Friday, June 19, 2009

People Don't Want a Do-Gooder President

Everyone thinks that people that agree with them or are otherwise like them are more moral than people who disagree with them or are different. That's natural selection, baby.

Still, we can sort of distinguish between the goody-two-shoes in politics and those with a more direct connection to the dark lord. LBJ and Richard Nixon have their defenders: by any reasonable account, LBJ was the most successful liberal president other than FDR. But even their staunchest supporters would be unsurprised to find out they were on the wrong side of judgment day. Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney had basically the same politics, and Mulroney was certainly more successful, but if Mulroney told you what time it was, you'd double check.

Marnie asserted that in 2008, Americans were looking for someone more moral as President than GWB, and that Obama has disappointed them. Anyone who had illusions that Obama was something other than a successful Chicago machine politician because of his professorial demeanour and talents was mistaken. Obama's a calculating pol, which he has shown in his realist response to the Iranian fracas.

But were Americans looking for something else? Something more idealistic?

I doubt it.

Let's start with his base. Obama was the perfect embodiment of the McGovern coalition of high-status highly-educated cosmopolitan whites and racial/ethnic minorities. Did they love him because he was moralistic? No, they supported him because he was one of them

Next he won over the partisan liberals (the "Kossacks") who were initially attracted by John Edwards. This is one of the most tribalist groups in American society, for whom procedural scruples are the clearest sign of weakness of character. They were suspicious of his talk of bipartisanship and his professorial approach to ideas he disagrees with, but eventually decided he was the best they were going to get. THEY weren't looking for Jimmy Carter.

But Obama didn't get the whole of the Democratic coalition. In fact, as we may dimly recall, he had a rough ride in the second half of the primary contest. Was that because the other half of the Democratic coalition were looking for greater morality in public life? No, it was because HRC was able to make the white working-class part of the Democratic coalition wonder if this guy had the stones to fight for them.

So in the Democratic primary, no one was looking for idealism and niceness, and in fact the reputation for such characteristics was a liability.

What about the general election? "Yes, we can" and all that crap?

I seriously doubt that anyone not actually enrolled in a liberal arts university bought any of that. Again, it was a liability for Obama that he was putting that "inspirational" stuff forward. However, McCain was not able to capitalize as well as Ms. Clinton, because his Senatorial self-regard is tied up with his image of himself as above the partisan fray. His policy positions are pure moralism. So Obama was able to persuade people that he was old and crazy, and that his vice-presidential nominee was dumb and crazier, and won.

Also, there was a financial meltdown.

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