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Jewish Journal

Obama, in the eyes of an activist liberal

By JONATHAN KIRSCH, BOOK EDITOR

February 10, 2011 | 11:50 am

Barack Obama has been fated to lead the nation in interesting times, including a free-fall recession, a natural disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a bitter and ongoing battle over healthcare reform, and the sea-changes that are only now welling up in the Middle East.

That’s why Obama has been criticized from all sides of the political spectrum, including the progressives who were his core constituency in 2008.  One of his disappointed supporters is bestselling author and Nation columnist Eric Alterman — “as a liberal who believes in the power of public rhetoric,” he announces, “I deeply regret Obama’s decision to turn dealmaker overnight” — but Alterman is willing to argue that the fault lies not in Obama himself but rather in the political system in which he is forced to operate.

“For the truth, dear reader, is that it does not matter much who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination,” writes Alterman in “Kabuki Democracy: The System v. Barack Obama” (Nation Books: $14.99). “The far more important fact for progressive purposes is simply this: The system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.”

One noteworthy fact about Alterman’s provocative new book is how it came into existence.  Last July, Alterman posted an essay about Obama at the online edition of The Nation magazine.  Now he has revised and expanded his urgent ideas and offers them to print-on-paper readers in book format.  In doing so, he offers a way to reframe our perceptions of the Obama presidency in particular and American politics in general in new and challenging ways.

Alterman begins by putting the blame where it really belongs: “It’s as if Bush and Cheney left one time bomb after another,” he observes, “and the Obama administration is being held responsible for failing to predict where and when each one will explode.”  He also points out that progressives can be hindered by their own mind-set: “The self-critical element of the progressive mind is probably a healthy thing,” Obama himself once said, “but it can also be debilitating.”
And Alterman holds the Republicans responsible for adopting obstructionism as a strategy for winning elections even if it means slowing or even shutting down the democratic process.

“The Senate is a drainpipe that can be blocked by the tiniest speck of obstruction,” he points out. “The shamelessness of Obama’s opposition in exploiting the system’s vulnerability in this respect must be an essential component of any sensible analysis of any progressive president’s ability to honor his campaign promises.”

To his credit, Alterman names names and crunches numbers, and that’s what makes “Kabuki Democracy” an open-eyed look inside the sausage factory of American politics.  Thus, for example, he plumbs the depths of the fundraising apparatus that throws its manipulative messages onto television screens across America. “What one Obama calls this ‘grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires,’” explains Alterman, “is quite a racket, almost comical in its underlying hypocrisy.”

He also points out the scandalous phenomenon of Fox television, which has employed at least four likely candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign (“Republicans originally thought Fox worked for us,” conservative pundit David Frum once said, “and now we are discovering that we work for Fox”) and provides what Alterman calls “all-but-official sponsorship of the Tea Party movement.”  Glenn Beck, for example, has been characterized as “little more than a ‘symphony of anti-Semitic dog whistles,’” writes Alterman (quoting journalist Michelle Goldberg).  The prominence of Fox in American politics “presents a barrier to Obama and his agenda that no president has faced before.”

Alterman, like the activist he truly is, is not content with telling us what’s wrong with the body politic — he also offers a cure.  “We need a system that has fairer rules, that diminishes the role of money, and that encourages politicians and journalists to honestly investigate and portray the realities they actually observe, thereby reducing the distorting lens of finance, ideology, and ignorance,” he concludes. 

There’s a certain heartbreaking contradiction at work in “Kabuki Democracy,” of course.  The system that Alterman seeks to reform is designed to resist precisely the kind of changes that he wants to make. Indeed, that’s the whole point of his argument. But, again like a true progressive, Alterman is undaunted.

“None of these tasks are likely to be as simple and easy as electing Barack Obama president of the United States was,” he quips, “though to be fair, none look quite as difficult as did electing a certain African American state senator with a name that rhymed with ‘Osama’ and had ‘Hussein’ in the middle as president just five years [ago].”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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