Despite some recent victories like repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” many on the American Left are feeling a cumulative disgust toward President Barack Obama, not just for his generally timid policy choices but – even more so – for his failure to articulate and fight for progressive values.
After eight years of getting bullied by President George W. Bush – and even longer by Fox News, talk radio and congressional Republicans – many progressives, including many young voters, wanted a passionate advocate in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a member of the American elite who treated his class with a knowing disdain. They got instead a silver-tongued conciliator who strives for the elite’s blessings.
So, even as Obama ticks off his legislative accomplishments – from helping women get a fair wage in his administration’s early days to his Wednesday signing of a law repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules for gays in the U.S. military – the President is not likely to gain much traction with his liberal “base” because he has failed to be what many of them hoped he would be: a battler.
While that estrangement will be difficult for Obama to overcome – especially given this month's compromise with right-wing Republicans over extending Bush’s tax cuts for the rich – the other question in this troubled marriage between Obama and his angry “base” is whether Obama is entirely at fault.
Or does the Left deserve a share of the blame for its own failures, especially how it sat back over the past few decades as the Right moved ahead in media, think tanks and other elements of an ideological infrastructure? Should the Left be more self-critical about its tendency in recent years to be more a sideline critic than an on-the-field participant?
From some of his public comments, Obama seems to think so. At a Dec. 7 news conference, Obama lashed out at what he depicted as "sanctimonious" purists who preferred to see health-care reform go down to defeat over an insistence that a “public option” be included than accept passage of a purely private-sector approach.
“If that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then, let’s face it, we will never get anything done,” Obama said, with a flash of anger. “People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.
“And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of pre-existing condition.”
Obama’s criticism of critics from his “base” recalls the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Much as FDR recognized and disdained the hypocrisies and shortcomings of his fellow members of the American elite, the ex-community organizer seemed to be reacting to tendencies among his progressive allies to dream big and accomplish little.
Instead, Obama chose to rack up legislative “victories,” even at the cost of making compromises with conservative Democrats and the occasional Republican who would break party ranks.
Rather than shaking up the System, he sought to stabilize the Establishment. Instead of going after the Wall Street gamblers whose recklessness had pushed the country to the brink of a new depression, he bailed them out.
Instead of fighting for a larger stimulus package to help hard-pressed Americans who were losing jobs and homes, Obama let it be watered down with tax cuts to secure a few Republican votes. Later, he signed a law that imposed only modest reforms on Wall Street’s ability to make another mess.
Similarly, he chose not to hold Bush and his neoconservative advisers accountable for war crimes. He didn’t even support a fact-finding investigation into how the Bush administration had conned the nation into invading Iraq. He further pleased the neocons by escalating the Afghan War and expanding Bush’s use of Predator drones to hunt down militants in Pakistan and Yemen.
Despite campaign promises about government transparency, Obama cracked down on whistleblowers who revealed government wrongdoing. He is letting his Justice Department devise novel legal strategies to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing leaked U.S. government documents.
Also, after having treated health-care reform as his top domestic priority, Obama walked away from a variety of other important issues, including climate-change legislation, union protections and immigration reform.
Even Obama’s “signature” health-care law left the “base” frustrated because the process became so bogged down in futile efforts to woo Republicans, such as Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe; so compromised to appease insurance industry defenders like independent Sen. Joe Lieberman; and so convoluted to buy the votes of conservative Democrats, like Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Even though Obama claimed to support a “public” or government-run insurance option as the best way to create real competition for the insurance industry, he jettisoned it without a fight. He accepted an industry-friendly plan that tells Americans that they must buy private health insurance, an old-time Republican idea that ironically Republican state officials and GOP-appointed judges are now attacking as unconstitutional.
In perhaps the ultimate irony, Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court might well strike down the private-sector mandate at the heart of the health-care law because it leaves Americans no option other than to buy a private commodity, a health insurance policy. In other words, it lacks a “public option.” If that happens, Obama will have little to show for all his concessions to Sens. Snowe, Lieberman and Nelson.
In a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday, liberal columnist Harold Meyerson rated as mixed what he called Obama’s two-year “progressive-reform period,” much less impressive than the accomplishments of FDR and Lyndon Johnson but more substantive than those of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Meyerson noted, too, that Carter and Clinton had larger Democratic majorities than Obama had and did not face endless GOP filibusters. “In fairness to Obama, he, unlike his predecessors, had to overcome filibusters on virtually every bill,” Meyerson wrote.
Meyerson also cited a key handicap that Obama had in common with Carter and Clinton.
“Unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, the three most recent Democratic presidents all suffered from a lack of left-wing street heat,” Meyerson wrote. “What distinguishes Obama - and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid - is that they pushed through so much legislation despite the absence of legions demanding progressive change (though there was a very effective mass lobby, if not a mass movement, for repealing the military's ‘don't ask, don't tell’ ban).”
In other words, Meyerson recognized that the American Left has allowed its ability to rally the people to wither away. As late as the 1960s and the early 1970s, the Left could bring great pressure to bear for passage of landmark laws, ending racial segregation and providing medical care for the elderly.
However, during the late 1970s, the Left, which had held an advantage in media and think tanks, opted to downsize or decommission those institutions in favor of an emphasis on “local organizing.”
The Right took a different course, investing billions of dollars in expanding its outreach to rank-and-file Americans. Over the next three decades, the Right waged a national “war of ideas” against a Left that had largely disarmed itself.
Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” message was promoted via print publications, by a stable of well-paid newspaper and TV commentators, on AM radio stations across the country, and later on Fox News and the Internet. “Liberal” was turned into a dirty word that politicians had to avoid. Any suggestion that the government could help solve a national problem was denounced as silly socialism.
Even as Reagan’s trickle-down economics failed to improve the lot of the average American – though making the upper crust all the richer – Reagan’s supply-side theories remained dominant, resistant to any and all evidence.
In the 1990s, Clinton raised marginal tax rates on the wealthy and the nation enjoyed one of its most sustained periods of job creation, which came with the additional prospect of retiring the entire federal debt. However, after Bush managed to steal Election 2000 from Al Gore, the Republicans insisted on another dose of Reaganism, more tax cuts for the rich.
The strategy – compounded by Bush’s two wars paid for entirely by borrowing – ended in an economic catastrophe, combining record federal deficits, failed banks, massive unemployment and home foreclosures.
Yet, the Right with its impressive propaganda capabilities has been able to beat back any sustained criticism of Reaganism. Millions of middle-class and working-class Americans continue to rally to economic theories that are devastating the middle and working classes.
On Monday, New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman examined the curious question of why so many people behave so irrationally.
“When historians look back at 2008-10, what will puzzle them most, I believe, is the strange triumph of failed ideas,” Krugman wrote. “Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything — yet they now dominate the political scene more thoroughly than ever.
“How did that happen? How, after runaway banks brought the economy to its knees, did we end up with Ron Paul, who says ‘I don’t think we need regulators,’ about to take over a key House panel overseeing the Fed?
“How, after the experiences of the Clinton and Bush administrations — the first raised taxes and presided over spectacular job growth; the second cut taxes and presided over anemic growth even before the crisis — did we end up with bipartisan agreement on even more tax cuts?
“The answer from the right is that the economic failures of the Obama administration show that big-government policies don’t work. But the response should be, what big-government policies?
“For the fact is that the Obama stimulus — which itself was almost 40 percent tax cuts — was far too cautious to turn the economy around. ... Put it this way: A policy under which government employment actually fell, under which government spending on goods and services grew more slowly than during the Bush years, hardly constitutes a test of Keynesian economics.
“Now, maybe it wasn’t possible for President Obama to get more in the face of Congressional skepticism about government. But even if that’s true, it only demonstrates the continuing hold of a failed doctrine over our politics.”
Though Krugman’s column focused on the mystery of why failed economic ideas continue to prevail, the same point could be made about foreign policy, where neoconservatives and other hardliners remain dominant in the Washington policy debates despite the calamities that their strategies have brought down upon the nation.
To me – having worked in national news for more than three decades – a big part of the answer is the media imbalance. The Right has invested so much; the Left so little; and the mainstream careerists understand where the jobs are and where they’re not.
Perhaps because he writes for the New York Times, the normally gutsy Krugman shies away from noting the media elephant in the room. Instead, he laid more criticism at Obama’s feet for failing to more effectively and consistently make the case against Reaganism and in favor of more government activism. Krugman wrote:
“To borrow the title of a recent book by the Australian economist John Quiggin on doctrines that the crisis should have killed but didn’t, we’re still — perhaps more than ever — ruled by ‘zombie economics.’ Why? Part of the answer, surely, is that people who should have been trying to slay zombie ideas have tried to compromise with them instead. And this is especially, though not only, true of the president. ...
“President Obama ... has consistently tried to reach across the aisle by lending cover to right-wing myths. He has praised Reagan for restoring American dynamism (when was the last time you heard a Republican praising F.D.R.?), adopted G.O.P. rhetoric about the need for the government to tighten its belt even in the face of recession, offered symbolic freezes on spending and federal wages.
“None of this stopped the right from denouncing him as a socialist. But it helped empower bad ideas, in ways that can do quite immediate harm. Right now Mr. Obama is hailing the tax-cut deal as a boost to the economy — but Republicans are already talking about spending cuts that would offset any positive effects from the deal. And how effectively can he oppose these demands, when he himself has embraced the rhetoric of belt-tightening?”
Without doubt, Krugman is correct in his criticism of Obama’s intellectual accommodations to the Right. But that is only part of the answer to the question that Krugman raises.
Why do the “zombie ideas” refuse to die? To a great extent, it is because those ideas are protected by a well-oiled political/media machine. The machine not only generates support for Reagan’s “trickle-down” economics through right-wing media and think tanks, but also reaches into mainstream information outlets, such as the influential news channel CNBC.
CNBC’s “free-market” anchors never wavered – nor were they held accountable – when their anti-regulatory ideology helped blow up the economy and cost many CNBC watchers much of their stock portfolios. After the hated Big Government rushed in with taxpayer dollars to put Wall Street back on its feet, the CNBC anchors quickly returned to demonizing government interference, especially anything aimed at helping the little guy.
One truism that I’ve learned about political and media survival in Washington is that it’s always smart to shift toward where the power lies. In effect, that is what “practical” politicians and journalists do. They venture only as far as they feel they can without creating undue political or career risks for themselves.
American progressives may hate that fact. They may want Obama to be another FDR whatever the political risks. They may feel bitterly disappointed if they were enthusiastic supporters of Obama in 2008. Or they may gloat over the fact that they warned their friends that Obama was just another opportunist pol eager to sell out.
But sitting on the sidelines – either in despair or in vindication – is irrelevant to the larger picture of what the United States and the world needs.
The hard truth is that until the Left gets onto the field in a much more serious way and starts engaging the Right in its “war of ideas” – including making major investments in media, think tanks and other means of getting information to the public – politicians will continue to disappoint and embitter the Left. So will mainstream journalists.
As Harold Meyerson noted, a major difference between the big accomplishments of FDR and LBJ and the little steps taken by Carter, Clinton and Obama was “a lack of left-wing street heat.”
And that heat won’t be forthcoming until Americans routinely hear real facts about their situation as well as rational arguments about what they can do to change things.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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