Hodge’s chapters work quite well as discreet essays on different issues—the multitudinous failings of Obama’s health care reform, the ever-increasing power of the richest one percent in elections—but they don’t come together as an indictment of the man whom the book is ostensibly about.
This is a shame, because Hodge’s brimstone rage frequently achieves the kind of incandescence so sorely lacking in the left’s dialogue, which continues to run to milquetoast tut-tutting or juvenile name-calling. When Hodge declaims that “American liberals have been reduced to an embarrassing defensive cringe, a political attitude that dares not speak its name,” his writing sings with a potent kind of truth-telling. Unfortunately, he never closes the circle to show (for instance) how that kind of neutered defensiveness could then produce a president like Obama, who continues nearly all the War on Terror policies of the Bush regime and promotes only the most limited centrist legislation and is still damned by the right as an America-destroying socialist renegade.
That Obama can actually do so little as a reformist and still cover himself in the cloak of change is infuriating to Hodge, and rightfully so. But a ratcheting down of his rhetoric and a cooler approach to deconstructing Obama’s policies (which strangely the book spends relatively little time on) could have delivered a truly devastating polemic instead of the angry and unfocused shout that it is. There is little here that can beat what was arguably the first great left-wing reaction against Obama’s presidency, Kevin Baker’s devastatingly insightful “Barack Hoover Obama”, published in Hodge’s own Harper’s, in July of 2009.
Nobody would argue that Bob Woodward wrote angry. Some could even say that “writing” isn’t exactly what he does—“assembling” (with his reams of notes and teams of researchers) seems closer to the point. So if there was anybody to write the reasoned critique of the first part of the Obama years, Woodward would seem to be the guy.