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.

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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.

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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.