Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Told You So! (Except I Was Wrong)

I know this isn't how Blog Time works, but I've been stewing for more days than I should about this New York Times piece by Rebecca Traister. Stewing while I drive, and garden, and work, because honestly, I just don't know what I think.
The empirical choice between Clinton and Obama was never as direct as those on either side made it out to be; neither was obviously more equipped or more progressive than the other. The maddening part, then and now, is that they were utterly comparable candidates. The visions — in 2008, of Obama as a progressive redeemer who would restore enlightened democracy to our land and Hillary as a crypto-Republican company man; or, in 2011, of Obama as an appeasement-happy crypto-Republican and Hillary as a leftist John Wayne who would have whipped those Congressional outlaws into shape — they were all invented. These are fictional characters shaped by the predilections, prejudices and short memories of the media and the electorate. They’re not actual politicians between whom we choose here on earth.

Traister, you might recall, writes for the Times and Salon, is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, and one of the few members of the press corps who seem unafraid of claiming the feminist mantle.

Now, our blogfriends have already weighed in here, of course:
Matt Yglesias points out that in the spring and summer of 2008, the world looked very different: "Our experience of the Obama administration has been dominated by the fallout of events that mostly happened after the election. So when people say that they thought Obama would be like this or thought he would be like that, in many ways they’re misremembering. If you’re honest with yourself, three years ago you just weren’t thinking much at all about how Obama would respond to persistent 9 percent unemployment."

Amanda notes that Hillary was a Kenyanmuslimsocialist long before it was cool: "The Republican base not only hates Clinton, but they've hated her for decades now. The paranoid base really cut their teeth constructing elaborate conspiracy theories about her. Before Obama was accused of faking his birth certificate, remember that Clinton was accused of murdering Vince Foster, a good friend of her family's. Republicans would have ambushed and stonewalled her, too. Don't forget that they impeached her husband after basically dogging him for years, looking for any tiny thread they could cling to to rationalize it." The Tea Party wouldn't be the Tea Party, of course--"the nickname and the costuming of the base uproar" would be different, as Amanda says--but it would be something just as noxious and obstructionist.

And Scott notes what many of us realized at the time: "in policy terms the 2008 Democratic primary was about almost nothing." Which was, after all, one of the most frustrating things about the 2008 primary: I was routinely called a racist corporatist centrist by people I had thought were my friends, simply because I thought Clinton was a viable candidate. Hell, in policy terms, I liked John Edwards. What the hell did I know?

And so I don't feel the need to weigh in on those points: they're well covered. But I think the fact that I was a Clinton supporter has made me generally less frustrated with Obama: since I never thought he was the Liberal Savior anyway, the fact that he has not turned out to be is just less, well, personal for me.

I'm reminded of a review I once read on Pitchfork--back when I thought I needed to read Pitchfork to be cool--of Weezer's 2005 album Make Believe. The reviewer didn't like it, but that wasn't enough. Instead, he had to go back and smear all of the back catalog, in a comical "I break with thee!" moment of adolescent angst. A lot of Obama-hate feels like that to me.

I've been out of political blogging a while now--partly disenchanted, partly working on a book--but I'm not such a big person that I don't remember the pain of that personality contest. At the time, I flashed a lot on the Reese Witherspoon-Matthew Broderick movie Election, and suspected that, like Tracy Flick, Hillary was being castigated for seeming to want the nomination so much. Female desire for power--like all female desire--was unseemly and kind of icky and had to be smacked down.

But I'm curious, as a feminist, how often the metaphor of Obama's strength or weakness is expressed in terms of sexual potency. The Daily Beast piece Traister cites gives several quotes, it assures us, from lots of otherwise nice little old ladies impugning Obama's manhood, particularly in comparison to Hillary.
At a luncheon in the members’ dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday, a 64-year-old African-American from the Bronx was complaining about Obama’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the implacable hostility of congressional Republicans when an 80-year-old lawyer chimed in about the president’s unwillingness to stand up to his opponents. “I want to see blood on the floor,” she said grimly.

A 61-year-old white woman at the table nodded. “He never understood about the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’” she said.

Looking as if she were about to cry, an 83-year-old Obama supporter shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in him,” she said. “It’s true: Hillary is tougher.”

Among Clinton fans, particularly older women, the language was frequently far more caustic. “Obama has no spine and no balls,” said a 67-year-old New Yorker.

Jeez, when the grandmas have the long knives out, look out!

But of course, our go-to person for all psychosexual attacks on Democratic men does not fail us. No one does the "Democratic men are secretly women! Or pussy-whipped! Or something!" trope better than Maureen Dowd: it's the one medium she truly understands.
President Obama was on the way to Alpha when a plea came for him to be, well, more alpha.

LuAnn Lavine, a real estate agent from Geneseo, a rural town just up the road from Alpha, Ill., the last stop on the president’s Midwestern bus tour, told The Times’s Jeff Zeleny: “Everyone was so hopeful with him, but Washington grabbed him and here we are. I just want him to stay strong and don’t take the guff. We want a president who is a leader, and I want him to be a little bit stronger.”

For Dowd, Obama's weakness is clearly demonstrated by the D after his name, and the fact that he, uh, took a vacation in August, like all Americans who can afford to. "The truth is, he doesn’t want [Congress] back in the capital any more than they want to be back. It would have screwed up his vacation and upset Michelle, who already feels trapped in the Washington bubble." Dowd doesn't quite quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters--"It's true: this man has no dick."--but it's pretty damn close.

I wanted to end on a decisive note, but I find I don't have one. Obama is dealing with a level of obstruction I have not seen in my lifetime, and is in the position of trying to defend programs against a raft of Neitzschean, Randian ideologues who are interested in nothing but corporatist hegemony for the people who elected them, and third-world anarchy for everyone else. They do not care if they drive the whole bus over a cliff.

Obama is standing between us and them. Ineffectively, maybe, but he's there. Hillary may have played it differently, but the cliff would still be there, and they'd still be determined to drive off it. And things would be just as fucked.

(crossposted at WhiskeyFire)