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Lonesome Dove

Barack Obama isn’t to blame for the Tea Party’s surge. Liberals are. And if they want him to win re-election in 2012, they better listen to Moses and learn how to take initiative.

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Barack Obama. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Among us morose liberals, the story of next year’s election has already been written. It goes like this: Once upon a time, there was an extraordinary candidate named Barack Obama who, with a gentle kiss of rhetoric, woke us up from a decade of slumber caused by the curse of the evil George W. Bush. We were looking forward to living happily ever after, but then Obama took an unprincely turn. Instead of standing up to the tea-stained meanies who called him names and besieged his castle, he went weak. He tried to appease, and he ended up compromising his principles. He failed, according to a recent essay in the New York Times by psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen, to offer “a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right.” He let himself be bullied by a doctrinaire and dogged minority. And so, no matter how the majority of Americans vote come next November, our story already has an unhappy ending: We believed in Obama, and he has let us down.

It’s a compelling story, but it’s also dead wrong. Obama hasn’t let us down; it’s we who have disappointed him.

Our betrayal of the president might have been more ontological than political. It has to do with the way we perceive ourselves. Modern liberals, for the most part, are the children of Emerson. We believe, as our spiritual father wrote, that “He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

We absolve us to ourselves on occasion, as my friends and I did in 2008 when we went canvassing for Obama among Pennsylvania’s undecided voters. The night Obama was elected, I was huddled with hundreds of strangers in a hotel ballroom outside Philadelphia, feeling elated. This, I thought, is how movements were forged, by scores of mindful men and women sticking together in the heat of a big idea. I hugged a lot of people that night. I never saw any of them again.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, movements are defined differently. For conservatives, politics are played not in four-year intervals but weekly, like football, in churches and school boards and living rooms, where a great number of people congregate to define for each other and for themselves the values worth living by and fighting for. A 2010 Gallup poll, for example, found that while 27 percent of self-described liberals frequently attended a house of worship, the number among conservatives was 55 percent. For these Americans, there’s a lot out there that’s far more sacred than the integrity of their own minds.

This may explain the occasional, and maddening, discrepancies in public opinion polls. A recent New York Times/CBS poll, for example, found that while 72 percent of respondents “disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress handled the negotiations” over the debt ceiling crisis, 44 percent echoed Republican calls for more spending cuts by saying that “the cuts in the debt-ceiling agreement did not go far enough.” You could explain such contradictions by arguing that many Americans may be misinformed, or, less charitably, by proclaiming them irredeemably illogical. Another explanation may be that movements are agnostic when it comes to facts, and that what really matters to tea partiers when they congregate isn’t trying to resolve their ideological tensions—like the discrepancy, say, between railing against big government on the one hand and supporting invasive legislation pertaining to abortions or abstinence on the other—but rather celebrating their successful congregation.

Movements are selfish; they want to survive. If they stopped to question the viability of their arguments, they’d drown in a shallow pool of self-doubt. Instead, they make up slogans and pass resolutions and produce other simple and clear badges for their members to wear to distinguish themselves from non-members. As anyone who has ever attended any brand of religious school and was forced to come to terms with the inscrutable actions of God very well knows, sometimes the answer to the most difficult theological questions is “just because.” It’s not a sophisticated answer, nor is it satisfying for those of us inclined to explore each thought and idea for ourselves, but it’s not a categorically bad answer. When we march under a banner, when we identify the group’s interests with our own, when we belong to a movement, we do so, often, just because.

And by we, alas, I don’t mean liberals. They—we—demand explanations. We’re willing to get behind Obama, but only for short bursts at a time, and only provided that he act in a way we perceive of as befitting the image we have of him, that of our knight and savior. That’s no way to build a movement.

When he faces the Republicans, the president knows that his is a battle of one against many. “In similar circumstances,” Westen wrote in his Times essay, “Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right.” True, but FDR had the support of the unions, then still a growth industry, as well as that of various well-organized political machines and ethnic minorities—Jews, blacks, Catholics—likely to belong to communal organizations in far higher numbers than they do today. When he talked tough, he knew he had in his corner millions of Americans who met each week and cherished their communal bonds and listened to their rabbis or priests or foremen. Obama has no such privilege. Without it, his power is greatly diminished. A president is still a politician, and a politician whose voters show up once every four years finds himself, in the remaining 1,459 days, forced to bend before his better-organized, more numerous foes.

A church-going man, Obama can, perhaps, find some solace in another leader of a stiffed-necked people, Moses. In this week’s parasha, the dying patriarch teaches the Israelites about the perils of political paralysis. He warns his followers not to perceive their triumph over their enemies and their entry into the Promised Land as a sign of entitlement. “Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart do you come to possess their land,” Moses roars, “but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

The message is clear, and it is twofold: First, if the wicked inhabitants of Canaan had once incurred the wrath of God and were punished by extinction, then the land’s new custodians can expect the very same fate should they neglect their duties. And second, as the land was once inhabited by wicked nations and is now being delivered to the Israelites by way of wars and conquests, it is, by definition, an earthly place: Canaan is not Eden, and the only thing that makes the Promised Land promised is the willingness of its inhabitants to work hard at justice and compassion. Put simply, Moses is telling the Israelites about to enter Canaan the same thing that Obama should have told me and my friends at that Pennsylvania hotel, as well as all of his supporters, on the eve of his election—winning was the easy part, and the hard work is only now beginning.

Whether or not Obama secures a second term next winter is largely irrelevant. If we want real change—the kind we can believe in—we’re going to have to write our own story, and America’s, by committing ourselves to a movement on an ongoing basis. We can take heart from Wisconsin, where more than 100,000 members and supporters of unions—for many of us, still churchlike institutions—banded together to oppose Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to slash collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. Walker got his way, but a well-organized progressive movement succeeded in bringing about numerous recall elections and taking two seats away from Republican elected officials. They didn’t win control of the state senate, as some had hoped, but they kept the spirit of organization inflamed with calls, meetings, rallies, and the other movement mainstays. That’s a stellar start.

There’s no other way to succeed save for this serious commitment to a deeply imperfect political vehicle. It’s not going to be easy—we’re likely to find many of our fellow travelers repellent, and we will likely be forced to make some decisions that would leave us less than pure. It’s not going to be much fun—there are more thrilling pastimes in life than canvassing, phone banking, lobbying, or serving on community boards. But when it comes to politics, it’s the only story worth telling.

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Stephen says:

I agree with much of what you have to say, but it basically comes down to a chicken and egg problem:

You are saying that Obama loses or won’t stand up to Republicans because he can’t count on us

I am saying that Obama can’t count on us because he won’t stand up to Republicans (or whoever).

Obama could easily get an army of “liberals” like me to support him vociferously and with motivation to march, write, cajole, participate in mass movements, whatever — but he would have to keep his promises on the things he promised to fight for, the things we took him at his word for, when we worked so hard to get him elected. He let us down, either because he is feckless, or because he really wanted things to turn out this way (in certain circumstances).

The very same reasons I am pissed at Obama are the same reasons I am thrilled with Cuomo right now: Promises kept or broken. It isn’t rocket science, it is basic. You make promises to a constituency, you sure as hell better fight for them. For whatever crazy the tea partiers are, they were promised certain things and their representatives are fighting tooth and nail for those things. Obama is unwilling or unable to do the same, and it is most egregious in his extension of the Bush security state and his relations with the financial sector. All the other errors in strategy or falling short I could forgive.

Viperkat says:

And what happens when the rich are soaked and there are more on “Welfare” than are working? Who pays the bills? Who can we tax then?

You’re correct, however, it isn’t rocket science. People need an incentive to work for a living. If your neighbor isn’t working and his non-taxable welfare check is more than your paycheck, where is the incentive to do more and pay more in taxes? The majority of liberal ideas may work in the Berkeley classroom, but in the real world, people need incentive to create, to be more than “just to get by”, to be competitive and to be rewarded for their efforts.

Obama is not a fire light, he is a fire storm, destroying everything in his blinded sight. He is blinded by his self-perception. Arrogance is a personal trait that, in the end, stifles production and eliminates common sense.

So-called progressives are unable to see beyond their self-proclaimed labels such as “progress” – whereas much of what they propose (and what they have enacted under Obama and previously) has been shown through experience to cause more harm than good to our society and economy.

Obama was a church-goer in a church of hate led by Rev. Wright, and secular allies.

The public sector unions in alliance with political leaders of both parties have almost bankrupted a number of states, while rewarding their allies and enriching themselves. And the alliance between financiers and political elites have done untold damage to the life of our society.

It is the tea-party that has called out the truth, challenging the politically powerful including Obama and those in power in Congress – just as prophets of old have challenged the economic and political elites of old.

I don’t understand why this is placed under ritual and observance. Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but all Jews are not liberals, and certainly all liberals are not Jews. This feels like something better categorized in News and Politics, if not taken off the site altogether. Moreover, comparing Canaanites – the people Joshua ethnically cleansed during the conquest of Israel – to political conservatives is tasteless and crass. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, any American should be leery of conflating religion with a political party, especially when the comparison carries such violent overtones. Winning the presidency is not the same as stepping into the promised land after 40 years in the desert; by the same token, the hard work of keeping the presidency shouldn’t include the threat of violence, let alone actual violence.

Les Miller says:

“Tea Party” or “Reagan Republicans”: these are euphemisms for cranky, put upon Republicans. The same Republicans that are still trying to win the election of 1936, mind you. And perhaps the Democrats are still trying to win the election of 1936 as well.

Neither party has moved very far from the ideological moment when the New Deal began to walk. Republicans have tried on new clothes over the years, calling themselves “America Firsters” or “Tea Party” supporters, but the ideas that defined our national debate 80 years ago are still, front and center, the ideas that define our national debate today. Race, the role of government and individual in society, debt; all of us are locked in a frozen moment in time, unable, unwilling, to accept the fact that the world has changed.

Obama promised to not only help define the new world, he told us it would be a hopeful place. With brillance of tongue and a fire of purpose, he was going to be our first president of this century. America wasn’t ready for the challenge. As much as Obama failed the nation, the nation failed to heed the possibilities of his incumbency. And to prove it, we will probably end up with a president who walked off the pages of a Sinclair Lewis novel and ended up promoting the fairy tale that, like good American values, time stands still.

I fear we have lost our collective energies, which is much worse than losing a presidential contest.

Bill Pearlman says:

Echoing Eli, I doubt that the “good pastor Wright” was in the habit of referencing Moses. And even if he did. According to Obam he never heard anything anyway.

michael livingston says:

This sounds great, but it still implies that the message is correct. It isn’t. Obama is failing, not because of himself or his flock, but because his religion is false. As long as liberals don’t see this, the situation will get worse for them. And worse, and worse . . .

For once I’m inclined to agree with Liel Leibovitz. He makes an interesting observation that seems to have escaped other commenters so far – that the conservatives are made up of people who have weekly meetings, and the liberals only get together every four years. That’s a simplistic way of putting it, but still an accurate observation.
In fact, the movements that call themselves conservative are entertained more frequently than once a week. They have a television network that broadcasts around the world 24 hours a day – delivering misinformed commentary and calling it news. There are no worldwide television networks that broadcast the truth all day. Likewise, in the U.S. talk radio is dominated by extreme right-wing commentary that appeals to a very large market of non-critical thinkers.
If the 2008 campaign for change has lost wind, it is not entirely the fault of President Obama. Nor is it the responsibility of just those who label themselves “liberals.” It has a lot to do with who controls the message. The Tea Partiers came into being only by being louder (Some would say more passionate.) than more rational people.
The connection to the Torah reading was weak but Leibovitz made another interesting point here: Jews are not automatically entitled to live in the land of Israel just because we are Jews. Every time we’ve been exiled it correlates with our trying hard to be like other people instead of maintaining our integrity as Jews.
By the way, the question of Obama securing a second term is NOT “irrelevant.” At least right now it isn’t. The Republican candidates for president, as it stands now, could easily screw things up worse than they were when Obama took office.

jacob arnon says:

“Barack Obama isn’t to blame for the Tea Party’s surge. Liberals are.”

I am sorry but this is so much wishful thinking.

Obama is not to blame for the Tea Party but neither are “liberals.”

Liberals blaming themselves is the perennial malaise of liberalism.

Michael says:

The problem with modern day liberals is that they are only liberal in pejorative sense of the word. In reality today’s “Liberals” [sic] are statist who achieve power by building a coalition malcontents.

jacob arnon says:

Without knowing it people here are creating a new anti-liberal which is to say anti-Jewish myth.

If Obama loses those inclined to blame Jews for everything that goes wrong will point to articles like this one as support for their prejudices.

jacob arnon says:

Michael says:

“The problem with modern day liberals is that they are only liberal in pejorative sense of the word. In reality today’s “Liberals” [sic] are statist who achieve power by building a coalition malcontents.”

Both sides build coalitions of the malcontents. What is the Tea Party if not a collection of malcontents?

There are also many varieties of “statisms” and not all of them are bad.

The conservative statists who wish to monitor your private life is worse than the statists who wish to redistribute some wealth.

I would rather pay more taxes than let the government keep track of what I do.

Michael says:

Jacob: Is there a large number of Obama supporters who are “inclined to blame Jews for everything that goes wrong”? Do you think those who are inclined to blame the Jews are going to give us credit if Obama wins reelection?

There are some invalid assumptions here. Black folks still go to church in large numbers. As any Democratic politician, especially Southern ones, knows, one of the places you absolutely must visit is a Black church on Sunday.

“Liberals” congregate, just not in a physical place necessarily. The power of the Union has been supplanted to a degree by the Internet. The meetings are happening in comment sections and Facebook. Ideas now take hold on the Internet rather than in meeting halls.

I don’t think there is this simple dichotomy where liberals failed Obama or Obama failed liberals. The situation we’re in now is a result of a series of decisions. In the end Liberals, like Tea Partiers, grouse but ultimately support the head of the party. It’s rare that lack of enthusiasm dooms the Presidential candidate (Gore in 2000). It’s usually one candidate losing out with Independents.

Jacob.arnon says:

Mark, you probably don’t remember the Hubert Humphrey 1968 election, but many Democrats sat on their asses and as a consequence Nixon was elected.

I don’t think this will happen next year, at least I hope not.

jonst says:

“movement” towards what end? Isn’t that the more relevant question? Or is “movement” for movement’s sake? The fact of the matter is….I believe, anyway, that since Carter, no matter what any one Democrat says or does not say, he or she takes us towards a govt that implements a neoliberal agenda. Since this is, again, I argue, counter-productive to the middle class a logical sense of ambiguity is built in to the support from the Dems. And why not? Indeed, why ANY support, I would argue.

This piece is so clever I suspect that LL is writing satire.

Such an intelligent political analysis on the basis of a Torah interpretation! Liberals are eating sh– right now. They’ll continue to eat sh– for the foreseeable future, as LL laments. And LL shows exactly why: being committed Emersonians, it’s impossible for Liberals to do what they must to get and maintain power, which is believe in something transcendent, bind themselves in a union based on this belief, and then live by it week by week, etc etc. This won’t happen, of course. Hence LL’s sense of tragedy. It’s either great satire of liberal punditry, or, if it’s serious, it’s a sign that LL is proximately a conservative converso.

While it is the nature of the game that the president is “instead of the people,” often taking both the credit and the blame for what the voters, themselves, are not willing to put themselves on the line for, the fact remains that we did elect Mr. Obama to lead us to whatever promised land we thought he had in mind.

The elected postion of president was not intended to be the same as a headless horseman leading a leaderless movement

Michael says:

@Roque Nuevo

I hope this piece is satire. Otherwise it’s pure drivel complete with almost every inaccurate stereotype of American politics. And, Mr. Leibovitz, please: lose the hyphen, the colons can go as well; your–uh–excessive punctuation; makes for a tiring read.

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I read the comments, the philosophical/political insults, the bemoaning of loss of candidate packaging making them politically palatable, the angst, the political acrimony, and I have a different view. Maybe it’s because I grew up being influenced in a far liberal family outside Boston but when getting into the real world finding out so much of what I was inculcated with didn’t apply effectively.

I’ll say this. Understand there are two basic economic philosophies pervasive in America. One is a Public Sector solution the other a Private Sector solution. If you are being paid somewhere in the Public Sector/government you’re more than likely to be liberal and a Democrat supporting Obama. If you’re income is derived in the Private Sector you’re more inclined to be a tea Partier or Republican. If you’re looking for government economic security you’ll be a Democrat. Risk/reward American Dreamer a Republican.

Understanding that, why would anyone be disappointed with Obama? More people in the US are conservative than liberal. More work in the private sector than public. He’s taken the country as far left as he possibly could given the political landscape. I don’t care how he packages himself or fights Republicans Keynes doesn’t work. Despite Krugman it’s never worked. Why the incredulousness that Obama’s been abandoned by so many?

Bottom line…..Most people want to live the American Dream. They can’t in this economy Obama inherited. Obama’s policies since he’s been in have failed. Is it any wonder he’s in political trouble?

If the crowd’s going to cheer for him, doesn’t he have to show success through his policy approaches improving peoples’ ability to improve their standard of living?

Can anyone argue he took a bad situation, and made things better? No, but the opposite can easily be argued.

Absent private sector jobs you can’t fund government. There aren’t any private sector jobs

t matter what anybody says, I love obama

I hope this piece is satire. Otherwise it’s pure drivel complete with almost every inaccurate stereotype of American politics. And, Mr. Leibovitz, please: lose the hyphen, the colons can go as well; your–uh–excessive punctuation; makes for a tiring read.

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Lonesome Dove

Barack Obama isn’t to blame for the Tea Party’s surge. Liberals are. And if they want him to win re-election in 2012, they better listen to Moses and learn how to take initiative.

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