Peter Beinart's assessment of President Obama's speech last night is, as all of Beinart's work is, superb--except, I think, it is also fundamentally flawed in its perceptual emphasis, which is too sentimental. Here's Beinart's wrap-up:
[Obama] wants to be liked by his ideological opponents and by the powers that be. But he also knows that were he in his twenties today--a young man of color with a foreign parent and a foreign-sounding name--he might be among those activists challenging the vicious injustice of America’s immigration system. When Obama talked about "the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love," he wasn’t only comparing them to his daughters. He was comparing them to himself.
For progressives, this was always the real promise of Barack Obama. It was the promise that a black man with a Muslim name who had worked in Chicago’s ghettos—a man who had tasted what it means to a stranger in America—would bring that memory with him when he entered the White House. It’s a promise he fulfilled on Thursday night.
As an incurable political animal, perhaps I'm projecting; but Obama's executive action on immigration is properly seen, I'd argue, as much less an aspirational fulfillment of his progressive "promise" than as an austere, unemotional political act designed to split and consequently gut the Republican Party. There is little sentimentality in it.
For years Obama had no apparent problem with deporting thousands of undocumented workers away from their children, both of whom were pawns in a failed strategic game of political chicken with the intransigent opposition. Such is the coldness a chief executive must suffer, and Obama suffered it well. When that failed strategy became all too evident, however--far too belatedly, I might add--the president radically shifted gears, and last night was the product: a sentimental pitch concealing a cold political act, that of unnerving the GOP into fresh fits of party-wrecking insanity.
Still, I would also argue, Obama's political ruthlessness contains a great deal of humanity--even greater, in fact, than what Beinart envisions. As I observed two days ago, Obama could perform no higher national service than to expose, once and for all, the grinding malevolence of the contemporary Republican Party, which is already living up to expectations. Soon, the party will collapse on itself; Americans won't long tolerate unalloyed malevolence as a stand-alone political program.
Beinart talks of Obama "trigger[ing] the hatred of defenders of the status quo because, I suspect, he knows American history well enough to know that real moral progress doesn’t happen any other way." Yet "moral progress" is subordinate in Obama's calculations. He's chiefly pursuing the GOP's destruction.