Newsweek's Tomasky: Obama's Screwed Because He Naively Believes in 'Civic Virtue'

To Michael Tomasky, Barack Obama's problem is not lack of leadership or a rigid fixation to liberal ideology.

No, it's just that the president is too darn decent a guy, a veritable Mr. Smith who's gone to Washington, but perhaps in this case without the Capraesque happy ending:

...let me offer a different explanation—one that’s a little deeper. The problem rests in the realm of political philosophy. Obama has beliefs about democratic governance, and about himself as president, that dictate his behavior in battles like the debt-ceiling brawl. These beliefs were a big part of what made him so inspirational to so many people before he won the 2008 election, but they have served him—and his voters, and the country—poorly since he took office, and especially since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

Obama believes in civic virtue, and in the idea that in a democracy it’s the duty of responsible leaders to reason together on behalf of something they all agree to call the common good. The fancy name for this theory of government in political-philosophy circles is civic republicanism: the “civic” part refers to action taken in the public sphere, while “republican” (a small-r republican and a big-R Republican are very different animals) signals a concern with tyrannical majorities and a faith that reasoned debate will produce a balanced result.

The Daily Beast and Newsweek contributor knows that sounds laughable and admitted as such in his next sentence:

You might be laughing already, but the concept has played a crucially important role in American history. Thomas Jefferson cherished and advanced civic-republican beliefs, as did James Madison.

But ultimately, Tomasky seems to lament, a belief in civic virtue is a fantasy and "thuggish" partisanship -- largely the fault of Republicans apparently -- is too ingrained in American political culture to overcome it:

A return to that kind of civic culture is what Obama hoped to bring about—all that talk about transforming politics. And that vision was key to his appeal during, and before, the campaign. The most famous sentence in Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech—“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America”—is a textbook civic-republican sentiment. After the thuggish, with-us-or-against-us posture of the Bush administration, it was something millions of Americans wanted to hear, and believe in.

Of course, Obama also has a penchant for red-meat rhetoric that appeals to liberal voters, but Tomasky ignored evidence of Obama's partisanship -- such as his "shared sacrifice" talk that is code for hiking taxes on high income earners -- while portraying Obama as a meek victim of political bullying by conservatives:

It would have been great if Obama’s theory had turned out to be correct. The right wing was always going to savage him, but maybe if the financial crisis had never happened he’d have stood a chance of uniting most of the country and isolating the “he’s a socialist” caucus to the fringe where it belongs. That, however, isn’t the hand he was dealt. So now what? He has to change. I wonder if he’s even capable of it, because discarding these beliefs will mean abandoning the fundamental premise of his presidency. But he has no choice. For one thing, he’s not even upholding his own values. A real civic republican doesn’t pay extortionists, as Obama did in the debt-ceiling debate; he calls them extortionists and leads the country on a better and truer path.

But more fundamentally, he’s in jeopardy. In Brinkley’s words, Obama’s presidency “is failing, and in danger of collapsing.” Lacerating battles await him on the budget (surprise: the debt deal didn’t solve everything!). The economy is grounded. Obama needs to quit trying to transform politics and just focus on winning fights on behalf of a careworn middle class. Otherwise, politics is going to transform him into a nicely intentioned one-term president.

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Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters