Posts Tagged ‘The New Republic’

Wieseltier owes Andrew Sullivan an apology. And The New Republic owes its readers a retraction.

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Leon Wieseltier launched a graceless and rather paranoid ad hominem attack on Andrew Sullivan in the latest issue of The New Republic – accusing him of being an anti-Semite. The New Republic is my favorite magazine – but since reading this piece, I’m considering unsubscribing. It would bother me that any magazine would give itself as a platform for such an article, and is even worse that it is one I feel ownership over (as I have been a regular reader for some 12 years and a subscriber for 5, from the moment I graduated college.) Wieseltier further attacks my religion (Catholicism) as “a regress to polytheistic crudity” and seemingly marks the magazine as meant for Jews rather than Christians – saying that “readers of The New Republic” would clearly see what was wrong with Sullivan’s writings – just as they saw what was wrong with the concept of the Trinity. (Perhaps this was meant lightly. It’s a bit hard to tell as he levels such ridiculous charges.) I don’t consider myself the type of person who would cancel a subscription over offensive content – but it angers that the magazine would run a piece with so few redeeming features and such serious unsubstantiated charges.

Sullivan’s main and heartfelt response to the piece is here. He also points out the context to one of his quotes, including email correspondence with the current editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer. Other comments and a roundup of outside opinion from Sullivan here, here, here, here, and here. The Atlantic Wire has a more complete roundup.

Let me – as briefly as I can – make one point that I haven’t seen made. Most of Wieseltier’s piece concerns all sorts of damning positions Sullivan has taken: being moved by the Palestinian suffering in the Gaza attack, Sullivan’s anger at the Netanyahu government for refusing any substantial concessions to his government’s main patron, and the fact that Sullivan cites the respected Middle East scholar Stephen Walt “frequently and deferentially” when Walt was one of the authors of The Israel Lobby for which Wieseltier believes he should be shunned. About the only item cited by Wieseltier that could be construed as stereotyping of Jews is a Sullivan response to an article in the very self-consciously Jewish and right-wing Commentary on why Jews don’t like Palin because they’re educated, elitist, socially liberal, etc., but should support Palin because she has what Rubin considers the most important thing right: she opposes “the administration’s effort to put ‘daylight’ between the U.S. and Israel.” Sullivan begins his most anti-Semitic piece by quoting Jonathan Chait (of The New Republic) who puts Rubin’s piece in context elsewhere in his post:

The complaint of the Jewish Republican is a small but hardy feature of our political discourse. The complaint runs as follows: Jews are foolishly ignoring their self-interest by voting for Democrats on the basis of sentimental concerns (secularism, concern for the poor) rather than pursuing their true self interest (maximal hawkishness on the Middle East, low tax rates on the rich) as represented by the GOP.

Sullivan replies to Chait:

I worry about elements of proto-fascism becoming mainstream in the GOP.

But there is something particularly disturbing about the way in which neoconservatives, in their alliance with the Christianist heartland, increasingly argue for a strong and unchecked charismatic leader in the Palin/Bush mold, a disdain for reason in political life and a yearning for what Rubin calls an “instinctual skill set” in a leader…

Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights.) But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing – that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran – is something else.

Something much darker.

Wieseltier’s response entirely ignores the blatant stereotyping that Jennifer Rubin uses as the basis for her article as well as Chait’s easy categorization of “Jewish Republicans” who identify their “true self interest” as “maximal hawkishness on the Middle East.” Wieseltier instead goes after Sullivan:

I was not aware that [Goldfarb and Krauthammer] comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” What sets them apart from their more enlightened brethren is the unacceptability of their politics to Sullivan. That is his criterion for dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.

It is really quite something that the above cite is the closest Wieseltier gets to Sullivan “hating on” Jews. No fair-minded observer could believe that is what is going on. Sullivan posts a quote from DiA today that seems to offer a more reasonable explanation: that Sullivan is “pigeonholing” political actors which DiA acknowledges that “we all do this to some extent,” including Wieseltier himself.

However, I want to take a minute to defend discussing the religion’s effect on politics in exactly the way Wieseltier is accusing Sullivan of, as today, most people’s religious and political identities have become fused. One’s religion – whether it be evangelical Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, Methodist, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever else – is a profound influence on one’s outlook on the world and as such must be a matter for public debate and discussion. Andrew Greeley for example makes this case with reference to Catholicism in The Catholic Myth. He describes the profound effect growing up steeped in any mythology has on how any one sees the world, how it shapes our imagination and how we see how the world works.

Yet Leon Wieseltier either maintains that this type of thinking is out of bounds or that Charles Krauthammer’s specifically aren’t based on his Jewishness:

Moreover, Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas…[T]he grounds of Krauthammer’s opinions are no more to be found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness than the grounds of the contrary opinions–the contentions of dovish Jews who denounce torture, and oppose Israeli abuses in the Gaza war, and insist upon a diplomatic solution to the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability–are to be found in, or reduced to, their Jewishness. All these “wings” are fervent Jews and friends of Israel. There are many “Jewish” answers to these questions. We all want the Torah on our side. And the truth is that the Torah has almost nothing to do with it. [my emphasis]

Parsing the bolded sentence closely, you can see how hedged it really is – how Wieseltier’s actual point seems to be that there are multiple interpretations of Judaism and none should be called Judaism definitively. Which of course Sullivan does not – which Wieseltier acknowledges. But the clear intention of this passage is to claim that Sullivan is stereotyping Jews and reducing their political opinions by connecting them to Judaism. Specifically, he is offended that Krauthammer’s opinions are associated with his “Jewishness” when they are instead based on logical premises.

Yet this Jay Nordlinger profile of Charles Krauthammer in the National Review seems to offer Krauthammer himself refuting precisely these points. [Full access only to subscribers. However, someone posted the whole thing at the rightwingforum.]

Of Israel, Krauthammer has long been a leading student, defender, and explainer. Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.” Krauthammer believes that Israel needs two things to survive: the will to live, and the support of the United States. He believes that Israel has demonstrated a very great will to live, especially in its defeat of the “second intifada.” And he has “great faith in the goodness of America,” a goodness that will not let Israel go to the dogs. Europe could do all sorts of things to bedevil and imperil Israel: impose economic sanctions, prosecute Israeli soldiers, etc. But the key is America. And “if we ever reach a point where we become indifferent to Israel, that will mark a great turn in the soul of our country.”

Many Jews, particularly American ones, are nervous or scornful about the support that American evangelicals have shown for Israel. They say that this support is double-edged, or bad news, or embarrassing. Krauthammer will have none of it. “I embrace their support unequivocally and with gratitude. And when I speak to Jewish groups, whether it’s on the agenda or not, I make a point of scolding them. I say, ‘You may not want to hear this, and you may not have me back, but I’m going to tell you something: It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world. And here we have 50 million Americans who willingly and enthusiastically support us. You’re going to throw them away, for what? Because of your prejudice.’ Oh, I give ’em hell.” [my emhpases]

So, let me be clear: Wieseltier claims that “the ground of Krauthammer’s opinions” shouldn’t be “found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness” because Krauthammer’s views are actually based on his cold and clear rational analysis of the world and that he doesn’t present “feelings as ideas.” To claim otherwise for Wieseltier is evidence of anti-Semitism. Yet a recent profile of Krauthammer attributes to him the rather debatable view that “as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not” as Krauthammer “quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — ‘I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.’ ” Krauthammer then brags that he scolds Jews who disdain people like Palin, saying: “It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world.” In each instance, Krauthammer explicitly grounds his view of history and of foreign policy and national security in his Jewishness – and appeals to his audience to be properly “Jewish” and be grateful for the support Israel receives. Yet – Wieseltier accuses Sullivan of “demand[ing] Jews behave apologetically in America” and “defends” Krauthammer’s ideas as not being related to his “Jewishness.” Absolutely ridiculous.

Wieseltier owes Andrew Sullivan an apology. And The New Republic owes its readers a retraction.

What Obama Is Trying to Accomplish With the Bipartisan Health Care Summit

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

One thing I had noticed but not managed to fit into my post on why Republicans didn’t want to go to the health care summit that they had been demanding was how perfectly Obama’s proposed summit fit into “the Obama method.” Jonathan Chait makes the point I would have:

Obama knows perfectly well that the Republicans have no serious proposals to address the main problems of the health care system and have no interest (or political room, given their crazy base) in handing him a victory of any substance. Obama is bringing them in to discuss health care so he can expose this reality.

I’m not saying this is some kind of genius maneuver. I’m not even saying it will work. (I wouldn’t bet against it, though.) I’m just saying that this — not starting over, and not pleading for bipartisan cover — is what Obama is trying to accomplish.

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Let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Andrew Sullivan pointed to two rather positive takes on the Obama administration over the past year from right wing Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein and liberal magazine reporter John P. Judis reporting on the regulatory agencies.

Judis in The New Republic:

[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for–but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

Judis explains several ways conservatives attempted to eviscerate the regulatory apparatus including appointing lobbyists for those being regulated to head the agencies and through the clever use of cost-benefit analysis:

The conservative version of cost-benefit analysis stressed costs rather than benefits and subjected only regulation–not deregulation–to cost-benefit scrutiny. Conservatives also sometimes adopted bizarre formulas for assessing costs and benefits. They assigned less monetary value to improvements or protections in poor communities because the residents were willing (that is, able) to pay less for them, and they used a spurious correlation between a society’s wealth and the health of its citizens to argue that the costs of regulation outweighed the benefits. Under George H.W. Bush, for example, OIRA argued that OSHA regulations on chemical contaminants would end up harming workers more than exposure to chemicals. Wrote James McRae, the acting head of OIRA, “If government regulations force firms out of business or into overseas production, employment of American workers will be reduced, making workers less healthy by reducing their income.”

(Presumably it was this article that Jon Stewart was referring to in his O’Reilly interview.)

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – no fan of Obama’s agenda – can’t deny the significant accomplishments of this Democratic Congress:

[T]his Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it — $288 billion — came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

And of course, this has something to do with Obama, as NPR reported:

In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, aCongressional Quarterly study finds.

As I wrote last week, listing some additional accomplishments:

He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy.

(Of course, there are disappointments as well – but let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.)

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Obama: “I do not accept second place for the United States of America”

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I’ve been meaning to draw attention to Edward Alden’s political take on the most significant sentence in Obama’s State of the Union:

President Obama’s best bipartisan applause line of the speech–“I do not accept second place for the United States of America”–should become the mantra for his administration’s effort to revive its faltering agenda. It captured the central theme of his speech–that the failure of those in the country’s most powerful institutions to rise above their narrow, immediate interests has paralyzed America’s ability to tackle an urgent series of challenges that threaten its future prosperity and global leadership. Yet while Washington fiddles, Wall Street gambles, and the media chortles, other countries are moving ahead.

E. J. Dionne comments on the same line in a column for The New Republic identifying what he labels the sleeper issue of 2010: American decline.

Beneath the predictable back-and-forth between Obama and his Republican adversaries over government spending lies a substantively important difference over how the United States can maintain its global leadership.

For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.

Obama, Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.

One thing no one has commented upon is how well this narrative refutes the narrative the right wing is building. I noticed some time earlier that Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and much of the right wing had been coalescing around the narrative they were pushing about Obama – which I called the Unified Theory of Obama. The conclusion of all their various claims – the story that tied them all together was this:

Therefore, Obama is using his presidency to deliberately and radically weaken America – by spending more money than it can afford to; by destroying its economy with health care reform and cap and trade; by giving up America’s moral leadership of the world (by bowing to foreign leaders and apologizing for past mistakes); by engaging in “various kinds of strategic retreat, most particularly in reversing policies stained by even the hint of American unilateralism or exceptionalism;” by moving away from the Bush administration’s foreign policy and national security approaches thus giving “encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.”

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Understanding President Obama and the budget deficit

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Jonathan Chait over at his blog on The New Republic:

Pretty much everything you need to know about President Obama and the budget deficit is contained within this chart:

Must-Reads of the Week: Obama (mythical figure), Democratic Talking Points, Health Care Misinformation & Defenses of Reform, & Musical Predictions

Friday, January 29th, 2010

1. The greatest Obama myth. Jonathn Cohn in The New Republic asks where the Obama he voted for was – before the State of the Union:

[F]or the first time, at least in my memory, Democrats had a leader who consistently outsmarted not just his opponents but his supporters as well. Over and over again in the 2008 campaign, those of us rooting for him would panic over his strategy. Over and over again, Obama proved us wrong. He had an uncanny ability to block out the noise and confound Beltway perceptions, to ignore the ups and downs of the news cycle in order to pursue broader goals. Even for me, somebody who generally resisted the Obama kool-aid, it was something to behold.

I remember the sensation most vividly during the financial crisis of September–when John McCain suspended his campaign and suggested canceling a scheduled debate, in order to return to Washington. Suggesting that a president should be able to campaign and govern simultaneously, Obama rebuffed the proposal–a move for which, I was sure, nervous voters would punish him. Instead, the public rallied to Obama and rejected McCain. They saw a leader who was unflappable, who had his own sense of direction, and who could manage a crisis.

This cool demeanor became his trademark and, eventually, supporters took to emailing around a photoshop image every time political trouble appeared. If you’re on a progressive mailing list, chances are you saw it a few dozen times–a picture of Obama giving a speech, with the caption “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

Obama left me with the impression he still clearly had that demeanor and confidence – and the speech left Cohn guardedly optimistic.

2. Democratic Talking Points, 2010. Chris Good at The Atlantic posts the Democratic Senators’ 2010 national strategy memo.

3. Woefully misinformed about the health care reform bill. Nate Silver points out that the support of the various proposals within the health care bill are greater than the support for the bill itself – and that the public is seriously misinformed about the contents of it:

What we see is that most individual components of the bill are popular — in some cases, quite popular. But awareness lags behind. Only 61 percent are aware that the bill bans denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Only 42 percent know that it bans lifetime coverage limits. Only 58 percent are aware that it set up insurance exchanges. Just 44 percent know that it closes the Medicare donut hole — and so on and so forth.

“Awareness”, by the way, might be a forgiving term in this context. For the most part in Kaiser’s survey, when the respondent doesn’t affirm that the bill contains a particular provision, he actually believes that the bills don’t include that provision. 29 percent, for instance, say the bill does not contain a provision requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions; 20 percent think it does not expand subsidies.

4. Pass the Damn Bill. Paul Starr, veteran of the Clinton attempt at health reform, argues for progressives embracing Obama’s health care reforms in The American Prospect:

Even with its compromises, health reform is the most ambitious effort in decades to reorganize a big part of life around principles of justice and efficiency…

5. Do you spend hours each day having fun making predictions? Jonah Lehrer on what moves us about music: the patterns in it, and our attempts to predict these patterns.

[Image by Diego Cupolo licensed under Creative Commons.]

Charlie Crist, Democrat?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Jonathan Chait suggests a strategy to get popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist what he wants (a Senate Seat) as well as the Democratic Party what it wants (another Senate seat):

As I see it, he has two options. First, he can bow out of the primary, campaign energetically for Rubio in November, and hope the party moves to the center far enough for him to run again at some future date. Second, he can make the case that the party has gotten too extreme for him — a legitimate case, as Crist is genuinely moderate on most of the key issues — and run for Senate as an independent or as a Democrat. Neither option is particularly easy, though the second seems easier than the first.

And now it looks like Crist just might be thinking along the same lines. Apparently he plans to join President Obama for his political appearance this week in Tampa.

Obama versus Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

John P. Judis:

Working-class populism in America has always taken two forms: The first–let’s call it left-wing populism–has typically been directed at speculators who make money from people who work in factories and offices and who don’t seem to contribute to the actual wealth of society. The second form–let’s call it right-wing populism–has targeted immigrants, black sharecroppers, the unemployed, and other out groups who are seen as trying to deprive those who work of their rightful earnings. These two strains often appear together, as they did in the original American populist movement. And these sentiments are most concentrated among the embattled classes–those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama has provoked both left-wing and right-wing populism.

Buck Up, Democrats!

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Andrew Sullivan, who was largely responsible for derailing Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care reform, likewise urges Obama and the Democrats to seize the moment:

[Obama should] tell the American people that he understands their anger and frustration (hence the big swipe at the banks last week), but that he refuses to stand by and do nothing. If the American people want nothing, they should support the opposition. If the American people want something, they should back the president they just elected in implementing a health reform plan he campaigned on.

Jonathan Bernstein explains why the “safe” choice of trying to appease your partisan opponents has little effect:

Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them, regardless of what they do.  Democrats could eliminate the estate tax permanently, slash the capital gains tax, repeal the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, invade Iran, and pass a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, and Republicans would still attack them — with exactly the same vehemence and vigor that Republicans have now.  That’s politics.  It’s how partisan politics is played.  It is absolutely impossible to avoid attacks from one’s opponents; nothing you do gives them license to attack, because they will attack whatever you do.  Oh, and this isn’t partisan; Democrats are going to attack Republicans, whatever the Republicans do.

Don’t believe me?  Republicans are attacking Democrats for taking away people’s guns, even though the Democrats basically surrendered on that issue fifteen years ago.  They are attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and for allowing Medicare to grow so fast that it’ll bankrupt the nation — sometimes in the very same speech (I’ve seen it in the same paragraph)…

My advice to Democrats unsure about what to do is this: think about the actual bill, and what its effects would be if it became law.  If in your judgment those effects would be bad for your constituents, then odds are they will dislike it, blame you for it, and you’ll be in trouble.  If those effects would be good for your constituents, then vote for it.  Then figure out how you’re going to sell the thing and yourself, based on that vote.  But don’t back off of it because you think it will open you up to attacks; you’re wide open right now, and you’ll remain wide open regardless of what you do.

Jonathan Cohn writes a letter to the House Democrats who are considering not voting on the Senate bill:

I don’t want to mislead you: You could pass the Senate bill, which you may really not like, and still lose reelection. But passing health care reform would seem, if anything, to improve your odds of political survival. And if it doesn’t–if you’re doomed to lose anyway–enacting health care reform would give you a meaningful accomplishment in your record.

Think of everything you could do while serving in Congress. Would any single act be bigger than this? However imperfect, it will make a huge difference in people’s lives–and, quite likely, the evolution of the American social welfare state. You’ll be sparing financial or physical hardship for thousands of Americans every year, while delivering peace of mind–and safer, higher quality medicine–to literally millions of others. You’ll be saving the American economy and, along the way, helping people to stay healthy.

You can be a part of this moment in history–and, if you play your cards right, stick around in Congress long enough to enjoy it. It just takes some common sense–and maybe a little mettle.

In other words: Vote for the Damn Bill!

Governing Ambition Versus Political Theater

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Noam Scheiber asks what I consider to be a rather annoying question in The New Republic – having written this piece in anticipation of Scott Brown’s win:

After a year of barely restrained governing ambition, has the political system suddenly forced the president into a posture of symbolically resonant tinkering? Has Obamaism descended into–gasp!–Clintonism?

This question annoys me with its two presumptions (and the fact that I normally like Scheiber makes it worse.)

First, it seems a bit off to describe Obama’s first year as being “barely restrained governing ambition.” This use of the phrase doesn’t quite make sense. It seems that “governing ambition” is supposed to be something bad – something excessive – as ambition so often is. The qualifying clause “barely restrained” seems to suggest Scheiber is using it this way. But the phrase “governing ambition” doesn’t mean what Scheiber seems to think. He uses it to mean “overly ambitious political goals” when the phrase actually means the “ambition to govern (or wield power)” or an “ambition that governs (controls) a person or thing.” This is actually a telling slip – as the main flaw in Scheiber’s argument is to confuse politics with policy. Obama certainly does have the “ambition to govern,” to wield the power of his office to tackle the problems facing the nation. One would expect every politician in Washington not in it purely for selfish reasons would have such an ambition. But this shouldn’t be confused with his political ambitiousness – and the question of whether he is tackling too much. The moment seems to call on many issues to be addressed – and Obama, in choosing to address them, may be taking on too much. In this way, he may suffer from the political hubris of thinking he can actually govern in a system that seems designed to thwart anyone who would take on any interest groups – but this is a far more complex picture than Scheiber’s short-handed way of calling on his readers to accept the right wing talking point that Obama is barely able to hold back as he grasps for more and more power.

Second, Scheiber suggests the alternative to Obama’s approach is “symbolically resonant tinkering.” What a depressing prospect that is! Certainly, it does provide a counterpoint to the “governing ambition” as it is more commonly used. If one is no longer able to govern and deal with the problems at hand, then one can only engage in symbolic gestures that do little. If Obama is no longer able to govern, but must instead engage in the same political theater that Republicans have been engaged in since his election, then the country loses as we put off needed reforms even longer.

What drags Scheiber off the rails is his focus on politics rather than policy. Obama’s policies involve moderate tinkering with the status quo; his political challenge though is audacious – to govern and address the fiscal crisis, our dysfunctional health care system, inequality, tax reform, immigration, energy policy, pollution – rather than engage in political theater. His agenda is audacious because the problem facing us are significant – and because inaction and petty sniping have come to define the Freak Show that is our politics.