Because Ta-Nehisi Coates is a great writer, he was able to encapsulate my thoughts on Obama’s last lecture much more elegantly and succinctly, in this op-ed in the New York Times. You need to read it all for the full impact, but here’s my favorite part.

Obama, too, stands atop the work of a coalition of unhandy devils. In the fall of 2002, Chicago’s own professional left organized a rally to oppose the Iraq War and invited Mr. Obama to join them. He accepted, and the first unwitting steps to the White House were taken. It is considerably harder to imagine Mr. Obama’s path through the Democratic primary had he been just another pro-war Democrat insisting that the base activists stop whining.

Mr. Obama, of course, is not an activist but a politician held accountable by a broad national electorate. He is thus charged with the admittedly difficult task of nudging the country forward, even as he reflects it. That mission necessitates appreciating the art of compromise, but not fetishizing it […]

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously. In that business, Obama would do well to understand that while democracy depends on intelligent compromise, it also depends on the ill-tempered gripers and groaners out in the street.

The Party of Lincoln, whatever its present designs, has not forgotten this.

This is essentially what I was getting at about the role of principled dissent in our political system. Politics is not walled off to 535 members of Congress and the President. In fact, the President knows this. At the zero hour, when the debt limit neared the point of being reached, he called on the American people to make their voices heard. He massively narrowed the options for that activism, but he well understood the role of collective action and the impact it can make on a political debate. He just wants to steer that action, and control it, and channel it.

That has been the Obama way from the very beginning, when he tried – very successfully – to place the entire Democratic Party under his brand. He doesn’t want democracy to be messy. He doesn’t want the noise of politics to drown out the solutions on which he settles.

But that’s the very essence of democracy. It’s the essence of a system that allows disparate voices to be heard. It may not be comfortable for the political class, but after falling all over each other to run the country into the ground, the last thing we need is for them to be comfortable.

I see that the Administration is trying to reassure disappointed opinion leaders that they will be wise with the hatchet tools of austerity, that they will not go after the poor and the vulnerable and the sick. Somehow, at this late hour, the President has apparently realized that his supporters will not support him if they don’t feel like they’re being supported. But the key word there is actually “feel.” The level of support only delves down into assuring those at the top of the food chain that everything will be all right.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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