There is something at the heart of progressive politics that yearns to turn on its own. So it’s open season on Barack Obama.
It’s right to expect the assault from the right; the patently obvious plan there is to oppose, obstruct, deadlock, and depress the economy.
Now, from the other side of the spectrum, progressives and the Democratic chattering class are increasingly and, at times, even bitterly critical. Obama doesn’t fight enough, communicate enough, change enough. Even his great achievements are tainted: Health reform had no public option (which he never promised during the campaign); the stimulus was too small (even though it was the biggest bill he could pass, and the biggest anywhere on earth at any time in history); financial reform was too weak (even though it’s unprecedented in scope and strength since the New Deal).
Critics in Obama’s party and bloggers in his base swell the chorus assailing the “bailouts.” The big banks should have been punished, in some unspecified ways and in other specific ones that could have pushed teetering markets off the cliff. (It’s an inconvenient truth of capitalism that as they recover and rise, the masters of the markets make more money.) Never mind that without the populist-cursed bailout and the stimulus, unemployment would have reached depression levels—and your neighborhood ATM might be the frozen equivalent of a 19th-century cash register.
Ironically, Obama is also slammed by the very institutions the government saved. The business community and Wall Street banking houses fueled the Karl Rove dirt machine that smeared Democrats and the president. Corporate leaders were resentful about seeing their excesses arraigned and reined in. It’s the instinctive reaction of a business sector which, as FDR said, hated him for leaving their hat in the water while rescuing them from drowning.
Progressives should push back against this, and they should push the president, too; he understands such pressure can change the political calculus and prepare the way for social change, as President John Kennedy told the Rev. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights movement. But in disappointment and disaffection about Obama inevitably falling short or failing to follow “the fierce urgency of now”—he should have moved earlier on “don’t ask, don’t tell”; he should have defined the midterms by drawing sharper dividing lines—the tendency to push the president has yielded to a temptation to target the president.
Nothing could be more destructive of progressive purpose. The next two years will be decisive, not just for the election, but also for a generation and more. The stakes are too high for liberals to indulge the psychic satisfaction of Obama-bashing.
But the cudgels are in full swing. Paul Krugman, the canary in the coalmine of the liberal commentariat, has just assailed “progressives who had their hearts set on Obama”: They “were engaged in a huge act of self-delusion.”
Disgruntled with Obama from the start, Krugman has a Nobel Prize in economics, but not politics; he has never explained what the president could have done, other than stamping his foot, to secure a trillion or more in stimulus followed by a second one.
Krugman is no exception. Daily Kos blasts the president for not drawing “down two lost wars”—which in fact he has done in Iraq and I’m convinced he will do in Afghanistan, just not instantly and perhaps even without “losing.” As bad or worse, in domestic policy Obama is blamed because: “Even Social Security is on the table … not even Bush tried to cut Social Security.” So was President George W. Bush’s privatization plan in 2005 a figment of our collective memory? Can’t we at least wait to see what Obama does on Social Security? And it’s absurd to invoke this issue to suggest that somehow, suddenly, this president is worse than Bush.
Similarly, instead of complaining about Obama’s proposed visit to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shouldn’t we judge him by what he says there and does afterward? A détente with business doesn’t have to mean a surrender of principle. It’s a gesture that can demonstrate that Obama’s the one trying to transcend the old politics—and move this economy forward. And there’s little to be gained—and an arms control treaty certainly to be lost—by questioning the motives of opponents like Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. Obama refuses to do that; it would make liberals feel good, but it would be counterproductive. In the end, the treaty may be defeated, but the president shouldn’t sacrifice it forthwith for the passing pleasure of angry confrontation.
Americans will hold someone—the president or the GOP—accountable for politically driven gridlock. The party of “no” didn’t pay the price in 2010 because Democrats, in control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, appeared to have things largely their way, and there wasn’t a recovery Americans could believe in. But would Obama now be better off playing into the Republican playbook? Would President Bill Clinton have been better off if he and not Newt Gingrich had been blamed for the government shutdown?
The GOP will offer a contradictory concoction—budget balancing and tax cutting at the same time—to advance the party’s goal of stalling the recovery and reopening its road to the White House. Senate Republicans are blasting Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for following the advice of the hallowed conservative monetarist Milton Friedman that expanding liquidity can spur growth. With a new Congress, the GOP more than ever can block fiscal action, but not the Fed; their expedient is to intimidate Bernanke and company into monetary disarmament.
And they won’t compromise on the Bush tax cuts that expire at the end of this year by settling for an extension of the middle-class cuts alone. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are right to force a vote to get them on the record. The battle is worth waging but not at the price of losing the fiscal war. In the end, the president, to the escalating consternation of his progressive critics, may have to compromise—with a bill that includes at least a temporary extension of tax breaks for the rich as well. This isn’t ideal, but it’s also not deflationary and job-destroying. And the critics should contemplate the inescapable truth: A faltering economy that elects a Republican president would end any chance to deal with America’s widening income inequality.
It was Obama himself who at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses proclaimed: “Triangulation just won’t do.” Neither will a presidency of unalloyed partisanship and proud and steadfast stalemate. There has to be a balance here. The president should and will fight for immigration reform and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—and that will re-energize the base. He can turn the tables on Republicans if they waste the country’s time trying to repeal health reform: Why aren’t they focused on jobs, jobs, jobs? He will be, and he will compromise rather than jeopardize the recovery. Finally, seeking cooperation even if he doesn’t find it will reveal the Republicans as more interested in unemploying this president than in re-employing Americans.
What lies ahead is not triangulation, but a hard and necessary passage for this transformative presidency. Progressives ought to give Obama the benefit of their doubts, just as conservatives stood by Reagan when he had to raise taxes in 1982. It was a way station on the path to a political realignment that came after and despite their midterm “shellacking” in 1982.
The prospect of realignment should still beckon Democrats. They should pursue it; they can and should prod Obama; but in a tough and testing time, they also have to offer him a measure of trust. The alternative is a lost chance to bend history and probably a long exile in a cul-de-sac of liberal righteousness without results.
The criticism of Obama is driven by genuine and worthy ideology, by electoral frustration, and, among political operatives, by ambition and the certainty that they could do better than the president and his strategists. He and they have their share of mistakes, missed opportunities, and miscommunications. That could be said of every great president. So it’s time for progressives and Democrats to concentrate their convictions and come to this understanding: Barack Obama’s all we’ve got—and he’s already gotten more done than any president on our side in half a century.