Why Do Democratic Presidents Disappoint Liberals?

George, Barack, George Jr., Bill and....hey, Jimmy, move in closer!

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.

"Okay Barack, I got this. Go take a nap or something."

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?

Truman: The kind of Democrat liberals wish Obama were more like.

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.”

Chait says liberals just won't fall in love with their presidents.

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.

We'll miss him when he's gone.

James Carville’s Panic Attack

James Carville

His nickname is the "Ragin' Cajun", not the "Reasonable Cajun."

People often ask me what advice I would give the White House about various things. Today I was mulling over election results from New York and Nevada while thinking about that very question. What should the White House do now? One word came to mind: Panic.

— Democratic strategist James Carville

You panic when you’re behind or when you’re losing. Losing your cool because you lose one House seat is a serious overreaction.

And James Carville is notorious for overreacting. His nickname is the “Ragin’ Cajun” for a reason and it’s not because he’s so reasonable.  That’s why he’s on CNN running his mouth instead of working for President Obama running his reelection campaign.

Carville seems to be forgetting how a Democratic president he worked for, Bill Clinton, was so marginalized by the hammering the Republicans laid on Clinton and his party in 1994 when Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America crowd took over the House.   Not long after that bloodbath, a humiliated Clinton said in an interview,  “I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president has relevance.”

I don’t recall Carville offering to fire himself then and neither does another Democratic strategist, Bob Shrum during a similar low point for Clinton.

Writing in The Week, Shrum observed, “So thus, the “geniuses” of 2008 become the scapegoats of 2011. Playing a hasty game of musical chairs would turn Obama’s ship of state into the Titanic. It’s a reflex, a gimmick — and it’s ahistorical. As Bill Clinton’s campaign chief in 1992, Carville didn’t panic — he certainly didn’t fire himself — in the early summer of that year, when Clinton was in last place, at 22 percent, in a three-way race with Ross Perot and the first George Bush.”

Shrum is dead on target with the incessant whining and full-blown panic of “the crybaby chorus” led by goofs Carville.  For what reason should Obama take the advice of a cueball egotist and Clinton loyalist who once sneered, “If Hillary gave up one of her balls and gave it to Obama, he’d have two.”

With allies like this, does Obama need enemies?

What would running around like a chicken with its head cut off accomplished?   There are people in the Obama Administration who don’t need to be there.  Start with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and work the list, but turning over the team is what a second term is for.  Firing staff en masse and chopping off aides at the ankles now won’t make the president look strong.  It will only make Obama look like he’s running scared and nobody needs a scared president.

Twin brothers of different mothers

I’m with Carville in that I agree a Washington with Republicans in complete control would be a disaster in waiting.  Especially, with these particular Republicans whom are extraordinarily conservative and extraordinarily inflexible.

Instead of dumping staffers for the sake of appeasing panicky libs, the president is wisely drawing vivid and unmistakable difference between himself and the GOP with both his jobs plan and now his “Buffet Bill” proposal.   Neither of these efforts are likely to go far in the House or the tied-into-knots Senate, but it’s nevertheless important in the symbolism.   Who could be opposed to putting Americans back to work and making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share?

The 2011 extremist Republican Party, that’s who.   Most Americans are focusing on getting a job or keeping the one they have.  The last weeks of baseball and the start-up of football as well as the fall television season are all most interesting to them than a special election in New York to replace a disgraced congressman.

Is it time to be concerned?  Certainly.  The president’s poll numbers are bad and he’s losing support with key demographics he relied upon in 2008.   The economy blows and there are no jobs being created.  The political process is broken and there’s no signs of fixing it without radical measures.  Rather than freaking out like Carville,  the warning from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that continued high unemployment could spark the sort of unrest and rioting seen in the Middle East, should be sending out alarm bells in Washington, but only the Democrats seem to hear them.

Obama would be smart to ignore Carville. Anyone who has Mary Matlin as a foot warmer is not to be trusted.  The suggestion Obama needs to make a sharp turn to the Left is not going to get him reelected.   I’m further to the Left than the president is, but as it was pointed out on The Reid Report blog, the supposed might of the Progressive Left is more theoretical than actual.

For all we know Carville talks in his sleep. I like the way how the anti-Obama “experts” who don’t have the President’s ear keep trying to whisper in it. If Obama wanted Carville’s advice, he’d call him, not the other way around.

Beware experts.  They always tell you why it can’t be done until someone does it.  Carville contributed nothing to the election of Barack Obama.   He may be earnest, he may be sincere, but he isn’t contributing anything to Barack Obama’s reelection either.   He needs to take a Xanax and lie down some place where there are no microphones nearby.

I searched for a photograph of Carville and Obama together.  You know what?  I couldn’t find one and if you can’t find something on the Internet, it’s probably not there to be found.

The absence of even a casual moment shared between the president and Carville should tell you how much Obama needs Carville.   Not at all.

W.W.H.H.D. (What Would Hillary Have Done?)

"Miss me yet?"

Put-off progressives and dismayed Democrats are saying “I told you so” about Hillary vs. Barack as POTUS, but they are simply projecting their own fantasies and discouragement on someone who would have likely charted a similar course as Obama has.

In 2006, I was covering a meeting of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council.   Some of the potential presidential candidates were in attendance, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, Governors Mark Warner of Virginia and Tom Vilsack of Iowa and the hands-down, prohibitive favorite, New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

You could tell Clinton was the rock star in the room.  She was the only one the mayor showed up to see and as the former First Lady, the only one with Secret Service protection.

It’s worth remembering that the DLC was a centrist, corporatist, non-progressive group of Democrats.  Barack Obama shared a lot of their beliefs, but he wasn’t a member of the DLC, Hillary Clinton was.

Speculating whether Clinton would have fared better as president than Obama is a parlor game that keeps thumb-sucking liberals suffering from buyer’s remorse and hardcore Clintonistas sleeping soundly at night.  “If only,” they wonder wistfully, secure and comforted if John Boehner and the Fox News crew were pulling this sort of crap on Hillary, she’d man up like Obama won’t and kick ’em where it counts.

That’s the beautiful thing about a fantasy. Things always play out exactly the way you want and there’s always a happy ending.

Truth be told, nobody knows if Clinton would have been able to finagle a better debt ceiling deal than the one Obama settled for.   Regardless of which genitalia the 44th President possessed their best-laid plans for post-Bush America would have immediately been sidetracked by the economic mess their predecessor left for them to clean up.   Obama’s presidency was largely sabotaged from the jump by Bush’s incompetence..   The “What If Hillary Had Won” crowd tends to overlook details like that.

A President Hillary Clinton would still be hated, just for different reasons.

Something the revisionists forget is just how deep hatred for the Clintons runs.  The far right learned to loathe Obama.  They already knew how much they despised Hillary.  If Hillary had won it’s unlikely she wouldn’t have been targeted for the same sort of pummeling Obama has received from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News and the Republicans.  Obama reaped the scorn that had been sown against the Clintons.  The difference would be the anger, disrespect and vitriol directed at a President Clinton would be driven by sexism, not racism.

What’s a tougher nut to crack?  Bigotry based upon race or gender?   Whatever advantages Hillary being White might afford her, they are mitigated by being a woman.  Obama catches hell based upon his skin color, but it’s difficult to claim that is a lower hurdle to clear than the misogyny women in positions of power meet.

Clinton would have been spared the pointless distraction of the Birthers nonsense, but all the drama leftover from Bill Clinton’s time in Washington would have been directed at her.

I still don’t believe a job swap between Clinton and Joe Biden is beyond the realm of possibility.   In a tight race where it looks disappointed Democrats aren’t motivated to turn out, an Obama/Clinton ticket would be jet fuel to the president’s reelection hopes.

Hillary denies any interest in serving as Obama’s vice-president.  She says even if he wins in 2012, she’s done as Secretary of State.  Obama says he loves Biden and he’s not dropping him from the ticket.   Blah, blah, blah.  Yeah, and that’s raindrops falling’ on my head, right?

Whenever an ambitious politician says, “No,” they really mean, “Maybe”  and when they say “there’s no chance” that only means nobody’s made an offer they can’t refuse.  If Obama comes to Clinton and shows her a path to the Oval Office, do you really think she will tell him to get lost?

Methinks the lady doth protest too much, Hillary Clinton still wants to be president.  Compared to morons like Michelle Bachmann, there’s no questioning her qualifications for the job.  Looking down the road at 2016 and whom the Democrats have on their bench and the first name starts with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and drops off sharply after that.  If she’s willing and able, Hillary would be a stone-cold lock to lead the party against the Republicans.

Hillary’s biggest problem last time was people were just plain tired of the Clintons.  The prospect of going in consecutive presidencies from Bush to Clinton to Bush back to Clinton again was not an appealing one for Democrats looking for someone new and fresh to come along.  Someone like Barack Obama.

Well, now that we’ve tried new and fresh and hope and change, could it be time to go back something seasoned and familiar?   It’s been speculated Karl Rove is down on Rick Perry because he’s willing to let Obama have his second term if it means Jeb Bush has a clear run at the White House in 2016.

Why not set up a Clinton vs. Bush grudge match where the favored son takes on the wife of the guy who made his daddy a one-term president?

It isn’t likely Clinton and Obama form a Dream Ticket (and a Republican nightmare), but it isn’t like it couldn’t happen either.  Differences can be smoothed over when a good deal presents itself.   Marriages for the sake of political convenience and expediency are always possible, even if implausible.

The Dream Team?

Here’s some freed journalists for your birthday, Mr. President.

Reunited and it feels so good.

Reunited and it feels so good.

Remember during the presidential primaries when all the talk was over how much Barack Obama and Bill Clinton hated each others guts?

Maybe they’re still a little salty about how things went down last year, but this year, the former president gave the current one a very nice birthday present.

Clinton voyaged to North Korea to negotiate the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two journalists whom had been captured and sentenced to hard labor for spying on the Communist regime.   After less than 24 hours on the ground, Clinton secured the freedom of the two women whom were facing 12 years in a labor camp.

The most important thing to occur here is the release of two innocents so they could be reunited with their families.  North Korea feigns indifference as to how they are perceived by the outside world, but they couldn’t be more aware of their rogue nation status.  This act wasn’t slightly motivated out of goodness, charity or mercy.  It’s a pure public relations move, but one they badly need.

As for Bill Clinton, his rock star status in the Democratic Party was diminished somewhat by the rise of Barack Obama and his defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination.   Everyone knows there was bad blood and hard feelings between the Obama and Clinton camps.   Even with Hillary accepting the Secretary of State role, there were questions as to what role Bill would play in a Obama Administration.

Now we know.  Bill Clinton still retains his global statesman stature and his role in freeing Ling and Lee only enhances it.   There will be the critics who grumble and gripe over how the North Koreans will spin this event for their own purposes of propaganda, but those mumblings will sound awfully tinny and muted compared to the sight of Euna Lee sobbing with joy as her 4-year-old daughter embraced her with a loving hug.

One big step in repairing the relationship between two presidents, a feather in the cap of  Secretary of State Clinton, a win for the Obama Administration and two families reunited.

As birthday presents go, Obama  couldn’t ask for a more satisfying one.