Is Obama “strong” or “weak”?

It’s regularly said, in the mainstream and on the left, that Obama is “weak,” or a “poor negotiator,” or too eager to “surrender” to Republicans, or simply a captive of the “bipartisan brand” that he danced with in the first place.

This is the constant explanation for Obama’s behavior; in Drew Westen’s terms, it’s the framing for any attempt to explain him. Dr. Westen himself, in fact, framed Obama this way in a Netroots Nation session on … controlling the framing. (I found it ironic — stunning, in fact — that a session on being aware of framing contained an unacknowledged frame buried in the example.)

Framing issues aside (that is, ad-agency manipulation aside), is this the reality of what Obama is doing? Is he the well-meaning but ineffective “friend of the Left,” tragically hobbled by personal flaws or Tea Party circumstances?

In this explanation, Obama is playing poker with Republicans, and either can’t hear or can’t understand our clever advisory whispers into his shell-like ear.

There’s another explanation, of course — that Obama is one of our strongest presidents, though widely misunderstood. In this explanation, Obama is playing poker across the table from … us, the Left. And the whispers into his shell-like come from Republicans and Clintonistas, i.e., Movement Conservatives and NeoLiberals. He wants what they all want; he just wants his own machine to be in charge of the profits and benefits.

The trick? Keep the Left from knowing they’re being played. The goal? Keep the game alive until 2013, when Obama is home free (at which point, Mr & Ms Left better seriously watch out).

So which is it? Here’s Matt Stoller on the subject (my emphasis):

Since the 1970s, Democratic elites have focused on breaking public sector unions and financializing the economy. Carter, not Reagan, started the defense build-up. Carter, not Reagan, lifted usury caps. Carter, not Reagan, first cut capital gains taxes. Clinton, not Bush, passed NAFTA. It isn’t the base of the Democratic party that did this, but then, voters in America have never had a lot of power because they are too disorganized. And there wasn’t a substantial grassroots movement to challenge this, either.

Obama continues this trend. It isn’t that he’s not fighting, he fights like hell for what he wants. He whipped incredibly aggressively for TARP, he has passed emergency war funding (breaking a campaign promise) several times, and nearly broke the arms of feckless liberals in the process. I mean, when Bernie Sanders did the filiBernie, Obama flirted with Bernie’s potential 2012 GOP challenger. Obama just wants policies that cement the status of a aristocratic class, with crumbs for everyone else (Republican elites disagree in that they hate anyone but elites getting crumbs). And he will fight for them.

There is simply no basis for arguing that Democratic elites are pursuing poor strategy anymore. They are achieving an enormous amount of leverage within the party. Consider the following. Despite Obama violating every core tenet of what might have been considered the Democratic Party platform, from supporting foreclosures to destroying civil liberties to torturing political dissidents to wrecking unions, Obama has no viable primary challenger.

Stoller concludes with our familiar poker metaphor:

A lot of people think that Obama is a bad poker player, but they miss the point. He’s not playing with his money, he’s playing with YOUR money. You are the weak hand at the table, he’s colluding with the other players.

Or as they say: Look around the table. If you don’t see the mark, it’s you. (Want proof? Whose stack of chips is going down?)

So three questions and/or observations from this:

(1) What do you think? Is Obama strong or weak? Feel free to weigh in with your comments if you wish.

Note: Your answer will determine how to deal with him in 2012. How should the Left treat the Dem candidate as you envision him?

(2) Back to framing. Even if you think he’s strong, consider whether it might be more effective to say he’s weak anyway, and say it loudly.

I don’t mean say it to the Left; say it to Obama. It’s upsetting to be called weak to your face. Maybe that attack will throw him off his game — make him miss that next easy lay up, or “get his goat” as John would say. Your thoughts?

And (3) A clarification on primary challengers (see the bottom of this post), as opposed to third-party candidates.

If you primary a candidate, you work within the party to take it over and unseat its ruling faction. If you lose, you get to play the next time.

If you third-party a candidate, you’re bidding to destroy the party. If you lose, you never get to play the inside game again. So if you go the third party route, you’d better win; it’s pretty much all or nothing on one throw. And I agree with Stirling Newberry — the only third-party group that could unseat the Dems as a party is Big Labor, by abandoning them.

Oh, and just to be clear, that primary challenge should come from the Left — the actual Left, not from a left-of-Obama right-wing hack like Evan Bayh.

Your thoughts? I’d be glad to see them.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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