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Barack Obama’s Assault on Purity

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Barack Obama in Milan, Italy on 5/9/2017 © Paolo Bona / Shutterstock

April 10, 2019 19:08 EDT

In Berlin, Barack Obama announces his foundation’s global mission to effectuate “amazing change” by avoiding asking for too much or, it seems, for anything at all. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Former US President Barack Obama put in a good word for impurity at a town hall meeting in Berlin, Germany. He complained that progressives in the Democratic Party had a tendency to manifest “a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be,’ and then we start sometimes creating what’s called a circular firing squad where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.” The unfortunate consequence, he insisted, is that “the movement weakens.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


An unreasonable commitment to principles leading to the failure to be accepted by those who have no principles and those who, even though they have some, have understood that it is more comfortable to pretend they don’t exist. An unforgivable social and especially political error.

Contextual note 

In his speech, the former president cited the aim of the Obama Foundation: “to make even more amazing change.” This may be another way of saying: We haven’t offered much, but don’t suppose for a minute that we haven’t finished not offering much, so count on us to do more of the same.

Obama’s reasoning is what most people call “realistic,” and his advice is the key to survival and personal success in the political world. As he says: “Democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you, and that by definition means you’re not going to get 100% of what you want.” He’s right, but he carefully avoids defining the type of strategy that allows you to get, for example, 40%, 50% or 60% and avoid the usual fate of ending up with 5 to 10%. The advantage of his percentage-based rhetoric that takes the position of not insisting on proposing 100% is that anything better than 0% can be proclaimed a win.

To justify his less than pure attitude, Obama cited a very pertinent example: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security reform that was meant to be universal, but because of the objections of racist Southern Democrats, in its initial version excluded domestic workers — maids and servants — who, at that moment of history, were mostly black. He maintained that if Roosevelt had insisted on truly universal coverage, the law would never have passed. But once it was in place, it became possible further down the line to amend the law to cover domestic help as well.

The idea of reform in two or more stages actually does make a lot of sense and may, in most cases, be the only effective formula for deep reform. But does Obama believe the Democratic progressives — the Sanders, Warrens, Gabbards, for example — will refuse to compromise? That is what he’s suggesting. But this amounts to confusing what people do in the heat of a negotiation with how they initially define their negotiating position. Obama supposes that today’s progressives lack the flexibility that he demonstrated as president. The real difference is that to show flexibility, you must first show in relation to what you are willing to be flexible.

Historical note

Obama’s allusion to the circular firing squad reveals what’s really behind his criticism of progressives. When he identifies the danger of causing the “movement” to “weaken,” we understand that by “movement” he means the Democratic Party. Democrats must not criticize Democrats, or at least — as he is doing here — only criticize Democrats who criticize Democrats (i.e., rigid progressives who criticize flexible establishment Democrats).

But not everyone would agree that the party is a movement. Many see it is as the opposite of a movement, as something that is fundamentally immobile, content to manage as benevolently as possible what’s already there, from military budgets to legislation that, in the name of security and stability, favors those whose position is already secure. Progressive voices in the party have attained prominence precisely because the Democratic Party has shown so little willingness to respond creatively to major crises, to push things forward or even to announce a clear negotiating position from which to engage a debate.

Worse, Obama himself generated the enthusiasm required for his election in 2008 by promising movement and change, which his electorate understood to be deep reform and the calling into question of George W. Bush’s military adventurism. What he delivered was a refusal to call anything into question and simply to slow down some of the erratic forward movement that Bush had created. He also delivered stirring sermons about democratic ideals and regret for some of things that he couldn’t stop — such as mass shootings — while not regretting his own military policies and their consequences, which were different from Bush’s only in promotional style and technology (drones instead of carpet bombing). In the parlance of a poker player, he saw Bush’s 100% and raised him 10%.

Vanity Fair analyzed Obama’s position as a choice between shaking things up and doing the establishment’s business. Its verdict: “Siding with the establishment certainly earned him plenty of defenders, and it was the safer choice. But it also came at great cost.”

Barack Obama is the opposite of Donald Trump, who insists on wildly inappropriate and unachievable objectives to wear his opposition down. He then follows his radical win-lose logic — in which he refuses to listen to the other side — until it achieves a partial victory achieved, usually because the other party loses patience with a blocked situation. But Obama is also the opposite of most seasoned negotiators in that he starts out by denying his commitment to what he wants to achieve. He makes it clear from the start that he will feel happy getting 5% but hopes he might get 10.

The Democratic establishment has repeatedly demonstrated its talent for making strategic mistakes, the most severe of which is its refusal acknowledge them. The Russiagate fiasco stemmed entirely from the party’s seeking to place the blame for its own defeat in 2016 in someone else’s lap. This may be the faux pas that guarantees Trump’s re-election in 2020 since it brands the establishment Democrats as clueless liars and inept manipulators, who don’t even know what they stand for, outwitted by Trump, the clever liar and manipulator who knows what he stands for: defending white America’s purity!

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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