David Bromwich: Obama and the measure of Lincoln

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

David Bromwich is my refuge from the chatter and fog of politics. Sterling Professor of English at Yale, he’s a close-reader and hard marker of Barack Obama — so hard as to flatter a struggling student’s potential. But when he measures our President against the Abraham Lincoln standard that Obama has sometimes aspired to, the report card gets ugly.

Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of June, 1858, two years before he ran for President — is the highest rung on the Lincoln test for consistency and fidelity to principle. (“A house divided against itself cannot stand. … this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”) President Obama’s UN speech on Palestinian statehood, a near complete reversal of the standard for Middle East peace articulated in his Cairo speech in June 2009, marks an embarrassing difference.

Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon had urged him not to use the “house divided” language from the Gospels. Lincoln answered him: “The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written… expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.” President Obama’s language, as Professor Bromwich hears and reads it, has come to seem “sedate… cautious… prudent… more trite than one knows it is possible for him to be. He is crisis-averse to the point of being malleable by his worse enemies.” On healthcare, on the environment, on Palestine-Israel, Bromwich is arguing, Obama has never laid down a principle, explained it and then stood by it.

Professor Bromwich is teaching Abraham Lincoln’s political thought at Yale and Chicago this semester. Yes, it’s an exalted standard, Bromwich grants, but we don’t have true self-government, he says “unless the voices of all the people are heard, and for the government to hear their voices doesn’t matter unless those voices have been informed.” A leader at the Lincoln level, in an inescapable crisis, owes the nation an explanation, an account of where we are and how we have arrived there. On such an account Obama might set out a principled, unequivocal path forward:

At a time of crisis you hope for something more than proficiency of maneuver. You hope for consistency of explanation and the kind of reassurance that can come to people in a democracy from actually learning from somebody who is leading them where they are headed. … It’s not beyond a capable president actually to give a lesson in history. What real leadership comes from is finding the principle and the action that goes with it on which people could agree though they don’t yet realize that they would agree, what they most care about it even though it hasn’t yet found words, what their longterm interests, not their present opinions are… [Leadership comes from] deciding what the commitments are, standing to them, and then repeating, phrase by phrase and precept by precept, what it is you believe and how B follows A and C follows B.

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  • bob drake

    Fascinating conversation that offers some explanation for what E.J. Dionne referred to as “Compromise you can believe in”.

    It’s amazing to think of all of the positive hopes that existed for this President at the time of his election. This new leader from the party of Roosevelt along with huge public support, control of both houses of Congress, idly sat by waiting for the opposition to frame every discussion while much of the punditocracy entertained discussion of who actually believed that the President was not an American citizen.

    One can only hope that in a second term he will learn that the country is in crisis and needs leadership.

  • Robert Zucchi

    A bracing discussion, featuring two public intellectuals who have sufficient confidence and grasp of the issues that they can effectively make their points in measured language.

    As for me, I’m more worked up than they. “Pusillanimous” is indeed another name for the Democratic Party and its putative leader in the White House. Up to a point I can be grateful that the Democrats are the party of “sweet reasonableness,” but not in the teeth of a recrudescence of nativism and know-nothingism, and the embrace of Clausewitz’s (dialectical) postulation that war is another form of politics, lately fused in this country with the Hitlerian doctrine that war must be perpetual.

    In the economic sphere, the Gilded Age has met and married plantation economics (free or nearly free labor, all profits to the Massa), and its spawn is class stratification (peeling paint in downtown Dixie, showplace homes for the grandees on the outskirts). Other offspring include the aforementioned gunslinger foreign policy, a Draconian penology, and unending blowhard boorishness in the pulpit and at the rostrum in the legislatures.

    Look, democracy is an ideology, and not a wished-for dominant gene-expression from natural selection. Or as Erich Fromm said so long ago, freedom must be c-h-o-s-e-n. Where are the ideological Democrats? Where among the citizenry are the small “d” ideological democrats? Democracy has its precepts, and they are binding on any nation that would wear democracy’s mantle.

    Fair and respectful treatment of all citizens; measured justice; equality of opportunity; defense, yes, but renunciation of wars of aggression; majority rule but with respect for minority rights; leading and legislating in a spirit of compromise. These (inter alia) define democracy … speech and behavior that seek to denature these principles are antidemocratic on their face.

  • chris

    For Robert Zucchi: You say what oft I’ve thought but ne’er so well expressed about democracy in all its essential dimensions. Sounds a lot like David Bromwich’s great subject, and my hero more and more: Edmund Burke. A lot of it is here.

  • nother

    Mr. Bromwich says that ““There has never been a moment in his Presidency or in the months just leading up to his Presidency where one could feel that he has laid down a principle…” Was not President Lincoln was accused of the same thing by the liberals such as Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist? Dinesh D’Souza puts it well here: “Lincoln knew that the statesman, unlike the moralist, cannot be content with making the case against slavery. He must find a way to implement his principles to the degree that circumstances permit.”

    To my mind Mr. Bromwich’s criticism moves beyond critique – it feels out of proportion in an odd way and somewhat emotional. My little theory is that many learned men were caught up in the hype of hope during Obama’s inauguration and each transferred their individual hopes onto him. Turns out the guy is mortal and now many of these reasoned men of letters feel resentful that they let their emotions get the best of them, so now they employ their biting reason to deconstruct the man. Yet often I find that it’s the myth they reveal for us with their scrutinies, not the man.

    Each man has his own reasons for projecting onto Obama. I think for some he was the great black hope, the final brick in the foundation of Reconstruction, and as such, expectations were that he would slide right into the chiseled-out principles laid out for him. Not the case.

    Mr. Bromwich would like him to stand up and say he’s a Democrat, to pick a team. I’m thinking that Mr. Obama’s idea of team is different. In “Dreams of my Father” Obama writes that the questions that drive him are “what is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me-for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.”

  • nother

    Robert Zucchi, you end your post with this: “…leading and legislating in a spirit of compromise. These (inter alia) define democracy…”

    And yet right before that you ask: “Where are the ideological Democrats?”

    Robert Zucchi, if you and I were to have coffee we’d probably find that we have similar ideology, but if you and I were asked to get off our high horse and govern – to lead and legislate in a spirit of compromise – I’m curious how you would reconcile your statements above.

  • Potter

    Bravo Robert Zucchi.
    I think we have to stop believing that Obama is going to change. Then if he does it will be a surprise. I say that assuming or hoping that he makes a second term and saves us from the current Republican line-up. Everyone single one of them I would dread as president.

    Maybe we should also stop comparing Obama to Lincoln except that we needed a Lincoln, someone exceptional, and except that he had our hopes and expectation up based on his 2008 campaign. And here I differ with David Bromwich with whom I otherwise totally agree. I am in awe of Bromwich’s ability to understand Obama psychologically and then express what many are feeling about him. Obama is capable of teaching, of educating. He did just that in his campaign, one particularly powerful speech on the economy in March of that year. It blew a lot of people away. He did it with his speech on race.

    What angered me from the first moment of his presidency, and continues to, is the feeling that he did not have to “take care of his base”- the people who elected him because they wanted to see movement in a certain direction. He did not have to (being averse to fighting) because, for one, where are they going to go at election time? Are they going to sit home? I think 2010 losses were at least partly due to Obama not teaching, not fighting back.

    Bromwich has it about Obama with regard to the recent speech at the UN which caved to Netanyahu. It disgusted me. So cautious, so prudent as to be incautious and imprudent, ultimately. How can we admire a man who does not act according to what he says and feels especially after a campaign about boldness and audacity? How can we not feel disappointment judging him on his own terms? He been running from Democrats and he has been running away from who he is in his heart. He lets us have a glimpse of that person from time to keep some of us hoping he will come out of hiding.

    I don’t think Clinton ever would have been great, but he was much more of a world president, loved practically everywhere it seemed. GW Bush, I can’t talk about except to say a nightmare and that I fear worse.

  • Ken

    David Bromwich is fast becoming one of my intellectual heroes. During the interview with Chris, Professor Bromwich feather-touched the issue of Obama’s character, which I distinguish from his behavior.

    Behavior reveals disposition, but not so much about actual thought and value and emotion: what one thinks and what one thinks about why he thinks it. President Obama remains a cipher, and increasingly I wonder if he is not a puzzle even to himself.

    A leader would think, “These are my values and beliefs; how do I get others to sign up and agree to support them?” A thoughtful man might ask himself the question, “What is it I think and why do I think it? What are the arguments in support of what I believe, and what are the countervailing arguments and how can I reconcile the two?”

    Yet there is no evidence that President Obama even believes it is necessary to ask himself these questions and that is the deepest source of frustration. Yet he continues to reverse himself again and again. A decent man of normal temperament would likely find himself frustrated that he seems to be reversing himself again and again, and ask, “Why? What can I do to be more consistent?”

    But the question supposes that there is a core set of values and beliefs with which President Obama can align his policies. And at this juncture there appears to be no reason to suppose he has unearthed values he is willing to stand up for. Compromise itself is not a value, it is an attitude. Obama’s problem is that he appears to have no fixed values with which to engage in discussions about compromise.

    I say this because he gives no sign of telling either the American people or the supporters who surround him what his values actually are.

  • Potter

    Ken: I think Obama is of the second persuasion, the thoughtful man. And then Obama, it seems, looks for the compromise, his own beliefs having been so weakened. It’s as if he is thinking “well the other side does have it’s points, it’s reasons.. and I must be practical about what is possible” And so he comes to an issue half having given in already, right or wrong. it’s not about right or wrong, or “ultimates”. Maybe it’s crass political thinking. But the results don’t seem to ask for repetition of this mode. Maybe he believes this is leadership. (I don’t.) I think he does ask himself these questions. Time and again he winds up in the middle, unclear, indecisive, with half a loaf solution when it might have been better to take a stand, educate in the meanwhile, leaving us still hungry for the right or better ( read that “tougher”) solution. Show us a fight for that at least. Time and again the complaint is that he does not fight… simply put.

    Why has he not tried to bridge the gap between the Palestinians and the Israeli’s? The usual answer is 2012 elections. That’s not greatness. I think he would be on much firmer ground if he did stick his neck out and do what he knows it right. Now he is thought of as weak, unhelpful to either side, afraid of Netanyahu. “Pusillanimous,” as David Bromwich put it.

  • Sutter

    Terrific discussion, Chris! (And hi to Nother and Potter — long time no see!)

  • nother

    Sutter! What the hell! Throw your weight around once in a while. Throw us a bone. Hope all is well, my friend.