Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Obama and the Bad Boys

Can’t the President get mad at anybody? At his press conference, Barack Obama observes that Vladimir Putin has “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom” and Republicans are in the grip of an “ideological fixation...The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea.”

Nonetheless, he continues to present himself as a reasonable antagonist for the Russians and the Tea Party, a position that may reflect reality but is not getting him much traction in foreign relations or domestic policy.

Even his admirers are left to wonder whether Obama’s even disposition and professorial bent are handicapping him in the White House. Would being more devious and willing to get down into the mud with antagonists work better?

Politics has never been rational but is now less so than ever. To be effective in this atmosphere, you have to be more than right on the issues. A bit of the low cunning of LBJ and even Nixon, without their failure to understand boundaries, might not be amiss.

Take the Snowden flap, for example. Why did the White House from the start inflate his importance rather than dismiss him as a low-level criminal and concentrate on the issue rather than the man? Wasn’t it foreseeable that Putin might use him as a pawn?

Take the Tea Party for another. Against all odds in 1948, Harry Truman lambasted the “do nothing, good for nothing” GOP Congress and won an unlikely election. Can’t Obama see that, in politics, you can blast your opposition but keep smiling for photographs while trying to make deals with them off camera?

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed 20 years ago that we were in an era of “Defining Deviancy Down,” he was understating where politics was going.

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the late New York Senator wrote in his now-famous American Scholar article, arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

He pointed out that, in 1929, the killing of seven gangsters in Chicago became the stuff of legend while half a century later “Los Angeles has the equivalent of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre every weekend.”

What Barack Obama might concentrate on now is the difference between being deviant and devious.

He may pride himself on being neither, but as JFK said, life is unfair and you have to make some hard choices to survive politically.  

Update: Maureen Dowd sums up Obama’sapproach: “There is no moral high ground that he does not seek to occupy. As with drones and gay marriage, he seems peeved that we were insufficiently patient with his own private study of the matter. Why won’t the country agree to entrust itself to his fine mind?”

Not until he shows more heart and anger.

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