The New Republic isn’t the place to look for progressive opinion these days (especially on matter of foreign policy), but every once in a while it does offer a reminder of why it used to be considered a liberal magazine. Most recently, TNR’s Ed Kilgore produced quite possibly the best and most succinct summary to date of all the reasons the left has to be disappointed with the Obama administration, including a handy bulleted list.

I can’t really improve on it, so let me just quote the pertinent bits:

Only six months into the Obama presidency, the new administration has already experienced an unusually robust assortment of criticism from fellow Democrats, at least at the elite opinion-leading and activist level … for a wide array of missteps, if not downright heresies. Here are just a few:

  • Undertaking expensive and questionably effective “bailouts” of the financial sector instead of simply regulating and/or nationalizing it.
  • Using vast political capital to promote a fiscal stimulus package that was too small to work, and allowing Senate “centrists” to water it down even further.
  • Refusing to reverse major elements of the Bush program for surveillance, detention, and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and obstructing efforts to hold Bush officials accountable for violations of civil liberties.
  • Moving too slowly to end American military involvement in Iraq, and moving too fast to make new commitments for military action in Afghanistan.
  • Deferring to “centrists” and even Republicans in Congress on crucial climate change and health reform legislation at the palpable risk of destroying the progressive nature of these initiatives.
  • Failing to honor commitments for immediate action to promote GLBT equality, particularly with respect to the military.

Aside from these specific issues, there’s been a pervasive feeling in many progressive circles that Obama is too cautious, too “pragmatic,” too subservient to Democratic “centrists,” too worried about bipartisanship, too interested in outreach to people who will never support him, and too unwilling to utilize the bully pulpit to articulate and defend progressive principles.

That’s not actually “just a few,” that’s actually pretty much the entire list of significant criticisms. And they’re legitimate ones. Obama has not been the kind of outspokenly progressive, boat-rocking president many hoped for, nor even the kind he (in his best moments) promised to be.

I could go on at length about any one of those points (and have on occasion in the past), but the piece expresses every one of them in a way that contains a clear policy alternative that would have been preferable. The larger issue, and the one that creates so much internal tension in the progressive community, is this:  for all Obama’s shortcomings, he’s still the most liberal president this country has enjoyed in at least 40 years, and almost certainly the most liberal one who could plausibly have been elected last year.

So, how exactly do concerned citizens go about pushing him to correct those flaws, to pursue better alternatives, to live up to his potential… without failing to acknowledge (or worse yet, undermining) the dramatic improvement he represents over what came before? (All the while remembering that in practical terms, as I’ve written before, Congress wields significant power, and Obama no more deserves all the blame for inadequate policymaking than he deserves all the credit when things go right?)

There’s no obvious answer. But one can’t just neglect the question, either… since half-measures can in many cases be worse than none at all, in terms not only of policy outcomes but of political prospects. Nobody in politics is perfect… but there are trade-offs worth accepting to achieve a goal, and then there are trade-offs that are just self-defeating. Kilgore points to a recent post by Chris Bowers of OpenLeft, who elucidates the unjust but undeniable fact that for most non-political-junkies, whatever Obama does defines the “left” position on a given issue—and if it’s too watered-down to achieve its goals effectively, that ineffectiveness will be blamed not on the compromises made but on the progressive policy idea itself. Insufficient Keynesian economic stimulus (for example) won’t discredit the insufficiency, in the eyes of many, so much as it will discredit Keynesianism itself. Bowers:

The country is never going to say “well, that idea didn’t work, so let’s try a more extreme version of it.” People just don’t think that way in America.

Many conservatives felt the same way under the Republican trifecta, and are now roundly mocked for arguing that conservatism can’t fail, but people can fail conservatism. [If we echo that], we will sound just as silly as they will.

And perception problems aside, even those who see the problem for what it is wind up stymied by the classic dilemma of our two-party system, with its ceaseless pressure toward the “center” (not to mention the media’s habit of framing anything outside the current beltway consensus as “extreme”). Thus, when elections roll around the only viable alternatives available (unless one is actually situated in the mushy middle) are candidates further away from the desired policy agenda, not closer to it. As much as it salves the conscience to vote for, say, an independent or a Green party candidate (and I’ve done it many times myself), such candidates almost never win.

Short of large-scale reforms like preference-ranked instant-runoff voting, the only political space in which there’s a little more wiggle room is primary season. And that’s why 2010 will be so important. In the meantime, we should certainly all keep blogging, lobbying, whatever we do, to speak out on the issues above… but the key thing that’ll make a difference is to impose a political cost on the Democratic party if it fails to represent what the electorate wants and needs. If Congress fails to pass effective health insurance this year—to cite just one example on which I could and probably will say much more—it could set the issue back another decade or more, with devastating effects for this country’s economy and the health of millions of people. And the primaries are the only chance to impose that cost that’ll hurt sitting Dems more than it hurts us.

In particular, the “Blue Dogs” in both chambers need to be held accountable for their wavering and obstructionism. Nice as it is to have Arlen Specter on our side of the aisle, for instance, there’s no reason he should be guaranteed a renomination for his Senate seat next year. Give ’em a fight from the left, and Obama will get the message… as will Rahm Immanuel, and Harry Reid, and all the others who shape party strategy.

Next spring, genuinely progressive candidates need to be ready and willing to challenge incumbent Democrats, and we all need to be ready to support them. It’s the least we can do… yet quite possibly the most important as well.

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3 Responses to “Summing up the critique of Obama”
  1. Obama Fans says:

    Obama is a good president, but will never be a great president.

  2. Sounds like a plan for the moment!

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