Home > Current Affairs, Politics > A Barack Darkly: Andrew Sullivan on Obama Through Partisan Lenses

A Barack Darkly: Andrew Sullivan on Obama Through Partisan Lenses

As we stumble into 2012 with the usual heedless uncertainty of any democratic society, the always-epochal U.S. Presidential election has begun to loom up near the year’s end, its form becoming ever-more defined, like a line of peaks in the distance. I’ve weighed in repeatedly on the ever-shrinking cadre of Republican buffoons jostling for the right to challenge incumbent Barack Obama, but I’ve had only a bit to say about the President himself.

For all of the media attention being lavished on his putative challengers, elections like this one are always a referendum on the record of the incumbent. Whether the currently-favoured candidate Mitt Romney cruises to the GOP nomination or faces serious hurdles in state primaries in the following weeks, the right-wing sideshow will grind to an end soon enough and will be faced with the President’s formidable electoral machine. Although the policy and personality of his conservative opponent will no doubt factor into the electoral calculus, the core of the 2012 Presidential election will be about the American voting public decided how exactly they feel about Barack Obama all over again.

In the latest issue of Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan prefaces this coming choice with admirable clarity, summarizing Obama’s actual record of policy accomplishments instead of viewing him through the prism of unrealistic and ideologically-rigid expectations as his critics on not only the intransigent right but also on the utopian left. Any regular reader of Sullivan’s blog The Dish would not be unfamiliar with either his unaligned self-situating or his arguments, as he expresses the latter on a near-daily basis in response to the increasingly froth-mouthed accusations lobbed at the President that Sully strongly supports by his critics, especially those on the right.

Even his neck folds have vision!

Unfortunately, the nuances of the piece are betrayed by a moronically “controversial” headline on the cover calling Obama’s critics “dumb”. This is an epithet that Sullivan does not stoop to himself (he does roll with “wrong” and “deluded”, but the distinction is key), but such vulgar tabloid tactics are an adverse side effect of Sullivan’s recent alignment with Tina Brown and her Newsweek/Daily Beast empire. This is to say nothing of Sullivan’s own considerable handicaps as a commentator, namely his raging post-Thatcherite disdain for social democratic bureaucracy, his related weakness for glibertarian idealism, and his very British blindness to America’s contentious racial issues (in addition to being British, Sullivan is also gay and Catholic, if you can wrap your head around that; I’m still not sure how he manages to).

All of these issues were brought neatly together in his blog’s recent endorsement of libertarian hard-liner Ron Paul as GOP nominee, an official thumbs-up which was subsequently withdrawn in the midst of (not terribly new) revelations of noxiously racist rhetoric published years ago in newsletters under Paul’s name. Although Sullivan eventually shifted his Republican endorsement to the sober but hapless Jon Huntsman (who withdrew on Monday from a race he never should have entered) under pressure, his heart was clearly still with Paul. Although the episode demonstrated Sullivan’s admirable willingness to change his mind (not a common quality in the vociferous realm of American political punditry, to be sure), it also demonstrated his stubborn loyalty to outdated and disproven ideas and his unflattering habit of snarking at those who disagree.

Both of Sullivan’s GOP endorsements would have been chucked aside for the Democrat Obama in the general election, his Newsweek article makes it clear, though. The President’s not-too-hot, not-too-cold approach to nearly everything (even when some more extreme temperature variation would do some serious good) clearly appeals to him on a deep level. It appeals to me, too, for the record; I find the “only adult in the room” conception of Obama pretty accurate when the apoplectic petulance of his conservative opponents is taken into full and rounded consideration. I might myself make a chess analogy of Obama as a king piece, moving with patient deliberation against an opposing phalanx of zigzagging knights (Romney?), bishops (Santorum?), and pawns (Rick Perry, obviously) who will disappear from the board of play long before he’s checked, let alone checkmated. I’m not sure who his queen would be (Michelle Obama is an apt choice, although I’m not sure what exactly that implies about her role in his political career), but I like the effect of that analogy enough to stick with it.

But will American voters agree with Sullivan’s assessment in November? Is it even possible to determine with any degree of precision what those disparate millions casting their ballot one way or the other really think, feel, and perceive about the men (and very occasionally women) that receive their vote? I’ve written before about Obama as an icon, as a screen upon which to project the various home movies of American (sub)cultural identities. This is how this President is generally treated by both the left and the right, the former wishing he was what they thought he was, the latter terrified that he is what they think he is.

For all his faults in position-taking, the important contribution that Andrew Sullivan makes to the political discourse around Obama is to suggest that this President has his own essence, his own being, his own predilections and beliefs and goals. He has done what he has actually done and not what various Americans fancy he has done, for good or for ill. In a milieu of political discourse in which everything is filtered through a strong partisan lens, clarity of focus stands out all the more. Obama, whatever else can be speculated about him and his aims, has that, and Sullivan has it, too, at least on the subject of the President. One can only aspire to a similar quality as a writer and observer.

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Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

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