David Bromwich on Obama [Updated]

In the newest London Review of Books, David Bromwich writes about "A Bad President." Two paragraphs that stand out, though the whole thing is well worth reading:
Maraniss’s findings about Dreams from My Father throw considerable light on one aspect of Obama’s public presentation since 2009. I mean his copious reliance on cliché. He knows a cliché when he speaks it. He uses it to accommodate an imagined audience, with a condescension he thinks the audience does not detect. But this is a practice that cuts against genuine respect. The consequence, for his political stance, is an unanchored populism, a plea for unity among many constituencies without a footing in one. Obama’s gambit has been to carry himself as if, since he comes from everywhere, and every class and tradition flows through him, he can never be accused of being parochial, marginal or the tool of special interests.
He has often echoed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the canonical American speech of reconciliation. It has not occurred to him that our time may be more suited to the House Divided speech, in which Lincoln in 1858 showed why the slavery question was so important it might make the two sides irreconcilable. Obama’s many House United speeches, by contrast, are always about unity for its own sake – a curious idea. Unity for its own sake will capture neither votes nor lasting loyalty among people who crave an explanation of the elements of political right and wrong. Obama likes to say that the truth always lies somewhere ‘in between’. Fair enough at first glance. A tenable compromise between obdurate persons or opposite forces generally lies somewhere in between. But truth is different surely, truth occurs as it occurs, and often one finds it at the extremes.
[Update: 2 August 2012]

More sobering critique from Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:
But Obama turned out to be perfectly content advancing his domestic agenda by bribing powerful lobbying interests, shoveling vast sums to Wall Street without adequately reforming the financial system, and otherwise deepening the epidemic of cronyism and special interest favors in American life. This doesn't surprise old hands like Kevin Drum and Jonathan Chait, who cynically expected the Obama they got, and are glad to take a health-care reform bill that's better, by their lights, than what any other Democrat has delivered. I understand their perspective.

But the average American is not a political junkie who knows from long experience when to believe a candidate and when to presume that his idealistic rhetoric is but a cynical flourish that he has no intention of backing up with actions. After the Bush Administration, it took a lot to get the American people to buy into the notion of politics as a means to meaningful reform. Obama's broken promises likely destroyed that possibility for a generation -- and as improbably as his promised agenda always was, there isn't any likelier path to fundamental reform on the horizon -- the next most mentioned vehicle for change is the all but departed Occupy Wall Street on the left, and the mostly co-opted Tea Party on the right. Anyone confident in either?  
Some of the 'civil libertarian' bit is a bit unconvincing for me, but I think Friedersdorf's critique picks up something of the same line as Bromwich. Why is the 'civil libertarian' critique unconvincing? Because while it gestures at some of the systemic issues in the United States today, it doesn't really lay out a way we might move forward together. Further, what does it mean to be 'free'? What are the compromises we're willing to (or unwilling, as the case may be) accept? That, I think, is one direction in which we might begin to think.


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