Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > "End Times for Obama": The Jacksonian Myth Lives On

Nov 14, 2013 8:51 pm


"End Times for Obama": The Jacksonian Myth Lives On



 "If everything -- everything -- isn’t fixed by Nov. 30, we’re looking at a presidency that is going to collapse into utter disaster." That's how Michael Tomasky sums up, quite accurately, the current media narrative on the troubled launch of Obamacare. Why is the "end times for Obama" meme turning up everywhere? Tomasky attributes it to a journalistic worldview that is always about "who is displaying mastery of the game and who is being mastered at any given moment ... a certain type of political journalism that so exists in the moment that numerous such moments have been declared to be disasters for Obama, going back to Jeremiah Wright."

No doubt that's part of the story. So is another piece of the journalism game, explained by David Gergen: The administration was " really riding high" during the government shutdown " because the Republicans were on the defensive" and ended up in utter defeat, as far as the mass media were concerned. Now the media need a president on the defensive, just to make the political game tense enough in the moment to keep their ratings up.

Still, no story has such powerful "legs" (as they say in the newsroom) unless a big segment of the public is already inclined to care about it. So we should dig deeper and ask why so many people are ready to believe that Obama and his administration are facing disaster when, logically speaking, nothing terrible has happened at all.

Yes, the website is a mess. But we are all accustomed to being frustrated by malfunctioning websites; it's just a normal part of life now. We are also accustomed to glitches in the rollout of government programs. Medicare Part D had major problems. The glaring "donut hole" didn't get repaired for years. Yet no one saw that program as the demise of the G.W. Bush administration. "In the end," as Paul Krugman wrote, "the program delivered lasting benefits, and woe unto any politician proposing that it be rolled back."

Most importantly, people who want or need to sign up for insurance under Obamacare still have a full four and a half months to do it. The current glitches, which apparently are huge, don't constitute an emergency by any stretch of the imagination.  

Yes, the president lied when he said no one would have to give up the insurance they already have. But we are all accustomed to presidents lying for political advantage. The question we ought to ask is: What are the consequences of the gap between the lie and the truth? If the consequences are, say, a disastrous eight years of war in Iraq, then that's something to be very upset about. If the consequences are that people will have to have better health insurance, for which a few will have to pay significantly more, we are in a very different ballpark.

Matthew Yglesias, among many others, makes a compelling case that "It’s Good That You Can’t Keep Your Insurance Plan." Insurers are only canceling plans that threatened their profits, he argues, plans they woud have canceled anyway once the insured got seriously ill.

So when Krugman wrote "the glitches of October won’t matter in the long run," he was giving the public credit for thinking the issue through reasonably. But by the end of that month he was starting to worry about the public's reasonableness: 

The biggest reason Obama and co. should be anxious to fix these things now, I’d argue, isn’t the fate of the program itself, which can survive even large early wobbles, but the midterm elections. If Obamacare is fixed, Republicans will be in the position of attacking a program that is benefiting millions of Americans; if it isn’t, they can still run against the legend, not the fact.

With a tweak of terminology, I'd say that Republicans will run -- indeed already are running, and have been for a long time -- against the mythic narrative that gave rise to Obamacare in the first place.

Obama's narrative about health care reform was consistent from the beginning. By saying that most Americans would experience no change he tried to steer the public conversation away from the question of how his reform would impact individuals. What he talked about, over and over again, was how it would improve the quality and outcomes of the nation's health care system as a whole, while reducing the cost for the nation as a whole.

Whether he was right or wrong about that isn't relevant to my point here. I'm simply saying that the president and the people who created Obamacare were telling a story about what would happen to the whole country, to all of us Americans en masse. That's apparently the way they looked at the issue. In any event, that's certainly the way they talked about it.

The Republican-led opposition to Obamacare was based on just the opposite narrative: Think about (and be frightened by) what will happen to you, as an individual, and to your own private family. The GOP never tried very hard to rebut the administration's claims about what would happen to the nation as a socioeconomic system. That simply wasn't relevant to their story.

The sense of catastrophe that pervades mass media reports about Obamacare now is based squarely on that Republican narrative. So many individuals are unhappy! That's all it amounts to. If the president were fully honest (which, let's face it, no president ever is), he'd say:

Well, we knew some individuals would be unhappy. We didn't expect so many to be unhappy. But it's really beside the point. Every systemic change makes some individuals unhappy. My job isn't to make every individual happy -- which would be impossible anyway. My job, indeed the job of any federal official, is to improve the quality of life for the nation as a whole.

Obama cannot say that and hope to survive politically because he never succeeded in winning the public at large over to his narrative. The rules of the political game are still defined by the current conservative narrative.

I emphasize "current" because a focus on individual satisfaction has not always been directly linked to what we now call conservatism; nor has a focus on the good of the nation as a whole always been linked to what we now call liberalism.

Consider the striking parallel between the difficulties Obama faces now and the difficulties that John Quincy Adams and his close political ally, Henry Clay, faced in their ongoing battle with Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. Adams and Clay were widely perceived, with good reason, as pro-big-business leaders. They were eager to unleash the budding capitalist energies of the corporate and financial sectors in their day.

For Adams and Clay, though, that eagerness was merely part of a larger program of improving the nation, a program that Clay dubbed "The American System." An equally important part was an ambitious series of improvements in transportation and infrastructure funded by the federal government.

Daniel Walker Howe, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning history of the era, says that "as Clay envisioned it, the American System ... would create, not division between the haves and have-nots, but a framework within which all could work harmoniously to improve themselves both individually and collectively." And the collective improvement would be the precondition of individual improvement. Adams and Clay, like Obama and his administration, focused most on what they thought was best for the nation as a whole, assuming that a more robust national economy would benefit everyone.

Perhaps Clay was fooling himself, thinking that his System would not widen the gap between haves and have-nots, since it was so tilted toward the interests of the emerging financial and corporate sectors. That's why we call him (and Adams), by our current standards, conservative.

Of course no one should call Obama anti-big-business, not by a long shot. But he is more open than his Republican foes to regulating the corporate and finance sectors. And it is hard to see how his health care reform would increase economic inequality. That's why we call him, by our current standards, more liberal than the GOP.

Yet his health care reform is built on the same mythic narrative of national improvement touted by the conservatives Clay and Adams -- a narrative that has become the heart and soul of what we now call liberalism.

We can see the origins of our modern liberal-conservative divide more clearly if we take a closer look back at the 1820s. Then, as now, opposition to a concern for national well-being was not based on opposition to the particulars of any policy. Jackson's support was not based on opposition to the American System or any other policy, says Howe: "Jackson possessed an appeal not based on issues; it derived from his image as a victor in battle, a frontiersman who had made it big, a man of decision who forged his own rules." In short, Jackson was the ultimate prototype of American "rugged individualism" -- a narrative that has become the heart and sould of what we now call conservatism.  

Howe cites another historian, Daniel Feller, to explain why Adams and Clay could never sell America on their American System. "The inclination of its people was for diffusion rather than discipline, toward self-determination and away from supervision, however benign." Everyone going their own way and doing their own thing, judging the value of any policy by the immediate fulfillment it gives individuals, has often been a winning narrative in American political life, at least since the 1820s. Apparently it still is today. That's why it's so easy for the media to sell the story of "end times for Obama."

Jackson also won lots of votes, says Howe, by initiating another "common and effective tactic in American politics: running against Washington, D.C." The more things have changed, it seems, the more they've stayed the same.

But Jackson really wasn't the first candidate for president to run against the power of the nation's capital. That honor belongs to Thomas Jefferson. It's not surprising that the aged Jefferson was among the harshest critics of the American System, because it would give so much power to the government in Washington, D.C.

Jefferson had always feared that a metropolitan center would dominate the American union of states -- what he called the "empire for liberty" -- turning it into a mirror image of the British empire dominated by the court in London that Jefferson had fought so bitterly. Jefferson wanted fervently to believe that the United States could flourish with a weak central government, but for just the opposite reason than the Jacksonians. TJ trusted that Americans would not be rugged individualists.

Peter Onuf, studying Jefferson's ideas of nationalism, wrote that TJ wanted "a federal union that preempted the concentration of despotic power in a domineering metropolis." Americans would be held together as a nation not by a powerful federal state but "by their harmonious interests, common principles, and reciprocal affections." That was the essence of Jeffersonian nationalism. He could believe in that vision because he believed in the innate benevolence of human nature.

"Yet," Onuf adds immediately, "as Jefferson discovered, these exalted expectations were repeatedly frustrated." So he felt "chronic concern that Americans would sink into a state of collective unconsciousness, forgetting that they were a people" -- that is, a society held together by reciprocal concern for all other Americans and thus for the national community as a whole.

Jefferson didn't live quite long enough to see his fears fully realized in Jackson's presidential victory of 1828 -- a victory for the new Jacksonian vision of nationalism as a stout assertion of rugged individualism.

But Barack Obama has lived long enough to see that victory in the panic engendered by the few brief weeks of the stumbling launch of his health care reform. The panic comes only from the mythic narrative dominating the nation: judging government by what it has done for me and my family very lately, in the current moment.

There's much more hanging on the fate of Obamacare than health care or the 2014 election, as important as those are. Obamacare is an effort to reassert the mythic narrative that Jefferson, Adams, Clay, and so many other American leaders have promoted -- a story of Americans concerned more about what happens to all of us as a nation than to any one of us as individuals. If Obamacare is ultimately judged a failure it will be yet another victory for the Jacksonian myth of rugged individualism.

The outcome doesn't depend on how many people can sign up for Obamacare by some arbitrary deadline or how many have to pay a bit more for new, improved insurance policies. Those facts will make headlines, but they will be only symbolic expressions of the underlying battle of myths. The outcome really depends on how hard each side fights for its myth.    


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