What, if anything, is the matter with Obama? This is a question that sharply divides progressives today, the central front on what has become known as the “Obama Wars.”
The Obama Wars can be vicious – they're often reminiscent of the 2008 primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In online communities, the conflict pits “Obamabots,” whose mindless fealty to Our Dear Leader renders them incapable of independent thought, and “emo-progs,” members of the “professional left” whose lust for attacking the administration and refusal to give it credit for its accomplishments will only discourage Democratic voters and ultimately usher in a Bachmann presidency and a Supreme Court packed with far-right activist judges.
hieved more than one could reasonably expect given the political context. Obama's progressive critics often seem to overestimate the power of the presidency, and underemphasize the road-block that Congress has represented, even when the Democrats had large majorities in both chambers. Around 300 pieces of legislation passed the House before the GOP took it over, only to die at the hands of the Senate. If, say, 100 of those bills – many of them quite progressive – had passed the Senate over its majority of Republicans and blue dog Democrats, Obama's already impressive list of accomplishments would be that much heftier.
What Chait and Zakaria miss is the inseparable connection between the political discourse in this country and legislative outcomes over the longer term. Looking at the period between 2008 and 2012, one can argue that Obama has done an impressive job given the circumstances, but he has embraced inherently conservative narratives about taxes, spending and the role of government, much to the detriment of the progressive movement over the longer term. He has said that debt is the “greatest threat” facing the United States today, compared the government's budget to a household's, said that regulatory “uncertainty” was keeping corporate America from hiring, said that “entitlements” – a word no progressive should ever use – were unsustainable over the long run and essentially stayed the course on foreign policy. All of this validates conservative arguments and leaves Democrats trying to thread an incredibly thin needle. On Social Security and Medicare, for example, the party's message is that these programs will eventually bankrupt the nation, but that they can “strengthen” them – cut benefits – in a far less painful way than their Republican counterparts would.
Chait said there's little evidence that rhetoric effects legislative outcomes, but the data he's talking about are based on short-term studies. But consider Zakaria's spiel about how confused Americans are about taxes and public spending. That is a result of a long and concerted effort to influence the discourse in this country. Reagan wasn't the first to say that government is by definition a problem, and can't offer solutions, but he articulated it well, again and again and again. It's a narrative that has been amplified by all corners of the conservative movement, and the idea that this thinking becoming widespread doesn't impact policy defies common sense.
In April, Obama gave a major deficit speech that won plaudits from many liberals because the president took a tough stance toward Republicans and drew sharp contrasts between his policies and those advanced by the Republicans. The speech did an excellent job setting the stage for the near-term debate that would follow in the lead-up to the 2012 elections – it was good politics. But I wrote that the address “was a catastrophe for progressives who argue that we need to grow our way out of the deficit by addressing the economic crisis pummeling 'Main Street.'” That wasn't a statement about the near-term politics; it spoke to the longer-term discourse in our political-economy.
So, this is actually a debate over whether one should do what one can within the political constraints of the day, or expend a lot of energy trying to move the political dialogue in one's preferred direction. In a New York Times article this week, an administration source was quoted saying, “It would be political folly to make the argument that government spending equals jobs.” That may be the case, but in this economic environment, it's also true. Does that attitude impact policy? According to the article, Obama's campaign guru, “David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want [Obama] to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.”
The Obama Wars are also a manifestation of people's expectations of his presidency, and here Obama and his campaign team bear some responsibility. Obama didn't promise to do what he could to dig the country out of eight years of disastrous Republican governance: he promised to change Washington – to usher in a new era of comity and reason -- and people believed him. They shouldn't have, because at the end of the day, progressives still faced any number of structural hurdles. Campaign cash still rules, our media still display a knee-jerk deference to whatever conventional wisdom is flying around the Beltway, and a small minority can still do a good job blocking legislation – the GOP's 41 votes in the Senate represented just 11 percent of the population.
Many progressives have been frustrated by Obama's tendency to blame Washington's “dysfunctional politics” for poor outcomes rather than naming the culprit – Republican obstructionism. This, like his foreign policy, should have come as no surprise – he was quite clear about his approach to political knife-fights from the beginning of the campaign. In fact, way back in early 2008, at the beginning of the primary campaign, I wrote, “if Obama were to win the nomination, those desperate to see real change should hope that Barack Obama's touchy-feely message of hope and healing is nothing more than snappy campaign rhetoric.”
Obama's run as the candidate of "change" -- a nebulous slogan with huge appeal given the depth of the hole that Bush has dug over the last seven years. According to his campaign's narrative, Obama would not only change Washington, but he'd do it by bridging the gap between the Right and Left, healing long-festering wounds, bringing a polarized electorate together and uniting the country...
Yet the message is as hopelessly naive in the real world of American politics as it is appealing on the stump, and for a simple reason: it assumes that the GOP -- dominated as it is by "movement conservatives" in the Delay-Rove mold -- and it's corporate backers are interested in engaging in a thoughtful debate over how to make America a better country. If that were the case, then bridging the divide through calm words and negotiation would certainly be better by leaps and bounds than the ugly brand of politics we have today.
Finally, the Obama Wars are an extension of long-standing liberal debates about how much fealty the Democratic Party merits. You can go back to Ralph Nader's 2000 bid, or earlier, and the question of how much support to lend to Democrats as they triangulate away progressive principles is just as divisive today. Obama's supporters argue that the incessant negativity among liberal pundits – the “professional left” – can only depress Democratic turnout and serve the eventual Republican nominee. This seems a misunderstanding of the role of journalists – even progressive opinion journalists. If making poor compromises and embracing conservative narratives disheartens the base, that rests on the administration itself, not people analyzing the effects of those choices.
Having said that, there is a real danger that refusing to acknowledge the administration’s accomplishments has the potential to sour activist zeal in the run-up to the election. But so far, that doesn't appear to be the case. While Obama saw a decline in liberal support during the debt ceiling negotiations, he still remains quite popular with the base. As of late July, Obama enjoyed a higher approval rating among Democrats at this point in his presidency than any president since FDR – higher than Clinton, Kennedy or Truman. Recent polls show that 72 percent of self-identified liberals (and 77 percent of Democrats) approve of the job Obama has done – a number one would be surprised to discover after reading liberal blogs and listening to progressive talk-radio.