There was a telling confrontation at last week’s Netroots Nation gathering of progressive activists, interrupting a panel discussion on “What to Do When the President Is Just Not That Into You.” A bisexual volunteer for President Obama reelection campaign approached the stage to hand a flyer to Dan Choi, a gay former Army lieutenant and a leading crusader for the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Choi dramatically ripped up the flyer and declared that he wouldn’t support Obama.
And why should he? What has Obama ever done to help gays serve openly in the military? Other than repeal don’t-ask-don’t-tell, so that gays can serve openly in the military? Ah, “the professional left,” never happy unless it’s unhappy.
When White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tried to explain during a later panel that Obama is the most progressive president ever on gay rights, the Daily Kos blogger who was moderating cut him off: “That’s a pretty low bar.”
With friends like these, who needs Republicans? If the primary theme of the Obama era is the insanity of the right—attacking government-run health care and Medicare cuts simultaneously, demanding deficit reduction through deficit-busting tax cuts, denying climate science—the secondary theme is the ingratitude of the left. And the latter infuriates the White House far more than the former, the way a rebellious teenage son causes far more angst than a crazy old neighbor.
It’s true that President Obama is not as liberal as some Daily Kos bloggers would like him to be. (Although he has blogged at Daily Kos.) He continued some of President Bush’s national security policies. (Although he did end the war in Iraq.) He ignored left-wing calls to nationalize troubled banks. (Which turned out to be the right call.) He’s pushed for middle-class tax cuts and public-employee wage freezes that his base dislikes, and he’s outsourced most of the Republican-bashing that his base craves. (Which may be why he’s way more popular than his party.) None of this should have been a surprise; in The Audacity of Hope, he made it clear that he’s a market-oriented, consensus-seeking pragmatist, and he repeatedly criticized knee-jerk paleoliberals who don’t appreciate the dynamism of capitalism or the limits of government.
Somehow, though, the disillusionment addicts of the left have concocted a narrative of Obama-as-sellout that bears little resemblance to his actual presidency. Democratic infighting is usually described as a “circular firing squad,” but this is more like soldiers fragging their commander in battle because he isn’t screaming loud enough.
This narrative begins, as usual, with Obama’s stimulus package. After his election, hundreds of left-of-center economists called for a stimulus of $300-$400 billion. They specifically requested aid to states, unemployment insurance, infrastructure projects and green energy incentives. Less than a month into his presidency, Obama produced a stimulus with everything they asked for in unprecedented amounts—along with unprecedented spending on food stamps, Pell grants, high-speed rail, high-speed Internet and other liberal priorities. And the price tag came to $787 billion, twice the size of the entire New Deal in inflation-adjusted dollars. Obama had pushed for even more, but it was trimmed at the last minute to meet the demands of three Republican senators whose votes were needed to pass it.
But for much of the left, the moral of the story is that the stimulus was too small and Obama lacked the guts to fight for something bigger.
It was a similar story in the epic fight over health care reform. Obama finally achieved the eternal progressive dream of universal coverage, overruling aides who wanted to settle for incremental improvements. But the left was mad because his plan didn’t include a “public option,” a brand-new progressive dream. Earth to the left: He didn’t have the votes for a public option. There was nothing he could have said or done to get the votes for a public option. He’s a politician, not a magician.
Then Obama didn’t fight hard enough for cap-and-trade, because he didn’t care about climate change. Or maybe, just maybe, because once again he didn’t have the votes. After all, his stimulus included an unheard-of $90 billion for clean energy, including record spending on efficiency, renewables, advanced biorefineries, electric vehicles, the smart grid, and factories to build all that green stuff in the U.S.
But when you’re convinced the president just isn’t that into you, the facts are irrelevant. He failed to pass immigration reform or the Employee Free Choice Act; if he truly cared he would have found the votes! He passed strict financial reforms—including a consumer protection agency that liberals had clamored for—but not strict enough. He didn’t push hard enough for a second stimulus, which was disastrous, until he got a second stimulus, which was also disastrous, because he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts to get Republicans to go along. He prevented a second depression, but he has yet to create a liberal utopia of full employment.
It’s easy for activists to complain about imperfect achievements like the stimulus or Obamacare, especially when they’re not among the 3 million Americans who would’ve been unemployed without the stimulus or the 50 million Americans who would’ve been uninsured without Obamacare. Complaining is what activists do. And bloggers are right that Obama hasn’t made a consistent case for liberal politics or Keynesian economics, allowing anti-government Republicans to hijack the national debate. But making a case is what bloggers are supposed to do.
Presidents, on the other hand, are supposed to make progress, whether progressives like it or not.