I’m not planning to break up with President Obama, but he is definitely giving me flashbacks to relationship dysfunctionality. Tolstoy is forever being quoted on the subject: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I don’t think he had it right. There’s often a familiar, cyclical character to unhappy families, especially to whatever keeps them in relationship.
Consider intermittent positive reinforcement, a killer relationship app:
Have you ever been in one of those relationships that isn’t working—really isn’t working—but just when you start to exit, something clicks into place, and the other person emerges from a cocoon of frustration and disappointment, unfurling the emotional equivalent of butterfly wings? “Oh,” you think, “this butterfly is the authentic self, the one that’s been hiding under all that other crap. And now the butterfly is out, and everything can be different!” Hope rises, possibility expands…but when you wake up in the morning, there’s nobody home but a caterpillar, inching back into the cocoon.
Intermittent positive reinforcement shows us what someone is capable of, and that reminder can keep enough hope alive to sustain us till the next meltdown (and the interval of positive reinforcement that follows). When intermittent positive reinforcement is titrated in just the right dosage, the addiction can be nearly unbreakable.
Since launching his re-election campaign, President Obama has done some things that many of my ilk have been agitating for throughout his term, such as rejecting the permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline (albeit citing the technicality of inadequate time to review the application, thus leaving the door open for a new proposal); and launching an investigation into the mortgage crisis, with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, a respected figure, at the helm (and many kudos from groups like MoveOn.org, who rightly assert that this is in response to agitation from Occupy and other progressive activists).
I’m not planning to break up with President Obama (have you seen the parade of grotesques the other party is putting forward to replace him?), but I’d really like to know whether he truly means to change. Will he allow the fresh wind of progressive energy generated by Occupy and others on the economy and 350.org and others on energy to propel the ship of state toward greater accountability and democracy? Or is he just hitting the reset button on the intermittent positive reinforcement app over and over again until election day?
The answer is currently unknowable, of course (unless you have a time machine). But the emotions that drive my desire to know remain powerful, as in any unhappy family. You want someone to change, but when change comes, you wonder whether to risk opening your heart again, fearful that intermittent positive reinforcement may soon give way to its opposite. The battle between love and fear is strong, whether in the little world of the family or the big world of our national family.
President Obama knows he needs to work on our relationship. The internet is currently flooded with variations on the key talking point he wants to bring home to voters: that despite tremendous opposition from a right wing that wants to defeat him at any cost, he has accomplished a great deal. People everywhere are posting a graphic that lists the president’s accomplishments, with this punchline: “What did you do in the last three years at your job?”
Perhaps the most muscular contribution along these lines has been Andrew Sullivan’s recent piece from Newsweek, also widely reprinted, asserting that Mr. Obama is playing a “long game”:
And what have we seen? A recurring pattern. To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak. I remember those stretches during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. I also remember whose strategy won out in the end.
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game.
Sullivan makes the principal argument now being deployed to explain President Obama’s 3.5-year lack of response to the concerns of those who prize accountability, transparency, equity, and economic justice: that the system is broken, that the opposition is powerful, and that getting anything significant done is a triumph that outweighs all other considerations—and if you think otherwise, you are a puerile ideologue who doesn’t understand how politics actually works.
To prosecute his argument, Sullivan has to play up Obama’s achievements and ignore the rest, skimming lightly over issues that might call his point into question. For example, he crows over the death of Bin Laden and neglects to mention the expensive quagmire in Afghanistan; cites job-creation figures while forbearing to point out the disgrace of a Democratic president eschewing public service jobs in a time of epidemic unemployment; categorically dismisses criticism of the administration’s ties to Wall Street without even mentioning the parade of foxes the president has put in charge of our economic henhouse; briefly acknowledges the administration’s poor record on civil liberties while crediting him with “the most important thing of all: excising the cancer of torture from military detention and military justice,” as if that excuses Guantanamo and all the rest; lightly deposits the impression that the disastrous “Race to The Top” education boondoggle is a success and even a model, while omitting the destruction wreaked by corporate-style test-driven education. (Anthony Cody’s “Living in Dialogue” blog is a great place to learn more about this.)
The bottom line is that it’s all true. The system is broken, the obstacles formidable, the achievements significant, the compromises and deals smelly, the desire to please everyone pervasive and controlling, the accountability to ordinary Americans very shaky indeed. Has the administration accomplished a lot in the face of opposition? Yes. Has the administration sacrificed extremely important values such as good education, environmental healing, and right livelihood to political expediency? Yes.
To those who say, “Grow up, this is how the game is played,” I say this: I am so thankful that their attitude did not discourage all those who’ve worked so hard to change the rules in so many times and places in human history, when people have acted on behalf of freedom and justice and things have changed for the better. And I see no reason to heed them now. When Dr. King rose six months before his murder to say, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” he knew what he was talking about.
Before the 2008 election, I was madly in love with Barack Obama, writing rapturously about his personal qualities of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and empathy. As a human being, he still has those lovable qualities, but as a partner, he has disappointed me greatly. Still, I don’t for an instant regret falling for him, and I hope my heart remains open if another such promising leader comes on the scene. But our relationship is in trouble. I am watching closely to see if his recent gestures towards some of the issues I care most about are merely taps on the intermittent positive reinforcement app, or mark a genuine willingness to bring his actions more in line with accountability, equity, and justice.
I’m not planning to break up with President Obama, but it would go a long way toward renewing my willingness to trust if he showed that he were open to listening to teachers, rather than reflexively defending his bad education policies, if he appointed more economic advisors who hadn’t helped to create our national mess, and if were willing to stand up for public sector job creation rather than to sacrifice the unemployed to placate the right.
Eventually, no matter how carefully you titrate the dosage, intermittent positive reinforcement just isn’t enough.
Bettye LaVette, It Ain’t Worth It After Awhile.”