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Barack Obama was good at running for President when he was a Rorschach figure upon whom all but the most retrograde voters could project their hopes. Were there not inordinately many retrogrades among us, he’d have won by an unprecedented landslide. As it was, he won handily. Because he’ll be running effectively unopposed in 2012 ? no matter which flyweight the GOP nominates ? he’ll probably win handily again.
But “candidate” doesn’t count as a job and, even if it did, it would be a temp job at best. President is a real job, but Obama has been and will likely remain awful at it. His administration has been a disaster. I should qualify that: it has been a disaster for all but the “investor class,” the military brass (who boss their Commander-in-Chief around shamelessly) and other pillars of the National Security State, and for some of Washington’s most nefarious lobbies (who boss him around more shamelessly still). Needless to say, there are plenty of miscreants in each of these categories who complain anyway. But there are two jobs I can think of where Obama would excel. Too bad that one is politically impossible and the other, the one Obama would be best at by far, is Constitutionally proscribed. Constitutional niceties don’t get in Obama’s way when it comes to making war, infringing privacy rights and generally dishonoring the rule of law when circumstances call for legal action against “persons,” corporate and otherwise, who are too big to fail or whose prosecution would shake up the status quo. But when it comes to the job I have in mind, even Constitutional Law Professor Obama would have to take notice.
JOB ONE: Obama would be a great standard-bearer for the GOP or rather for its corporate, country club wing. He has the right politics, he’s smarter by far than any plausible rival, and he plainly enjoys consorting with old and new money.
But there are insurmountable obstacles in the way. For one, he already has a lock on the Democratic nomination, and fusion tickets (where several parties nominate the same candidate) are illegal in all but eight states. That’s not likely to change: in 1997, in Timmons v Twin Cities Area New Party, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that fusion is not a constitutionally protected civil right. And inasmuch as fusion would benefit “third” parties more than the two semi-official ones, the party establishments that run the states are not about to put their duopoly in jeopardy.
Another problem is that the GOP establishment cultivated so many useful idiots (Tea Partiers, social conservatives, doctrinaire libertarians and others) that they no longer run their own operation. Obama would be far better than Mitt Romney or anybody else they have in the offing for leading their party away from insanity. But even were it institutionally possible, there is no way the lunatics could be brought along.
But we can fantasize. Obstacles aside, Obama might begin by restoring Nixonian Republicanism; he could do that! I say “Nixonian” for want of a more appropriate model. Thoughtful Tea Partiers, if any exist, might disagree, but Herbert Hoover is too remote, and the continuing deification of Ronald Reagan has become a non-starter. Republican plutocrats, the smarter ones anyway, realize, even if most Democrats don’t, that “the Reagan Revolution” ? continued by every President since Reagan, including Clinton and Obama ? has run its course. They understand that the time is past due to “restart” the program.
A contemporary version of Eisenhower Republicanism would be better still but that would fall outside Obama’s ken; Ike was more of a New Dealer and less of a hawk than Obama could ever be. Thus only Nixon is left. It’s not a perfect fit: the Nobel laureate’s willingness to engage in what peace candidate Obama called “stupid wars,” though considerable, pales before Nixon’s criminal recklessness. And, on the other hand, if Obama has it in him to be as “progressive” as Nixon was in domestic affairs, he has yet to show signs of it. But at least he does have Nixon’s lawlessness down pat.
In any event, scratch that job off the list. It’s probably a good thing too: after all, a President of national unity ? hasn’t that been Obama’s shtick from Day One? — would still be a President, and that is not a job Obama does well. Republican standard-bearer is a different story, but there’s no way he could be that and not be President too.
And, in the final analysis, who, outside the GOP establishment, needs saner (aka “moderate”) Republicans anyway? To be sure, they are less noxious than other Republicans and most Democrats. But nothing worthwhile was lost when the Tea Party ran them off the metaphorical cliff. That might even have been a good thing. It was hardly fair, given what the others are like, but it did remove an entire strain of plutocratic flunkery from the political scene. Meanwhile, with the Republican Party in the thrall of Tea Party idiocy, there is at least the consolation of great late night comedy on TV.
JOB TWO: King. Obama is a lousy President, but he’s very good at giving vacuous, up-lifting speeches; and, despite what many justifiably disconcerted and angry but fatally misled and benighted (white) Americans think, he is an outstanding national symbol. In fact, as President, that’s about the only thing he is good for. In other words, he is good at the sort of thing constitutional monarchs do — or rather are supposed to do, but generally don’t.
Damn those pesky (small-r) republican founders for making a King Obama impossible! Thanks to them, our planet and its peoples are looking at four more years of self-defeating bipartisanship and sheer awfulness, mitigated only by the probably (but not obviously) true belief that the Republican alternative, whoever that turns out to be, would be even worse.
Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.