President Obama has the useful political skill of being a chameleon of sorts, looking different depending on context and, especially, the eye of the beholder. By and large this has worked for him; he and his programs are more popular now than when he was elected. All the same, there’s been a great deal of media attention lately to a backlash of sorts against the Obama administration. Most of it comes from the usual suspects, fire-breathers like Rush Limbaugh and his CPAC cohorts. They charge that Obama is doing exactly what he promised (horrors!) and it’s even worse than they expected, and isn’t it terrible how this rush toward Euro-style socialism will be the ruin of this country? We can easily enough dismiss these types as right-wingers who never supported him and never would under any circumstances, and who are too busy right now presiding over the self-destruction of the Republican party to do any great harm.

Some of the criticism is a little more temperate, though… and comes from factions of the right who did at least conditionally support Obama. They’re now arguing that he isn’t what they took him to be, since they thought he was A Moderate Like Them, when in fact he’s A Radical Ideologue. The most prominent invocation of this argument recently showed up in a piece by David Brooks, one of the New York Times‘ pet conservative columnists. He starts by drawing conclusions pretty much the diametrical opposite of my own (and most other analysts’) about Obama’s proposed budget, and veers off wildly from there:

…the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.  …We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide…

The U.S. has always been a decentralized nation, skeptical of top-down planning. Yet, the current administration concentrates enormous power in Washington…

The U.S. has always had vibrant neighborhood associations. But in its very first budget, the Obama administration raises the cost of charitable giving. It punishes civic activism and expands state intervention.

The U.S. has traditionally had a relatively limited central government. But federal spending as a share of G.D.P. is zooming from its modern norm of 20 percent to an unacknowledged level somewhere far beyond.

Those of us who consider ourselves moderates — moderate-conservative, in my case — are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was. His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice. As Clive Crook, an Obama admirer, wrote in The Financial Times, the Obama budget “contains no trace of compromise. It makes no gesture, however small, however costless to its larger agenda, of a bipartisan approach to the great questions it addresses. It is a liberal’s dream of a new New Deal.”

Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, “a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal.” On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it. …

The first task will be to block the excesses of unchecked liberalism. … Moderates are going to have to try to tamp down the polarizing warfare that is sure to flow from Obama’s über-partisan budget. … They will have to take the economic crisis seriously and not use it as a cue to focus on every other problem under the sun.

I’ve seen this linked and reposted in online forums by right-wingers, with special attention called to the “not who we thought he was!” line. It particularly caught my eye when one of them underscored that this criticism appeared in the New York Times, which is (and I quote) “the most liberal source” they know (!), so it must be serious. I have to say, only someone for whom the Times represents the extreme of leftist thinking could possibly buy into Brooks’ complaint of Obama’s “unchecked liberalism,” or for that matter Clive Crook’s quixotic assertion that he’s “a liberal’s dream… a bold progressive.” (An assertion which Brooks tries to frame as unvarnished praise, although in reality Crook is making much the same argument as Brooks—albeit more eloquently—positing that “the Republicans had Mr Obama right all along.”)

(And I’ll note in passing that Brooks once again succumbs to his habitual tendency to situate himself at the center of Normative American Thinking, and thence make broad, sweeping, and completely unsubstantiated statements about What America Is and How Americans Are. But this is, after all, someone who can be shocked by federal deficits “zooming” from 20% to 22% of GDP.)

Let’s step back and put this in perspective. Although it’s framed as “moderation,” this argument is really a fig leaf for preserving market conservatism and the prerogatives of the rich. It only makes sense on a political spectrum in which the last three or four decades comprise the whole of history. Honestly… Obama is probably the most liberal president in 40 years. But those are, of course, 40 years in which American politics have been rushing heedlessly, recklessly to the right at an ever-accelerating pace, and in which inequality has surged even in prosperous times as greater wealth concentrates into fewer hands. The fact that Obama’s finally pulling us back from that—as he promised to, and as people want him to, after its disastrous consequences became painfully clear—is not something about which to be either surprised or distressed. More importantly, it is also not an excuse to paint him as some sort of unhinged radical, engaged in a “social engineering experiment.”

However liberal his convictions, Obama is clearly by temperament conservative. (Rather the opposite of Bush in both regards, there.) He is cautious and deliberative; he weighs options and looks for compromise. (Not out of some desperate search for popularity, like Clinton did, but out of a genuine belief in the value of collaboration.) This, too, was clear throughout the campaign… but although it should have come as no surprise either, he is in fact receiving a lot of criticism from the left for being far more cautious than circumstances warrant.

I can relate to the temperament, actually; I’ve never been terribly partial to divisive, acrimonious rhetoric, preferring a more constructive approach. Yet in all honestly, I can also count myself as agreeing with a fair bit of the left’s criticism. For example: The stimulus bill should have been bigger, with less of it wasted on tax cuts. Obama’s Treasury department should be doing mandatory restructuring (yes, “nationalization”) of the big insolvent investment banks, not pussyfooting around looking for ways to mollify shareholders. His environmental initiatives should be more aggressive and immediate. He should cut our losses in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and reduce rather than increase the Pentagon budget. He should have unequivocally repudiated far more of the Bush-era infringements on civil liberties, e.g., the warrantless wiretapping FISA “reform.” He should have appointed a more progressive, intellectual “brain trust” to his cabinet (e.g., Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, Howard Dean, Patrick Fitzgerald, Anthony Zinni, Jack Reed, Geoffrey Stone), some people really willing to rock the boat, rather than so many Clinton-era establishment types. He should be pushing for single-payer national health care, nothing less. I could go on. That would have been a really no-holds-barred, New New Deal approach to governing. Something I could really celebrate.

My personal ideal president would have Obama’s charisma, eloquence, and gravitas, but Dennis Kucinich’s policy agenda.

The ideal never materializes, though, not mine nor anyone else’s. As it is, what we’re getting in Obama is much more… moderate. (In a more authentic sense than Brooks uses the term.) It’s still a welcome tonic compared to the sort of politics I’ve had to endure for, eek, my entire life… but it’s less than it could be, and far less than its opponents claim it to be.

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3 Responses to “The reaction against Obama”
  1. michael says:

    I agree that Obama has relatively little to fear from the Right. He’s not doing a whole lot that they strongly object to, other than facilitating stem cell research (a very good thing) and closing Gitmo (ditto). Heck, they’re having a hard time finding available positions to his right, as the new call to let some banks fail demonstrates.

  2. Obama does a good job of explaining what he’s about when a decision has been made and a direction chosen. When deliberations are still under way, it is of course tougher.

    I think the administration has actually been doing quite well strategically WRT the Republicans, however, and has little to fear from them. The recent maneuver to position Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the GOP, to whom others must pay obeisance, was spectacularly effective… indeed, conservatives practically set themselves up for it. And if other elements of the right (like Brooks) are sending up “trial balloons,” well, the main thing that says is that they lack the sort of coordinated strategy they’ve had in recent years. Not a bad thing.

  3. michael says:

    Chris, there is another, more important dimension to the line(s) of argument you discuss. The Republicans (and the Right generally) are in the midst of figuring out the best strategy for dealing with Obama. (There is an excellent discussion of this process in the NY Times Sunday Magazine article on Gingrich.) So the attacks being floated are best understood as trial balloons. The question is not whether they have any bearing on reality but whether they have any rhetorical traction in the public sphere. Obama has surprised the Right by surrendering much of the ground they assumed he would successfully hold, and this has energized their spin operations. Brooks is exploring the possibility of fracturing the progressive coalition by forcing Obama even farther to the right—which is clearly where he is leaning. The idea is to drive a wedge between him and the various groups who, like yourself, have seen him as the Great Black Hope of progressivism. But this is only one of the strategies being tested, and probably not the most effective one we’ll see. What Obama “really is” is of secondary importance from this vantage.

    At the same time, he’s having a tough time explaining what he is, which is something of a concern. His best pitch is probably to advocate for “efficiency” as the organizing principle. This would allow him to break, at least partly, with the Left-Right spectrum. If that is what he has in mind, he’s doing a lousy job making the case for it. And this is because he also seems oblivious to the strategic dimension of partisan rhetoric. To invoke Sorkin once again, his job is not to end fights but to win them—that is what the other side is always trying to do.

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