This is a corker of a topic idea from Ron, although a hard one to get a handle on since it could include most everything that’s happened in national politics in the last six years. Criticism of President Obama from the left gets very little mainstream news media coverage compared to the hurricane of opposition from the right. Yet it has been steady and fierce, even as the President’s critics acknowledge the extraordinarily awful situation he inherited, like a collapsing economy, failing wars, large budget deficits, a broken immigration system, etc. To simplify somewhat for discussion purposes, here’s my take on what arguments Obama’s progressive critics and his defenders make.
THE PROSECUTION’S CASE –
POLICY – Obama is not and never really was a true progressive. In fact, on domestic policy he has governed as just another centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, trying to push small, incremental changes in a country that’s problems are now so huge that small reforms achieve little. In foreign policy, Obama is little better than Bush-lite. He’s adopted all but the worst of W.’s policies in the war on terror and continued the permanent war footing of the Cold War. Despite Obama’s soaring campaign rhetoric, he has never wanted to be – much less tried to be – a transformational president.
Examples: Bank sector bailouts (too big, no strings attached, let the banks off the hook and more regulatory weak tea). Stimulus (too small) and the budget (too austere and he offered to put entitlements on the chopping block). Obamacare (too timid, not even aimed at single payer as the goal). Domestic spying and assassinations (flatly unconstitutional). War (too much). Immigration (the “deporter in chief’). Education (too anti-teacher). Climate (too little too late). Etc.
Tactics – Obama naively believed his own rhetoric of post-partisanship. During his entire first term, he mainly negotiated with himself, pre-compromising every proposal instead if realizing no compromises were possible with a fanatical GOP dedicated to destroying him and letting the country burn down so they could inherit its ashes. Had Obama been more realistic earlier and/or been a tougher negotiator, and/or better used the bully pulpit to rally the public to his cause, then he could have accomplished a lot more to help the country by moving it in a progressive direction.
Examples: Obamacare (pre-compromised to get imaginary GOP and blue dog Democrats’ support). Stimulus (too scared to propose a trillion dollar one, even though it was needed). Budget cuts and taxes (accepted large spending cuts which rewarded GOP blackmail). Cap and trade (gave up without trying to rally Hill or public support).
STRATEGY: Obama has failed to do all he can to wean the country off of the conservative framing/paradigm that says government is bad and regulation and taxes are evil. Nor has he done enough to cement the emerging Democratic coalition of White liberals, non-Whites, young people, and women.
Examples: In 2011, he allowed the national conversation to change from creating jobs and economic growth to counterproductive fiscal austerity. He never explained in simple language why austerity is a bad idea. Plus, what has Obama actually done to improve the fortunes and futures of young people and Americans of color?
THE DEFENSE’S CASE –
Historical: All presidents disappoint their most leftward or rightward wing. Most presidents also make any major accomplishments in their first couple of years and then spend the rest of their terms defending them from being reversed. Big, transformative progressive change is almost impossible in our constitutional system and only happens rarely. On foreign policy, all the post-WWII presidents have followed the same basic policy of U.S. dominance and policing of global hotspots, even if you hate it.
Examples: FDR and LBJ had huge congressional majorities and giant crises that mobilized public opinion, and even FDR spent most of 1934-39 playing defense. All but one 20th century presidents have lost seats in Congress in year 6 of their presidencies. Conservatives worship Reagan now, but considered him a moderate sell-out at the time. Everybody compromises when they must to advance the ball forward.
Inheritance: Obama had to make saving us from another Great Depression his top priority. This was destined it be a thankless task because the financial system had to be bailed out. Worse, the public was never going to reward Obama for preventing something (depression) that did not happen. Winding down Bush’s wars and slowly extricating us from an open-ended “war on terror” would never be called victories, either, even though they were very important. Much of Obama’s affirmative agenda was swallowed while he put out these fires.
Power of the Opposition: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate for only 184 days in his presidency, and that “majority” included a half dozen conservative Democrats that he had to compromise with on everything. This was because Republicans effectively altered the Constitution by filibustering every bill and every routine task of legislating. No president, not Lincoln or Reagan or FDR ever had to play by these rules.
Add these completely new rules for governing and a scorched-earth opposition party to the vastly powerful societal forces that fight all big progressive policy changes (corporations, right-wing media institutions) and you get guaranteed gridlock that no amount of presidential soapboxing could break.
And, lest we forget, liberals are a minority – around 20% at most – of American voters! Many support progressive policies when they understand them. But, most voters reflexively oppose most liberal ideas because they are liberal; i.e., unless and until someone clearly explains to them why they are good ideas. Oftentimes, not even then.
Obama Didn’t Fail: Finally, despite all of these obstacles, Obama has achieved a lot of progress towards progressive goals. That’s why conservatives hate him. Obama has now kept all of his major campaign promises (recommended) in foreign and domestic and has a long, long list of impressive achievements. He is building an enduring coalition, too, that turns out to vote for Democrats every four years. This president is playing a long game and he is winning it. See here or below for a full explanation.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who has been criticizing Obama from the Left? What do they want and expect from a Democratic president?
- What are these criticisms, in terms of, say, disagreement with Obama’s (1) policies and priorities, (2) tactics, and (3) long term strategy?
- Have any of these criticism had any impact on the course of action the Obama administration has pursued? Why/Why not?
- What are the major defenses to these criticisms? What more could Obama actually have accomplished if he had listened to his liberal critics? If you think he could not have gotten more out of Congress, what about with his foreign policy decisions or executive actions?
- Could Obama have done more in defeat? That is, by more fiercely attacking conservatives to change the conversation in a more progressive direction?
- What will happen to progressivism after Obama?
Note: There have been dozens of major pieces criticizing Obama from the Left. Here are a few of them and some rebuttals and defenses of the guy.
- Has Obama done a good job? Compared to what? Recommended.
- Attack #1: Obama is obstructing a progressive majority (by Thomas Frank, the What’s the matter with Kansas guy). Recommended.
- Rebuttal to Attack #1, plus another one. Recommended.
- Attack #2: Obama is really a conservative. Recommended.
- Attack #3: Obama has not used his rhetoric to change the story (by Drew Westin, the psychologist and language expert).
- Rebuttal to Attack #3.
- Other important or at least interesting points, IMO
- Obama’s long game will prove his critics – from both sides –wrong. Recommended.
- No, Wall Street has eaten the Democratic Party’s soul, Obama included.
- Obama’s timidity is a response to the huge forces arrayed against progressive change. Recommended.
- The Left is being unrealistic and does not understand the limits of presidential power.
Next Week: The News Media’s Bias