Obama's Right Mistake

Robert Giroux/Getty Images
Robert Giroux/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is being pilloried from all sides. The far left doesn’t understand why corporate America and Wall Street bankers have not yet been rendered penniless by the government. What remains of the so-called Clinton left can’t understand why anyone would have a civil conversation with a Republican. The independents and a dwindling number of thinking Republicans hear the continuous roar of criticism and are beginning to assume that, heck, there sure is a lot of smoke; therefore, there must be a fire. And the far right, of course, is locked in a blood-chilling howl of undying outrage at the fact that the president of the United States is not just a Democrat, but he’s an African American, too.


Through it all, Obama has persisted in the effort to be reasoned, to be bipartisan, and to do the work of the American people in a manner worthy of respect. If commentators like David Brooks are to be believed, Obama’s mistake is tilting too far to the left and losing the middle. If commentators like Paul Krugman are to be believed, Obama’s mistake is trying to do business with Republicans in the first place, and thus poorly serving his broad core constituency.

I don’t think either position is quite right. If Obama has made a mistake it has been, to borrow the title of writer Walter Mosley’s recent book, “the right mistake.” In general, Obama’s first months sought to fashion public policies the value of which all the American people can see and understand. Specifically with regard to the recent massive health care reform effort, he tried to keep Republicans in the tent to fashion a plan that Americans across the political spectrum can embrace. If this effort is failing, it is not because it was misguided or improper to make the attempt.

The deeper charge is that political naiveté and weakness are the real dilemmas now confronting Obama’s health care reform effort. Without attempting to parse every aspect of the evolving legislation, let me say that the real problem here is much simpler. It involves a noxious combination of a failed media, political extremists on the right and a seemingly natural inclination for vicious internal fighting on the left. The end result is stagnation at a moment when we as a nation can least afford it.

Of the three problems, the failures of the media irk me the most. Journalists do have an obligation to report “the news.” They must also strive to do so in a manner that is as free as possible of bias. This stricture, however, does not relieve the media of an equal obligation to show good judgment. The absurd and alarmist claims made by critics of the Obama health care reform plans were too long treated as serious charges. Moreover, the readiness to transmit to the world the image of Obama with Hitler’s mustache and to seriously treat claims that he is a “socialist,” or now, according to the bigot Rush Limbaugh, a “fascist,” border on the criminally reckless.

More important for me, Obama is the quintessential cosmopolite. He is the community organizer; the small ‘d’ democrat, the natural born bridge-builder, the true avatar of tolerance, civility and affirmation of common humanity. That American news media have played a largely passive role as extremists depict him as a Hitlerian proto-fascist is a shame that will not soon be undone. A truly pathetic performance all around by our major media outlets.     

This brings me to the right-wing extremists. These people lost a free and fair election. Obama is right to sense that their hold on American politics will continue to diminish. Part of the “right mistake” here is for Obama to continue to hold out the hope and possibility of bipartisanship in order to reveal just how irrational, counterproductive, extreme and arguably dangerous many of the forces now driving the Republican Party have become. The moment reminds me less of the Clinton era’s failed health care reform effort and more of Newt Gingrich’s undoing as he sought to shut down the federal government. Clinton wisely let Gingrich’s destructive strategy play out. And it did so, thankfully, to Gingrich’s eventual undoing.


We all just spent several days extolling the career and accomplishments of the late Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy. He was the keeper of the liberal flame in American politics and yet managed regularly to work with Republicans on legislation that advanced his political commitments. There is much concern that the coming battle for successful health care reform will be much harder without his presence and the type of leadership he long provided.

And yet we don’t hear from the left that Kennedy failed his principles or core constituencies by having been such an effective bipartisan legislator. It puzzles and disappoints me that Obama faces such charges for attempting the same thing.


To be sure, the president has taken some unsure steps and committed some real errors in the handling of this issue. I share the view from some critics that Obama must now step out more strongly and clearly (and one hopes persuasively) with his message on health care reform. The moment for letting others carry the message is behind us. The president must take ownership of this issue and of the direction in which he wants this discussion to head.

As for Obama’s critics on the left, it may well be the case that the Republican Party is so thoroughly in the grip of extremists that “deal making” is impossible. I’m not convinced we’re quite at that point yet. For now, those on the left would do well to recognize the need to support Obama in this moment and in this particular fight rather than add to the embarrassing cacophony of self-indulgent critics.


Indeed, let me go a step farther and offer the modest proposal that those on the left recognize Obama as their best and finest hope, the keeper of the flame in our time, as Ted Kennedy did with his endorsement during the 2008 campaign. The effort at bipartisanship on health care reform may be nearing its end. But the fealty Obama has shown to creating such an ideological- and political party-spanning reach for a major policy change is in every respect the right mistake.

Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.