Dealing With the Clear Winner

Those who take their cues on how to live life, and instruct their kids on how to succeed in this cruel world, are fond of citing that impossibly successful football coach Vince Lombardi – winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, and show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. The message is clear enough – never give up, never surrender, and also never complain and never explain. It’s probably best not to tell the kid that Vince Lombardi was an uneasy obsessive-compulsive manic-depressive – “And the trouble with me is that my ego just can’t accept a loss. I suppose that if I were more perfectly adjusted, I would toss off defeat, but my name is on this ball club. Thirty-six men publicly reflect me and reflect on me, and it’s a matter of my pride.” And then he’d shut down and stare at the wall.

Pride, in reasonable amounts, is a good thing – everyone should take pride in what they do. And losing is no fun, but it is possible to tell the kid to try harder and play smarter and maybe next time he’ll win, so let it go and move on. It’s even possible to tell the kid it might be best to try something else, something he might actually enjoy, and give that a go. Win at something else – join the chess club or something. Just find where you feel comfortable and competent. Everyone has different gifts, and every parent wants their kid to grow up confident and self-assured, so this becomes a matter of finding the right scenario that allows that. There’s no need to brood about missing the tackle and losing the big game. That’s football-specific. Heck, the kid might have been meant to be the best accordion-player or sushi-chef the world has ever seen, or at least a decent and thoughtful person. Vince Lombardi is the wrong guy to cite. Show me a loser and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t yet found what he really should have been doing in the first place. That could be true too.

And don’t bring up Lance Armstrong, who just admitted he lied and cheated and bullied people for more than a decade, to win bicycle races, of all things. Bicycle races? The very few who now still defend him say that at least the guy was willing to do anything to win, and that should count for something, in a sort of Vince Lombardi way. You have to admire his fierce and unyielding competitive spirit. No, you don’t. Sometimes winning isn’t worth it, if that was winning at all in Lance Armstrong’s case. One of the things a parent might explain to his kid is that everyone often loses – it happens all the time, to everyone, in so many ways – and well-adjusted adults don’t shut down and stare at the wall, or pump themselves up with human growth hormones and steroids and whatnot. They let it go and move on to something else.

Don’t tell the Republicans. Obama won the presidency again, fair and square, with the majority of the vote, again – which hasn’t happened twice in a row very often. The people have spoken, rather decisively, again. It’s time to let it go and move on to something else. If folks want the government to do useful things for everyone – which the election showed again – stop saying the government is inherently evil and should do nothing much at all. Shift to making arguments about just what those specific things should be. You might actually get at least some of what you want. It sure beats trying to devise ever more clever ways of making sure massive numbers of the wrong sort of people can’t vote, or have to stand in line for eleven hours to vote. That just pisses them off and they find a way to vote against you, often out of spite. Don’t begrudge Obama his victory – find out what you really should have been doing in the first place. Forget Vince Lombardi. He was a strange man.

This came to a head on Inauguration Day – a day of vast crowds and parades in Washington, and balls and luncheons, and Obama’s inauguration speech on what he thinks his reelection means and, in turn, what he plans for the next four years, now that he doesn’t have to worry about being elected ever again. He’s allowed. He won. You guys didn’t.

CNN’s Political Ticker reports that the Republicans didn’t take this well – former President Bush didn’t show up, for obvious health reasons, and the other former President Bush, the younger one, didn’t show up either. They sent kind words. Mitt Romney spent the day out here in La Jolla. In Washington, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, of the perpetually angry Republican-controlled House, were stiffly and formally gracious, going through the motions. And then there was the speech:

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity described Obama’s address as “a harshly ideological, aggressively partisan speech more appropriate for the campaign trail than for the solemn occasion of his inaugural ceremony. His address read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top. Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”

There’s also this:

Congressman Peter King of New York wasn’t convinced Obama was reciprocating any bi-partisan spirit. “I guess he wants to get a little revenge,” King said on CNN.

“I think he should not be as – I don’t know if arrogant is the right word. He won the election. I give him credit for that, he won it, he won it fair and square, no doubt about that,” he said. “But I think there’s been a tone of almost like an imperious tone the last few times.”

Yeah, but he won. He gets to talk about what concerns those who voted for him, now known as the majority. That’s not imperious. That’s life, in a democracy. Philip Klein, in the hyper-right Washington Examiner, was aghast that Obama didn’t talk about the most pressing issue we’ve ever faced – the massive national debt. Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider says all is lost – as the economy recovers, as it seems it will, the debt will drop and be manageable, and not be an issue any longer, so the folks on his side will have to find another way to argue that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid should be clipped and shrunk, again and again, until they disappear entirely. That ship has sailed, the formerly useful debt-panic ship. Obama said there’s no need to panic, and explained why. Rats!

As for what Obama said – that and more – the transcript is here and the New York Times’ summery here – but John Dickerson at Slate is quite useful:

In 2009, Barack Obama’s inauguration was a civil rights turning point. In his 2013 inaugural address, he sang the song of America’s civil rights progress. He talked about how the growing support for the rights of women, African-Americans, and gays affirmed the essential promise in the Declaration of Independence. At a time when Washington seems so tiny you could fit it into your pocket, he asked everyone to look up from their Twitter feed to see how much had changed around them.

We’re talking progress:

In his first inaugural address, the president cited familiar turning points in American history: “Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.” This time, the historical heroes were straight from his electoral coalition. He named the crucible moments in women’s rights, gay rights, and African-American rights: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

The president framed these advancements as a natural extension of the American experiment.

It’s hard to argue with that, and then there was the pivot, to climate change, immigration, gun control, and a budget where the middle class was protected and so on:

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began – for our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

He won. He can say that even if every item is what the other guys are fighting against, and Dickerson notes how this must have upset them:

What Republicans heard was a tone poem from the president to growing government. If a Republican president had been speaking, there would have been paragraph after paragraph about tackling the deficit, the sapping evil of the federal government, and the danger the country’s mounting debt poses to personal liberty. Obama barely mentioned the deficit. When he did, it was to warn against excessive spending reductions. The president passed by the deficit on his way to making a larger point about government spending. Obama said, “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” This is familiar language he uses when dealing with Republicans – and they rightly hear it that way.

The message was clear:

Conjuring House Republicans – perhaps his most obvious target – he said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” On the issue of climate change, first-term President Obama might have called on lawmakers to reason together. Not this time. He framed the issue – which faltered in his first term in part because of Democratic opposition – by essentially calling his opponents flat-earthers: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said.

That was in-your-face stuff. He won. They didn’t, and he was more specific on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid – “They do not make us a nation of takers.” Nope – “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Take THAT, Paul Ryan!

Dickerson sees a new man here:

This partisan edge is in keeping with the new freedom the president is feeling. He had coffee with Republican leaders before the inauguration and talked about collective action and unity, but he doesn’t seem to be in a schmoozing mood. According to various White House aides – and the president himself – striving for comity just isn’t going to do him much good when it comes to getting things done. It’s not going to change minds in the House Republican caucus. Given that, the president has a low opinion of how much he can accomplish by making deals with John Boehner. As one White House adviser put it, speaking of the House speaker, “He’s a nice guy, but he can’t lead anyone to a deal.”

It is time to move on. In fact, the New York Times Ross Douthat offers a paraphrase of the speech:

I got tax increases without entitlement cuts, I flipped the script on the culture war, and now Marco Rubio is going to help me pass an immigration bill. I’m still up for a grand bargain, but I don’t need one: The economy’s limping back, the deficit should stabilize in the short run, and the long term – well, that’s my successor’s problem. I’d like to win on gun control and climate change, but I’ll settle for making the case and seeing whether a Biden administration (you only think I’m kidding) can finish the job. Sure, second terms can be dicey propositions. But as long as I don’t get impeached or start a land war in Asia, I’m feeling pretty good about my legacy. And oh, you centrist chin-strokers who kept saying I was no Clinton? You were absolutely right. I’m the liberal Reagan. Deal with it.

Alex Massie also hears echoes of Reagan, even if in an odd way:

You could see why comparisons with Ronald Reagan are not so far-fetched. It is not so much that Obama can deliver a decent speech (though he’s not as good a communicator as Reagan was) rather the manner in which he couches his argument. Obama, more than most politicians but rather like Reagan, talks in such a fashion that you suspect he finds it hard to believe that anyone could truly and honestly and decently disagree with him and certainly no intelligent or generous person could. The goodness of his ideas and his intentions is presumed; opposition to them must be predicated upon something sinister. Reagan could speak like this too and, like Obama, he made it seem as though there might be something disagreeable about disagreeing with the President.

James Fallows was simply surprised by the speech:

I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations – mine, at least. Four years ago, when people were expecting a barn-burner, the newly inaugurated president Obama gave a deliberately downbeat, sober-toned presentation about the long challenges ahead. Now – well, it’s almost as if he has won re-election and knows he will never have to run again and hears the clock ticking on his last chance to say what he cares about. If anyone were wondering whether Obama wanted to lower expectations for his second term … no, he apparently does not.

Ezra Klein offers this:

This was not a speech that assumed that the disagreements that split our politics are based on the psychodramas of the past nor that they will fall easily before the onslaught of the future. But it was a speech, more so than most Obama has offered, that signaled his intention to join the battle of ideas, to use his bully pulpit to make an aggressive and uncompromising case for why his side is right, and to not rest until the American people agree that the other side is wrong.

Jonathan Chait sees that too:

The Obama who begins his second term is much more acutely aware that the opposing party rejects, at the most philosophical level, the definition of the good that he has put forward as the national creed. Four years ago he expressed a jaunty confidence that the differences must be bridged. Today he committed himself to the same goal, but with a wariness borne of harsh experience.

Like the parent tells the kid, try harder and play smarter. That just might work. Kevin Drum notes this was already working at Fox News:

Sure enough, the Fox News commenters seem distinctly unhappy with this speech. Brit Hume is complaining that the economy is still terrible. Chris Wallace says Obama didn’t reach out to conservatives at all. Bret Baer thinks it was basically a challenge to Republicans not to try and mess with the welfare state. Megyn Kelly says that even the Washington Post thinks Obama is too liberal. And so far, we’ve only heard from the relatively moderate wing of Fox pundits.

They won’t get over this, and Andrew Sullivan explains why:

If you have long believed, as I have, that this man could easily become the liberal Reagan by the end of his second term… then this speech will not have surprised you. The president went out of his way to acknowledge the tradition of free enterprise, risk, individualism and all that fuels and furnishes the broad swathe of what might even now still be called American conservatism. This is not new; in fact, whenever you hear Obama extoll those virtues, you know what’s coming next.

Which is to say: All of that is simply not enough “in new times.” In an era of globalization, of soaring social and economic inequality, of growing debt, of crumbling infrastructure, and of technological revolution: we have to act collectively as well. We cannot balance the budget entirely by ourselves as individuals; or rebuild the country’s human capital without government investment in education; or provide the firmest foundation for capitalism to thrive if the system is rigged – and seen by most to be rigged – for the powerful and their interests alone. We have to make the tax code simpler to save our democracy from the lobbying locusts feeding relentlessly off it. We have to invest in physical and human capital more effectively if we are to meet the challenges of our age.

Rugged individualism and personal responsibility just won’t cut it anymore, which everyone but the Republicans seems to have recognized, instinctively or after reading a ton of economic theory and political and social history. We need to do what’s possible:

What he was saying, in other words, is that he is not interested in answering for all time the fundamental question of the role of government – because that question is simply not answerable for all time. We will never answer it definitively – because it is one of humankind’s greatest and deepest questions. At the same time, we live in a specific time with specific issues and new questions – and the difference between an ideologue and a statesman is that a statesman’s job is not to bang on forever about “freedom” or “equality” in the abstract (we can leave that to Fox and MSNBC), but to make the right prudential judgments in the moment, with limited knowledge, as best he can, in the interests of  us all.

Maybe it’s time to get serious and grow up – no more Vince Lombardi quotes, not now. Back in 1981, Reagan spoke of the evils of government, which Sullivan thinks was fine for its time, but that time is not this time, and Sullivan says Obama got these times just right:

I don’t want to imply this was not a self-confident center-left speech. Indeed, it was the first one in my adult lifetime that also seemed to carry a national mood with it. Instead of fearing a “world without boundaries,” Obama argued that Americans should relish it: “We are made for this moment.” But the challenges are so large that only collective solutions and government action can truly make a difference. The goal? The restoration of the “broad shoulders of the middle class” – a culturally conservative goal in these tectonic times.

The only thing that surprised Sullivan was the top-level stress on climate change:

I didn’t think he’d put such a strong emphasis on it so emphatically, when the carbon energy industry is thriving, and when the economy remains depressed. But I think he realizes, as we all do, that future generations may look back on us entirely through this prism of our collective failure to conserve the very planet we live on through a mass rush for global wealth whose consequences are unknowable and yet whose power continues to pummel the earth we once knew. I have no idea what this would mean – in my dreams, a carbon tax in tax reform – but it was heartening to see Obama return to it.

There was also the shift on foreign affairs:

We are in a different universe than four years ago in terms of context. He has ended one horrifyingly brutal and misguided war; he will end a second one that became almost a definition of mission creep. He has ended torture as an instrument of public policy, even as his drone war has decimated al Qaeda with (again) unknowable blowback and with definite sacrifices in terms of our civil liberties. But he also refused to engage in talk of “perpetual war” – a nice inversion of Kant and an accurate description of the neocon worldview that he has a chance to marginalize even further in the next few years.

As for the rest:

I think his obvious conviction that the powerless and poor need more government support, not less, moves him clearly into the liberal, progressive camp. But beneath all of it is a Toryism of sentiment, a Burkean and Niebuhrian understanding of liberal progress, a president with a grasp that tragedy and paradox stalk the human experience:

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

Anthony Quinton once called conservatism the “politics of imperfection.” I believe Obama to be, at his core, a fusion of that great conservative insight into human affairs with that great liberal passion for a better future for more and more human beings: something perfectible, but never perfect.

Deal with it. Everyone often loses – it happens all the time, to everyone, in so many ways – and well-adjusted adults don’t shut down and stare at the wall, and they certainly don’t shout no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and try to make sure nothing ever happens again, one way or the other. They do what they can, which means that now it’s up to the Republicans to join in and help, unless they find out what they really should have been doing in the first place, which clearly isn’t this political stuff. Imagine John Boehner as the best accordion-player the world has ever seen. He might enjoy that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Dealing With the Clear Winner

  1. BabaO says:

    Apart from the fact of the inaugeration, the only important thing going on in DC that is actually related to government and governing, and whether any new life might be breathed into it, is the issue of the “silent” filibuster. From what I read elsewhere this morning, apparently Reid likes his club more than he loves his country. There will be no return to the salutory open politics of the talking filibuster. Instead we will continue on with the image of the unknown hooded figure slipping the crumpled paper with the black spot on it under the Speaker’s door, thus blocking any damn bit of Senate business chosen for anihilation, and without any meaningful recourse.

    What unmittigated crap! Reid needs a course of whatever Lance Armstrong was doing. And people with a public pulpit need to shine a light on what is important to the mechanics of government, and not just the state of the paintjob.

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