Obama and the Liberals, Part Two: Progressives Should Focus on Progress

Someday, progressives will look back at the Obama presidency as a golden era of progress. They might as well start now.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama walks to Air Force One at JFK Airport following the second presidential debate in New York on Oct. 16, 2012.

It’s understandable that some liberals expected President Obama to lead America into a progressive Era of Good Feelings, to use the power of his bully pulpit and his grass-roots supporters to force Washington partisans to set aside childish things and come together for the common good. It’s understandable because he basically said he would during the 2008 campaign. Well, he didn’t. Faced with an economic freefall and an obstructionist opposition, he decided it was more important to try to change the country than to try to change the capital. It’s fair to say that he overpromised, although the inherent problem with promising bipartisanship is that the other party can make you a promise-breaker by saying no. It’s fair to say that he didn’t live up to the hype, although as far as I can tell the only thing on this earth that lives up to the hype is parenthood. And it’s fair for liberals to criticize some of his less liberal policies, although he never claimed to agree with them on issues like education reform, drone strikes, or long-term deficit reduction.

OK, that’s enough fairness.

I don’t just mock the Obama-bashing utopians of the left for fun, although it is fun. My beef with Ivory Soap liberals, Choose Your Own Adventure Liberals and Heighten the Contradictions liberals is that they’ve missed the point of the Obama era. They’re such committed progressives that they’ve lost interest in progress.

(SPECIAL: 2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President)

Obama ran on an unusually detailed policy agenda in 2008, pledging changes in the way we approach energy, health care, education and the economy. The media didn’t pay much attention to that agenda, partly because they were more interested in his race and his crazy pastor and his pretty promises about post-partisanship, partly because it was mostly the basic Democratic agenda of reversing the Bush era and investing in the future. The untold story of Obama’s first term—well, I tried to tell it in my book—is that he largely did what he said he was going to do. He launched a clean energy revolution, transformed the health care system, enacted dramatic school reforms, and pushed America’s economic policies (not just through taxes, which are now higher for the very rich and lower for everyone else, but through aggressive investments in research, infrastructure and the safety net) in more progressive directions. He also helped prevent a second Depression, saved the auto industry from an epic collapse, ended the war in Iraq, allowed gays to serve openly in the military, and engineered the most ambitious overhaul of financial regulations since the first Depression, among other promises kept.

The “professional left,” to borrow former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs’ phrase for the liberal punditocracy, has generally rolled its collective eyes.

My favorite example, as usual, is the $800 billion stimulus that Obama passed during his first month in office. Liberals have denounced it as a pittance, even though it was much bigger than most liberals called for at the time, even though at least nine senators whose votes were needed to pass it had insisted they wouldn’t support a penny more than $800, even though it included unprecedented spending on anti-poverty programs, renewable energy, public transit, scientific research, electronic medical records, green manufacturing, aid to states to prevent massive layoffs of public employees, and other liberal priorities. The griping continued through Obamacare (why didn’t he push a public option to go with universal health insurance?), Wall Street reform (why didn’t he break up the megabanks?), and gays in the military (what took him so long?). The Ivory Soap left has blasted Obama’s anti-Keynesian rhetoric about belt-tightening, even though he’s injected unprecedented Keynesian stimulus into the economy, and his failure to talk about global warming, even though he’s driven unprecedented reductions in emissions. The rap on Obama in 2008 was that he was just a words guy; he’s turned out to be a deeds guy, but his own base doesn’t seem to recognize it. It sees him as a spineless sellout, a hapless negotiator, a political incompetent, as if the black guy who somehow reached the White House with the middle name Hussein also somehow became an idiot on January 20, 2009.

(PHOTOS: Inside Barack Obama’s World)

Some of these so-called “emoprogs” are upset because Obama hasn’t given them the catharsis they crave, the epic crusades for liberal causes, the vicious putdowns of intransigent Republicans. They forget that he did campaign across the country for his jobs bill in 2011, but it stalled because Republicans controlled the House. It’s true that he hasn’t gotten too nasty with the GOP, but that’s because he’s needed to negotiate with them to keep the government open and paying its bills; it’s also worth noting that his relentlessly reasonable demeanor, however frustrating to lefties who want to see fire and brimstone, helped get him reelected. The larger point is that bills that don’t pass Congress don’t make change. And change doesn’t mean perfect. Change means better. Obama likes to point out the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in states that were rebelling against the Union; it doesn’t mean that Lincoln was a spineless sellout, just a pragmatist. The original version of Social Security was a pittance compared to its modern incarnation; it doesn’t mean FDR sold out his base.

As I explained the other day, liberals are now complaining that Obama made unnecessary concessions to Republicans on the fiscal cliff deal, setting the stage for another negotiating disaster over the debt ceiling in the coming months. At the same time, they’re concocting fantasy scenarios where Obama could get everything they want without substantive concessions—who could possibly object to minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin?—and they will inevitably be disappointed when Obama cuts another imperfect deal to prevent Republican nihilists from destroying the economy.

One could argue that Obama-bashing liberals move the national debate to the left, helping the president’s negotiating position by making his proposals seem more middle-of-the-road. One could also argue that Obama-bashing liberals provide aid and comfort to Republicans, by fueling their confidence that the president will eventually cave to their demands. What’s unquestionably true is that dampened liberal enthusiasm helped Republicans take back the House in 2010, teaching GOP leaders that anti-Obama extremism and obstructionism would be rewarded at the polls. Another depressed Democratic turnout in 2014 could help Republicans take back the Senate as well, or at least maintain divided government in Washington. And the enduring power of the GOP on Capitol Hill is the primary obstacle to immigration reform, cap-and-trade, and other liberal priorities, not to mention a sane budget process without brinksmanship.

But I’m not really providing tactical advice. I’m providing analytical advice. Someday, progressives will look back at the Obama presidency as a golden era of progress. They might as well start now.

MORE: Why Obama’s Change Won’t Sell in the U.S.

29 comments
JeffSeussalias
JeffSeussalias

THE MOST sane "stimulus" i.e .FICA tax cut was allowed to lapse.. Taxes went up more on the mid to lower classes than on the 1%. Nobody mentioned nor seems to care.. 9Why aren't people more angry???) 

Progressive???

A give Obama a "B" for effort.. I give the powers that be a "D" for fixing anything.. including health care. Of course what does one expect anymore from an Oligarchy.

The BEST I can say is "it could have been worse"... as to a "progressive golden age".... spare me.


DerekHologram
DerekHologram

I feel dirty even responding to an i@iot like Grunwald, but as a proud Liberal I can confirm that opposing the murder of innocents from the sky, or the transfer of torture from the CIA to military intelligence, is not something I will ever be ashamed of.

sacredh
sacredh

"It’s fair to say that he didn’t live up to the hype, although as far as I can tell the only thing on this earth that lives up to the hype is parenthood."

.

Nasty sex. The hype doesn't do it justice. If your eyes roll up in the back of your head, you've done it right.

jmac
jmac

The 1920's was a golden era - until it wasn't.   If we repeat the Bush era in 20 to 30 years instead of the 80 it took to repeat the late 20's, Grumwald and Obama can step to the plate and take the blame.  Wall Street hasn't been tamed and is winning on the gambling front (with  help from split-second computer decisions).  Our new budget director  thinks deregulation wasn't the problem.     But far be it from Occupy to complain - why, they might make Democrats lose in a mid-term.  We need to shut up and concentrate on the next election.  

Because that's what Republican do.   

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

That might explain why Obama's changed to more firebrand positioning - try to rile up the base for 2014.

rabbitwocky
rabbitwocky

I'm beginning to suspect Mr. Grunwald doesn't much like Liberals, though he seems unable or unwilling to call out any in particular. In my day, we might call that stereotyping, and frown down upon it. But I digress. I'm sure there must be one or two petulant Liberals, somewhere in the nation, whinging about The Evil One as they take another toke. Well sir, if there are, and they are, I say they must be DINOs! Good riddance! They should form their own dang party! Maybe move to Canada if they like it so much!

destor23
destor23

Trolling in the New Year, Mr. Grunwald?  The thing is, you're fighting straw men.  You have these cleverly named liberals in your crosshairs, but they don't exist.  Most thoughtful liberals do appreciate what Obama has accomplished.  But we question decisions that he's made that did not require Congressional approval.  The Drone War, for example, is something that's all him.  I happen to like it as an alternative to boots on the ground but it is certainly a legitimate target for criticism, right?  How about the failure of HAMP?  Obama had the authorization.  Geithner didn't use it and Obama didn't direct him to.  Instead of making fun of people, why don't you deal with that very real criticism that has had a very real impact on the lives of families who have lost their homes?


The truth is that, despite accomplishments, progressives have reasonable criticisms of the administration that do not amount to purposeless quacking.  Your job is to take those criticisms seriously.  So, come on down off your high horse and lets talk... HAMP.  Go back and forth with me a couple of times in the comments and then tell me I'm being unreasonable.  You game?

grape_crush
grape_crush

> They’re such committed progressives that they’ve lost interest in progress.

Not that I'm saying that's where Obama is taking us, but progressing yourself over a cliff isn't exactly a good form of progress, is it? We could make amazing progress on deficit reduction by eliminating Medicare and our standing military, but that wouldn't be a great outcome.

Speaking as a non-professional leftie, I will tell you there has been all sorts of progress - positive, mediocre, or disappointing - made during the past four years, which, considering how venomously Obama's political opposition has been, is somewhat amazing. I will also tell you, Grunwald, that if it weren't for the various voices shouting from the President's Left, there would be nothing to listen to but the shrillness of the Right.

> The “professional left,” to borrow former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs’ phrase for the liberal punditocracy, has generally rolled its collective eyes.

Cite, please. More than Glen Greenwald and a few of the front pagers at FDL or dKos.

> Liberals have denounced it as a pittance, even though it was much bigger than most liberals called for at the time.

That's new to me, considering that the amount of the stimulus bill was smaller than what even Obama was asking for at the time. I'd like to know where that bit of information is coming from.

 > The rap on Obama in 2008 was that he was just a words guy.

Mostly from his opponents.

> At the same time, they’re concocting fantasy scenarios where Obama could get everything they want without substantive concessions—who could possibly object to minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin?

I don't see that being taken all that seriously, Grunwald. Mostly it's a hypothetical that few people take seriously. 

> One could argue that Obama-bashing liberals move the national debate to the left, helping the president’s negotiating position by making his proposals seem more middle-of-the-road.

Not exactly, but that's generally correct. 

> What’s unquestionably true is that dampened liberal enthusiasm helped Republicans take back the House in 2010.

Liberals are at least partly to blame for the 2010 Tea Party wave? There's so much context missing in that sentence, I don't know where to begin.

> But I’m not really providing tactical advice. I’m providing analytical advice.

You're doing neither, Grunwald. You're doing a variation on concern trolling. You have taken a small slice of the opinions out there and presented them as the entirety of the attitude of the Left...followed by telling everyone who has expressed frustration or disappointment with Obama's deeds that they should just muzzle it and be appreciative of anything that gives the appearance of being in line with liberal/progressive policy.

AlistairCookie
AlistairCookie

I got a "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" kind of vibe
off of this piece.  Which is a valid point, but aren't we allowed to
accept what is, while hoping for even better?  Does recognizing what has
been accomplished preclude me from hoping for more?  Or wishing some
things could have been better?  Yes, Rome wasn't built in a day (as the
saying goes), but that doesn't mean I can't wish the construction would
go faster--or not encourage it to go faster.
I think we all
recognize that Republican recalcitrance has certainly put kinks in the
works, but those who voted for Obama thinking they were getting anything
other than a moderate-centrist weren't paying attention. We should give
credit where credit is due, but I don't have to be *completely
satisfied* with "adequate" or "good enough" or "better than the other
guy".
I did enjoy "emoprogs" though.  ;)  I wonder what
music they listen to?  Dream Theater?  What's the perfect emo and prog
rock mashup?
 

E:  Grammar


Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

These lectures would be so much more helpful with actual examples of the strawmen you are fighting.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@forgottenlord He is also now free from worrying about pathologically non-partisan centrist Beltway gasbags and swing voters. That's something that Grunwald gets right about Obama's first-term politics and not to be underestimated as a factor.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

"You're doing a variation on concern trolling"

Thanks g_c I haven't been able to put my finger on it. You are correct.

AfGuy
AfGuy

My reply was meant as one to the original article... not to you. 

Looks like FriedLive strikes again.

AfGuy
AfGuy

So... if a plane in a steep dive is able to pull the nose up ever so slightly, we're supposed to be happy because it's "progress"?

Like climate change, there comes a point at which the plane itself can't survive the pull-up needed to escape danger... but, according to the centrist viewpoint, we're showing "progress" soooo.... don't worrry...be happy.

Your argument would make sense if we have an infinite amount of time for these increments of "progress" to reach success.  We don't... what we have is politicians willing to drag their feet and continue to line their pockets because "they won't be there" when we have to pay the ultimate price for their present inaction.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Paul,nnto It reflects an almost irrationally defensive reaction to, what Grunwald admits, is mostly legitimate liberal policy criticism, doesn't it?. And then there's the tell, when he's forced into wild hyperbole, e.g., "Liberals have denounced [the original stimulus] as a pittance." Actually, the few who "denounced it" quite reasonably and correctly (it's the math, stupid) pointed at that it was too small by about half, not that $800 billion was "a pittance." Perspective being in the eye of the beholder, it seems to me that (since, Grunwald has a good-paying gig) all that liberal whining about millions of lives destroyed by unnecessary forced unemployment appears to be an unserious lack of appreciation for, "a golden era of progress." Go figure.

outsider
outsider

@reallife @jmac 


Yeah, not with the state of the GOP today. The GOP are talking their way into extinction. 

Sue_N
Sue_N

@shepherdwong @forgottenlord The Beltway media has done as much to cripple our politics as the GOP has. Maybe even more, because they've actually enabled the crazification without holding anyone accountable.

rabbitwocky
rabbitwocky

@forgottenlord @rabbitwocky Apologies. I was engaging in snark, not being serious. It is a common rejoinder (among certain circles) to tell someone that if they don't like this country, they should get out.

AlistairCookie
AlistairCookie

@AfGuy No? I didn't say that at all. I didn't try to anyway. I'm not a centrist.

I was trying to say we have the right, and intellectual capability, to both recognize progress made AND not be satisfied. One does not preclude the other-which is the impression I feel Grunwald is giving off. That they are mutually exclusive. I can recognize the ACA did *some* good and still wish it would have done more.

rabbitwocky
rabbitwocky

@shepherdwong @Paul,nnto Well said. It is galling that every Liberal criticism of Obama is prefaced with the acknowledgment that it is legitimate, but then shat upon as being petulant and ungrateful. So if a criticism is legit...then it should be trotted out there and bandied about. It's called being adults. Cripes; talk about trying to stretch false equivalence into a whole other dimension. Equating (admittedly valid) liberal concerns with (utterly ridiculous) right-wing-inspired nuttery?

destor23
destor23

@shepherdwong @Paul,nnto And... people like Grunwald seem not to realize that calling the stimulus an $800 billion plan is inaccurate.  The money was spent over more than 2 years.  Serious Keynesian stimulus policies usually call for 5% of annual GDP.  This was about half that.  How is it wrong to point that out?

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

I read Grunwald's book and he does show that when all was said and done it was closer to a trillion. And no question the republicans were, and have been, doing whatever they can to slow any recovery most notably on unemployement.

That doesn't excuse BHO but certainly is a large part of why we are where we are.

And being able to distinguish betweeen criticism of policy and "bashing" isn't really that difficult, even if Grunwald chooses to not see it.

Grunwald is actually a good reporter which makes this nonsense all the more odd. Name calling and broad strokes hasn't really been his bag.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Sue_NRepublican insanity and treason couldn't exist without pathological Beltway centrism. That's what proves that it's pathological and, perhaps, the greatest evil of our time.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@shepherdwong @Paul,nnto I think Grunwald has spent two days trying to thread the needle of"criticism is accurate but the people making them should shut up"

Of course until he actually quotes sources it's all just an exercise in punditurbation. 


shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Paul,nnto As you know, I've had my own lengthy (and costly) battles with progressives when they've strayed into eating worms in the backyard territory (i.e., 1) withholding votes from the false liberal, 2)....3) winning!). But, if liberals can't criticize what they view as policy shortcomings from the left, what's the point of engaging politically at all? Just weird.