Sympathy for Obama?

Republicans excel at more than just getting their way through obstinacy.

They have a knack for defeating sound arguments by creating conditions that render their conclusions psychologically unsustainable, and a genius for taking advantage of issues on which there is a broad rightwing consensus. The viler a view is, the better they are at putting it to use.

Along those lines, they are now intent on making sure that the government of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, continues to dictate U.S, policies on matters of interest to it.

They put Netanyahu’s demands first because they have discovered that servility pays. It brings in the bucks, and it drives a wedge between the Obama administration and those Democrats in Congress for whom all roads lead to Tel Aviv.

In fairness, however, it must be said that, on Israel at least, the GOP leadership cannot take full credit. They get a lot of help from their friends – Christian Zionists and, on the Jewish side, the most rabid ethnocrats in creation. It helps that some of them are plutocrats too.

One of the things Republicans do best is take on the case against lesser evil voting – not the arguments, but the conclusion the arguments establish. I know this from experience.

They are also good at frustrating the efforts of President Drone, no matter what he sets out to do. He and I therefore have Republican-induced frustration in common.

This is why, notwithstanding all the harm he has done, I cannot help but feel sorry for Barack Obama. I am almost tempted to say that: “I feel his pain.”

But who wants to sound like the man destined to become America’s first First Sleaze Ball? Or will it be First Horndog? Hillary’s better half is in line for some such title, and will get it too unless Lady Luck shines on the Land of the Free by stopping that most loathsome of Democrats in her tracks.

Hillary, the generals’ and banksters’ friend. If this is how liberals plan on breaking through the glass ceiling, they should do some serious rethinking.

Many of them already are. However, they will need to think harder and more outside the box than they so far have. The problem is that if Elizabeth Warren’s views on the world outside America’s borders are better than Hillary’s, she is keeping the news a closely guarded secret, and she is throwing everybody off-scent by sending out contrary indications.

Another Clinton in the White House would be a disaster. But it would be a change for the worse only in degree. When it comes to keeping America’s perpetual war regime going, protecting and serving the rich and heinous, and making life worse for almost everybody – Barack Obama is no slouch.

However, unlike his likely successor, he has a saving grace: Obama is irresolute and therefore reluctant to jump blindly into situations that neither he nor his advisors comprehend.

Obama-style irresolution is hardly a virtue; for a leader in a healthier political environment, it would be a major failing. But in a world in which Democrats and Republicans vie to see which can superintend America’s decline more recklessly and with less grace, it is a blessing.

Obviously, I am no fan of the current President; I have trouble imagining how anybody could be. Still, if Clinton succeeds him, I would expect that, in the years to come, I, along with many others, will wish Obama were still in charge. For now, though, sympathy is the only positive feeling I can muster.

I empathize with him, I feel his pain, because we share a common problem: the Republican Party.

Like many others, I have argued repeatedly that Democrats and Republicans are too like-minded for the differences that separate them to matter except at the margins. And I have argued that even when the candidates that Democrats put on offer are less noxious than the Republicans running against them, siding with them on lesser evil grounds has more untoward consequences than benefits.

The case against lesser evil voting is compelling, but no sooner is it made than the level of execrableness on the Republican side swells to new, previously unimaginable heights – making lesser evilism look good again.

The mind says Yes, but the heart refuses to follow.

I have never voted for Obama, and I am proud of it. But I cannot deny that I felt relieved both times he won.

There may be opponents of lesser evil voting who genuinely didn’t care which candidate won in 2008 and 2012, but I have never met one. I wish I hadn’t cared; no doubt, other opponents of lesser evilism feel the same way.

It is disabling – politically and psychologically – when principles and feelings are out of line. But Republicans make a more harmonious union impossible.

Their method is simple and logical, and their execution is flawless. Every chance they get, they make themselves conspicuously and undeniably worse.

And so, instead of boldly proclaiming that we don’t care which party wins, we anti-lesser evilists find ourselves talking about thresholds beyond which lesser evil considerations shouldn’t matter – because beyond a certain point, the lesser evil is too awful to countenance. Or we dwell on the dynamic effects of lesser evil voting – on how it promotes a race to the bottom.

All true enough, but there is no denying that these arguments have a defensive ring. The conclusions follow from the premises, but, psychologically, we don’t really, unequivocally, believe them. How could we? How could anyone not want Republicans to lose, even if that means that Democrats win?

The case against lesser evilism is impeccable, but the conclusion is unbelievable; no right- minded person can think about today’s GOP and be truly indifferent.

Call it the Repugnancy Objection. It is very powerful.

One would think that Republicans would do their best to diminish its force by being or trying to be, less blatantly repugnant. Surely, they have an interest in encouraging opposition to their electoral rival – even when it comes from the Left.

Haven’t they heard that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?”  It looks like the answer is No.

The Obama administration has a problem with that maxim too, its foreign policy team especially. Think of how magisterially the Clinton State Department botched the American reaction to the Arab Spring; how, its “humanitarian interventions” against dictators who wouldn’t entirely tow the U.S. line, strengthened radical Islamist opposition to the United States.

What the Obama administration did in – or, rather, to – Libya is probably the most egregious example, but Obama’s continuing efforts to undo the Syrian government may have the most lasting effect. Doesn’t it bother anyone in the White House or Foggy Bottom that their enemy’s (Bashar al-Assad’s) enemy, his main nemesis, is – the Islamic State?

There is another possibility: that the Republicans know exactly what they are doing – that they have an implicit understanding with their Democratic counterparts to keep anti-lesser evilists on the margins of political life.

Because paranoia is mainly an affliction of the Right, most sensible people would steer clear of that hypothesis; it has “conspiracy theory” written all over it. I am not endorsing it. But I would point out that the two parties do sometimes collaborate to maintain their duopoly stranglehold.

This happens, very conspicuously, every ten years when state parties gerrymander Congressional districts, making sure that, no matter how much the state as a whole leans in one or the other direction, both beaks get a taste.

In any case, whether by design or just because that is how Republicans are, Republican repugnancy has lately been on the rise.

The recently concluded Iowa “freedom summit” of Republican Presidential wannabes, the prelude to the coming yearlong obsession with the Iowa caucuses – was a case in point.

Along with the New Hampshire primary, the Iowa caucuses are the closest we still come to “retail politics” at the national level in the United States. When they are over, unadulterated, money-driven hucksterism takes over completely.

Iowa and New Hampshire are therefore all there is for upstarts looking for a break. No wonder so many presidential wannabes turned up in Des Moines.

Mitt Romney wants to run again. Were he to become the nominee, it would be a boon to anti-lesser evilists everywhere – especially were he to run against Hillary Clinton – because it would then be from clear that the Democrat really is the lesser evil.

It is not even clear that Obama was the lesser evil last time. Romney could hardly have revived the Bush-Obama wars that Obama claimed to have wound down more than Obama did himself.   And the neocons he would have reempowered could hardly have been worse than the humanitarian interveners Obama listens too – even for getting a Cold War with Russia up and running again.

The difference is that if Romney were the one doing the harm, Democrats would fight back. When Obama is in office, their inveterate spinelessness, the defining feature of their party, is in full control.

However, Romney won’t get the nomination because hard core Republicans won’t let the party establishment foist him upon them again. They hate him not so much for his politics — no one, not even Romney himself, knows what his politics are — but for his disingenuousness. The man is a chameleon; Republican voters may not know much, but they know that, and they don’t like it.

Therefore, even were the people whom the corporate media euphemistically call “donors” to decide that Romney is the least bad contender running, as well they might, they know that he has about as much chance of winning the general election as, say, Mike Huckabee. Before it comes to that, they will drop him like yesterday’s lunch.

Jeb Bush is a non-starter too.

The House of Bush still stinks in the nostrils of decent people everywhere because brother George was the worst President ever. He could not have done the country and the world more harm – except by unleashing doomsday itself.

Jeb’s rightwing credentials are beyond dispute. He is supposed to be smarter than George W; how could he not be? And he is, by all accounts, the less pragmatic and more doctrinaire of the two; there is nothing the man doesn’t want to privatize. Public schools have been in his crosshairs for years. Hard core Republican voters like that.

Nevertheless, like Romney, he is, or is perceived to be, too progressive to get the plutocracy’s useful idiots fired up.   He is soft on Hispanics too.

It is still possible of course, that “the donors” will decide that, if they can’t have Romney again, and for want of a better alternative, Jeb must be their man. Don’t count on it though – they know that, if they push his case, they’d have nearly as much of a fight on their hands as they would with Mitt. This would not only assure a Democratic victory in 2016; it could split the Grand Old Party in ways that would render it useless to them.

The other candidate said to be attractive to plutocrats is Chris Christie. That won’t happen either; late night comedians aren’t that lucky.

Of the others, Ted Cruz is the only one who isn’t an intellectual featherweight. But his politics is as whacky as anybody’s, and he flaunts it. Cruz is a sure bet to scare off all but the whackiest of the whackos. There are many lost souls in these United States who fit that description, but not nearly enough to garner 270 electoral votes.

Like Cruz, Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker, has gotten a lot of press lately. What a dreadful excuse of a human being!   But for the Koch brothers and their ilk, he would be nothing.

And, but for Barack Obama’s malign neglect of the feckless candidates Democrats got to run against him – in the 2012 recall election and then in 2014 – he would now be looking forward to spending his declining years as a greeter in some godforsaken Wal-Mart in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Walker is such a menace that, were he somehow to become President, Obama would be remembered more for having chatted up zillionaires in Chicago and Minneapolis when he could have been campaigning against Walker in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine, than for his assassins and drones, or for his heedlessness of privacy rights and the rule of law domestically and internationally.

Marco Rubio will never catch on. The man is a sick joke; enough said about him. The others make Rubio look good.

In short, the “freedom summit” showed that the 2016 Presidential election is for the Democrats to lose; and that, for all their bumbling incompetence, they’d have a hard time doing even that — no matter who their candidate is.

It also proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Sarah Palin is past her expiration date – too bad, again, for late night comedians. She has embarrassed herself too many times even by their lights – not least by giving a rambling, barely coherent speech in Des Moines.

So much repugnancy!   But the Republicans who now want to be President are the least of it. For sheer outrageousness, in the short run anyway, the entire gaggle pales before John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress March 3, two weeks before the Israeli elections.

In his State of the Union address, Obama signaled, obliquely enough not to cause the furies to rain down upon him but plainly enough to be understood that, for once, he would not let the Israel lobby bully him — that the United States would try to reach a diplomatic settlement with Iran over some of the issues dividing the two countries.

The very next day, Boehner announced his bombshell.

More than Iowa Senator – and pig castrator and Koch brothers protégée– Joni Ernst’s official ‘rebuttal,” Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was the GOP’s reply.

Israel is not the only reason why the United States and Iran have “issues” that need resolution; not by any means. But the Israel lobby’s efforts are crucial for keeping those issues alive and for keeping the United States and Iran at odds.

The point of Boehner’s breach of diplomatic protocol was ostensibly to have “King Bibi” lecture Congress and the American people on the need to subvert on-going diplomatic efforts to achieve a workable modus vivendi between the United States and Iran — by ratcheting up U.S. and world sanctions.

The actual point, of course, was to stick it to Obama, and to frustrate his efforts.

For once, Obama was doing the right thing, and the leaders of the more repugnant of our two semi-established parties couldn’t bear it.

And so, they played the Netanyahu card or, more precisely, they let Netanyahu play them. As every thoughtful Israeli knows, Netanyahu’s reason for seeking out Boehner’s invitation, like his reason for provoking Hezbollah, was to enhance his prospects in the coming elections in March. Harming Iran would just be icing on the cake.

Netanyahu’s is a high-risk strategy that could easily backfire. It has already alienated the White House, still Israel’s main protector; and its sheer brazenness could turn many Israeli voters against him and his party. It will likely also accelerate the decline of the Israel lobby, that moribund but still feared Paper Tiger that is so vital to Israel “as we know it.”

Risky business, therefore, for Netanyahu, but for Boehner and the Republicans, inviting him to Washington was business as usual; anything to frustrate Obama’s designs.

National Public Radio’s “liberal” commentator, E.J. Dionne, blasted Boehner for turning U.S. support for Israel into a “political football.” All Americans love Israel, he opined; this is normal and good. Boehner is at fault only for putting this extra special relationship in jeopardy.

Democrats, who, until now, would never think of gainsaying the Bibster, are now saying much the same. The affront to their leader and standard-bearer is so obvious that they could hardly keep quiet.

Dionne’s “conservative” counterpart, the infallibly muddle-headed and always self-aggrandizing David Brooks, insisted that Boehner was fully “within his rights.” But he wished that his pal “Bibi” had turned down the invitation anyway. Why tempt the enemies of Israel?

What a piece of work Brooks is! Could he actually believe that his Bibi would turn down Boehner’s invitation?

He sought the damn thing out – for his own political gain. Too bad that NPR lacks both the understanding and the courage to explain this painfully obvious point to its “above average” audience.

Obama will refuse to meet with Netanyahu when he comes to Washington; he will say that he doesn’t want to interfere in the coming Israeli election. As he made plain two years ago, Netanyahu doesn’t even pretend to harbor similar scruples.

Despite the affront to Obama and the violation of diplomatic protocol, there are plenty of Democrats — Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, are flagrant examples – who can’t wait to jump up and down again, as they have twice before, cheering Netanyahu’s oration on.   May they sprain their groins!

“Too much light blinds us,” wrote Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Too much repugnance can make the case against lesser evilism stronger, especially when it spills over into Democratic ranks.

This seldom happens; usually the more repugnant party has enough sense to stand down when the situation warrants. Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu is the exception to the rule.

Thus this latest effort of his to frustrate Obama’s plans has, for now, neutralized the Repugnancy Objection. Before Boehner’s latest, it seemed – to the heart, if not the mind — that there might be something to choose between, say, Chuck Schumer and a garden variety Sheldon Adelson acolyte.  It no longer does.

But this is small consolation for critics of lesser evilism or, for that matter, for Barack Obama.

In any case, the impression won’t last. Most of the time, the repugnance edge is overwhelmingly on the Republican side.

Israel bollixes everything up, bringing out the worst in more than a few “liberals,” but regardless what diehard ethnocrats think, not everything is about the so-called “nation-state of the Jewish people.”

[If NPR feels obliged never to mention the Islamic State without putting “so-called” in front of its name, then why not the same with Netanyahu’s “nation-state of the Jewish people”? The two claims are similarly idiotic, and similarly false.]

And so, we are back where we were: the temptations of lesser evilism survive, notwithstanding the cogency of the case against it. And even those of us who would never vote for, say, Hillary Clinton – not even if she were running against Dick Cheney or the Devil Himself — will still feel relieved when she defeats whichever Republican she runs against.

Too much light blinds us, but, special cases apart, there is not enough repugnancy on earth to obliterate the perception that Republicans are qualitatively worse than Democrats, no matter how awful Democrats are.

And because Republicans are dead-set on ruining Obama by any means necessary, even if it means starting an even more devastating and counter-productive war than the ones the United States is already fighting, there is little chance that sympathy for Obama will go away any time soon.

It is unseemly to feel sympathy for someone who has done so much harm, but here is no keeping the sentiment down – not with Republicans relentlessly upping the ante.

Beware, though, that Obama has one more trick up his sleeve: it involves one of the cornerstones of the neoliberal era, “free trade.”

Obama is now pushing hard for “fast track” authority to finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The man who ran for office saying all the right things about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is now itching to force something far worse upon the United States and its trading partners.

How can Republicans up the ante on this? Why would they try? Unlike Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu, this is not about electoral gamesmanship. Untrammeled neoliberal trade is what the paymasters of both parties want.

And, as Obama well knows, or once knew, it is the last thing ninety-nine percent of the people living in the countries involved in the TPP negotiations need.

But if he gets his way now, he will finally have achieved the “bipartisan” cooperation he craves, at least in this one key area.

However, to get his way, Obama must first sell out his own base — lock, stock and barrel.  Only then can he make Republicans an offer they cannot refuse.

If he succeeds, the Repugnancy Objection will lose its bite even more surely than it did with the Netanyahu invitation. The equal awfulness of Democrats and Republicans will be plain for all to see.

And there will no longer be any reason to feel sorry for Obama. His Republican problem will be solved.

Here, indeed, is the irony. If Obama gets his way, the “middle class” that he mouthed on about in his State of the Union address, along with the poor and everyone else who is not filthy rich, will be worse off.

In due course, a similar trade agreement with the European Union will add to the calamity.

And, as Obama has hoped from Day One, both parties will be on board. The Republican-Tea Party Congress and the Obama White House will be on the same page.

If Obama gets his way, the only hope for ninety-nine percent of us will be the self-declared “Democratic wing” of his own decrepit Democratic Party. What a slender reed to grasp!

After Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, came on TV praising Obama’s proposals – all except his initiatives on trade. On that, he said that he and his colleagues would have to wait for the details before forming a judgment.

The Progressive Caucus, the left of the Congressional left, has more than seventy members, but the number of genuine progressives among them could, as they say, fit in a taxicab with room left over for luggage.

And so, when Obama makes milquetoast proposals on education and infrastructure that would have embarrassed Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon for their timidity – proposals that he and everyone else knows have no chance of passage, in any case – Congressional “progressives” along with The Nation magazine and countless other liberal outlets jump for joy.

How pathetic!  But unless an American equivalent of the Syriza Party in Greece or the Podemos Party in Spain emerges from out of nowhere, they are all that stand between our present sorry state and a future far 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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).