Once thought the great liberal hope, captivating progressive audiences everywhere with promises of change, Obama has fallen largely out of favor with his left of center supporters. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from the President’s foreign policy to his seeming inability to enact large portions of the liberal agenda. Some of the critiques are unfair, but most are accurate. And though it is to the detriment of the Democratic Party that their supporters are a disorderly bunch, it is to their credit that they don’t often give their leaders a free pass.
Jonathan Chait writes as much in his New York Magazine piece this week wherein he attempts to lecture the left on its long history of “unreasonable” dissatisfaction with the Presidents it elects. Here is his explanation:
Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
While that last observation is accurate, liberals do have fantasy versions of past presidents and often bring them to bear when measuring the real performance of current administrations, the first part of Chait’s thesis deserves more scrutiny.
His claim that the idea of a Democratic president can, for liberals, never live up to the real thing, may have some truth to it. After all, most ideas rarely ever live up to their real world manifestations. But that liberals so consistently find fault with their electoral offspring is not itself proof of their irrationality. After spending the bulk of his piece attempting to disabuse liberals of the notion that Obama is any different from their past democratic idols, Chait spends only the tail end of the article actually defending the current president’s “gangsta” first-term achievements.
They include the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial reform, and “second tier” accomplishments like the auto bailout, Race to the Top, reforming college loans, and equality for gays in the military among other things.
In that same order, we have the passage of what was less than two decades ago the conservative answer to health care reform, regulation of the banking sector that has no real mechanisms for preventing future financial collapses, a bailout for corporations rather than support for workers, and education reform that is the equivalent of NCLB on steroids. Allowing gays to serve openly in the military is commendable as is reforming college loans, but neither make up for the President’s failure to implement a litany of liberal policies, or more importantly, stand up for those positions no matter how implausible their enactment is.
Rhetoric is important, and the more of it that is sacrificed in the name of minimalist compromises, like PPACA and Dodd-Frank, the more battles liberals win at the expense of the larger ideological war. Credibility for initiatives like expanding health care coverage is gained by undermining deeper liberal principles. Why anyone would think that ACA is a first step toward a public option, let alone nationalized health care, is beyond me. What widespread support could there possibly be for actual socialized medicine when liberal leaders waste all of their political capital defending conservative positions, only to see the Republicans retreat further to the right in opposition?
By all meaningful measures Obama is a right of center President. In theory he was liberal, hence why the idea of him so appealed to liberals, but in practice he has been anything but. Conservatives’ antipathy toward his policies is only evidence of how far to the right they’ve gone. Neo-liberalism has won, which is why technocrats, policy wonks, and pundits on the “left” like Chait can applaud the President for advocating a tax regime to the right of Bill Clinton, who was to the right of his own predecessors. This isn’t the “progress” that progressives have been looking for, any more than they were during the rightward lurches that Chait is correct to note in Democratic presidents dating back to John F. Kennedy. That liberals now fetishize these former presidents as paragons of the liberal world view is evidence only of our poor memory.
But holding any president, Democrat or not, accountable for domestic policy is problematic. Presidential analysis is complicated by the Congressional politics that accompany every administration. This is in part why it’s more important what the president says than what he is said to have accomplished via his allies and opponents in the House and Senate. The President is not the “first branch of government,” and is not responsible for legislating new laws, despite voter expectations that he do so.
Instead, the President is responsible for executing government duties and acting as the nation’s united head of state in both war and peace, as well as the grey area in between that the country has inhabited for a decade now (if not longer).
And in this realm President Obama’s record is criminal, at least by conventional liberal standards. His foreign policy is Bush Doctrine 2.0. Drone attacks are up, civilian deaths are under-reported, and state secrets abound. Troops will come home from Iraq only because Obama failed to convince that country to let us stay longer. He claims that waterboarding is wrong, and that it is torture, but allows those who perpetrated it to go free, and in not holding them accountable, signals to the next group of would-be Jack Bauers that there will be no consequences. The same lack of moral hazard in the private sphere of investment banking persists in the deepest recesses of publically funded shadow organizations like the CIA.
An American citizen is killed without due process, his son as well, while the administration continues its chilling silence on the topic. One only wonders now how much further Obama will plunge the nation into war, rather than extricating us from it. His appointed Secretary of Defense is traveling the nation fear-mongering over potential cuts to defense. And under his watch, the Department of Justice has scaled up the fruitless war on drugs and vigorously prosecuted whistle blowers rather than promoting an atmosphere of transparency.
The President pays lip service to liberal populism even while filling his campaign war chest with donations from the rich and powerful. He feels the nation’s pain even as he hesitates to definitively fight for policies that help the working class. It’s not unreasonable to criticize the President for his myriad of illiberal policies. If anything, what’s unreasonable, though fully predictable, is the degree to which liberals maintain their lukewarm satisfaction, or even celebrate Obama’s more hawkish achievements. What’s actually ridiculous isn’t liberal displeasure, but that in the face of that disappointment there is no strong challenge from the left to hold Obama accountable.