Waiting on a flush-and-fill and oil change today, I had time to read an article in New York magazine by Jonathan Chait on the dissatisfaction many liberals feel toward President Obama. Chait’s conclusion? Liberals are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.
If we trace liberal disappointment with President Obama to its origins, to try to pinpoint the moment when his crestfallen supporters realized that this was Not Change They Could Believe In, the souring probably began on December 17, 2008, when Obama announced that conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren would speak at his inauguration. “Abominable,” fumed John Aravosis on AmericaBlog. “Obama’s ‘inclusiveness’ mantra always seems to head only in one direction—an excuse to scorn progressives and embrace the Right,” seethed Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow rode the story almost nightly: “I think the problem is getting larger for Barack Obama.” Negative 34 days into the start of the Obama presidency, the honeymoon was over.
Since then, the liberal gloom has only deepened, as Obama compromise alternated with Obama failure. Liberals speak of Obama in unceasingly despairing terms. “I’m exhausted [from] defending you,” one supporter confessed to Obama at a town-hall meeting last year.
“We are all incredibly frustrated,” Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told the Washington Post in September. “I’m disappointed in Obama,” complained Steve Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography. The assessments appear equally morose among the most left-wing and the most moderate of Obama’s supporters, among opinion leaders and rank-and-file voters. In early 2004, Democrats, by a 25-point margin, described themselves as “more enthusiastic than usual about voting.” At the beginning of 2008, the margin had shot up to over 60 percentage points. Now as many Democrats say they’re less enthusiastic about voting as say they’re more enthusiastic.
The cultural enthusiasm sparked by Obama’s candidacy drained away almost immediately after his election. All the passion now lies with the critics, and it is hard to find a liberal willing to muster any stronger support than halfhearted murmuring about the tough situation Obama inherited, or vague hope that maybe in a second term he can really start doing things. (“I’m like everybody, I want more action,” an apologetic Chris Rock said earlier this month. “I believe wholeheartedly if he’s back in, he’s going to do some gangsta shit.”) Obama has already given up on any hope of running a positive reelection campaign and is girding up for a grim slog of lesser-of-two-evils-ism.
Why are liberals so desperately unhappy with the Obama presidency?
Chait’s argument is, sentimental journeys aside, liberal disenchantment with Democratic presidents has always been present since the glory days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. That means every Democrat who won the White House (Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama). All of them took fire from their Left flank.
The entire article is worth reading in full as Chait recalls the way Obama’s Democratic predecessors have left liberals unsatisfied.
Things were so much better when Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office, right? Right?
Bill Clinton’s election, following a dozen years of Republican presidencies, ushered in buoyant hopes of renewal. But liberals experienced his presidency as immediate and almost continuous deflation and cynicism. Clinton did enjoy one major triumph in his first year, when he passed a budget bill that raised the top tax rate, expanded the earned-income tax credit, created a new national-service program for graduates, and reformed other parts of the budget. This was the progressive apogee of the Clinton administration. Liberals at the time viewed it as a sad half-measure. The focus was on deficit reduction, not public investment, and each iteration of the legislation that worked its way through the congressional machinery emerged less inspiring than the last. “The Senate’s machinations on President Clinton’s budget plan have left many Democratic House members feeling angry and betrayed,” noted a New York Times editorial.
The rest of Clinton’s first two years consisted of a demoralizing procession of debacles and retreats. A series of Clinton appointments—Lani Guinier, Zoe Baird—came under conservative fire and were withdrawn in a panic. He steered his agenda toward right-of-center goals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and a crime bill, serving only to alienate his liberal allies without dampening hysterical attacks from conservatives and the business lobby. Health-care reform collapsed entirely, in part because liberals refused to support a compromise final measure. Six months into Clinton’s presidency, after he had abandoned his effort to integrate gays into the military, Bob Herbert summarized what had already settled as the liberal narrative: “The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread … He doesn’t seem to understand that much of the disappointment and disillusionment is because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone.” Hardly anybody contested that portrait.
Surely the revered iconic, John F. Kennedy is deserving of the Left’s love?
But what about John F. Kennedy, the liberal icon? Kennedy’s reputation benefited from a halo of martyrdom, deepened by liberals’ rage against Johnson, which retroactively cast Kennedy as far more liberal than he actually was. In reality, Kennedy’s domestic agenda slogged painfully through a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. He campaigned promising federal aid for education and health insurance for the elderly but didn’t get around to passing either one. The most agonizing struggles came on Kennedy’s civil-rights agenda. His soaring campaign promises quickly grew entangled in a series of bargains with Jim Crow Democrats that liberals justifiably saw as corrupt. Kennedy understood he lacked the votes in Congress to push the civil-rights legislation he promised. He placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench. Civil-rights leaders viewed Kennedy’s machinations with something less than unbridled gratitude. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Kennedy “vacillated” on civil rights. When he set up a meeting with activists, Kennedy was surprised to be “scorched by anger,” as G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot wrote in a recent history of the sixties.
If Jimmy Carter was a bigger loser than Obama and Lyndon Johnson a bloodthirsty warmonger because of the debacle that was the Vietnam War, surely liberals can take heart in the presidency of FDR’s successor, “Give ’em Hell” Harry Truman?
Harry Truman has become the patron saint of dispirited Democrats, the fighting populist whose example is invariably cited in glum contrast to whatever bumbling congenital compromiser happens to hold office at any given time. In fact, liberals spent the entire Truman presidency in a state of near-constant despair.
Republicans took control of Congress in the 1946 elections and bottled up Truman’s domestic agenda, rendering him powerless to expand the New Deal, as liberals had hoped he would after the war had ended.
Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.” (Some contemporary critics have reached the same psychoanalysis of Obama, substituting his bi-racial background as the cause.) The New Republic’s Richard Strout lamented how “little evidence he has shown of being able to lift up and inspire the masses.” The historian Richard Pells has written that in the eyes of liberals at the time, “the president remained an incorrigible mediocrity.”
Chait asserts that when it comes to getting down to the job and getting things done, Barack Obama is second only to FDR for what he’s accomplished in his first term.
Part of the reason Roosevelt’s record looms so large from a distance is because historians measure these things differently from political activists. Activists measure progress against the standard of perfection, or at least the most perfect possible choice. Historians gauge progress against what came before it.
By that standard, Obama’s first term would indeed seem to qualify as gangsta shit. His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.
Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.
Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?
The answer for many liberals to that question would be a resounding “NO.”
Which leads to the question. Are Obama and his six Democratic predecessors all spineless, unprincipled compromises with no sense of core beliefs and all too eager to crumble before conservative opposition or are the expectations of liberals for our presidents to faithfully execute our expectations completely untethered to reality?
If it’s not them, it has to be us.
Democrats hope they can harness the Occupy Wall Street movement and turn it into support for Obama’s reelection and Democrats getting off the mat after the 2010 Republican ass whupping. That’s an understandable thought and one I briefly held myself, but the differences between OWS and the Tea Party are too stark for a George Soros to co-opt and underwrite the movement as the Koch Brothers have. There aren’t the same opportunities to harness that rage into votes.
It’s hard for me to believe Republicans will find Newt Gingrich, a consummate Washington insider and a guy whom the longer you know him, the less you like him, any more ideologically “pure” Newt’s pretty feisty now as he works Obama over, but not so much two years ago when he was standing in the White House driveway with Michael Bloomburg and Al Sharpton as part of an “education tour” at the president’s behest. Mitt will be waving that picture around at a Iowa debate in the near future.
People typically seem to prefer status quo politicians who nibble around the edges instead of transformative figures who take whole bites. The election of Reagan after the Carter years is a rare exception to this rule.
There’s a reason why a conservative like Ronald Reagan won election by such overwhelming margins while a true liberal like George McGovern were crushed in humiliating defeats.
Liberals keep looking for their own Reagan. They haven’t found him or her yet and as long as they demand perfection they never will.
- Can Liberals Ever Be Happy? (politicalwire.com)
- What Liberal Revolt? (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Good Read: “Are Liberals Really Abandoning Obama?” by Rakim Brooks (foleysfolly.com)