Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama v. Liberalism

The verdict is out: Liberals are not happy with President Barack Obama.

Bill Maher has groaned that Obama's "not even a liberal."

"Progressive Democrats need to realize that Obama is not a liberal, and he is definitely not their friend," declared Charles Brown from Talking Points Memo.

Even Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has joined the chorus. "Obama... seems to go out of his way to convey the message that although he rode to office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm, he and his people don't respect the people who got him where he is."

And those are the milder observations. In less restrained circles, insults like 'sell out', 'spineless', and 'closeted conservative' are being tossed about with increasing frequency.

I am by no means condemning these liberals for their criticism of Obama. Indeed, I have voiced similar complaints about his presidency numerous times, particularly regarding the self-imposed limitations of his economic recovery plan, the premature removal of a public option from his health care bill, and his politically-motivated escalation of the Afghan war. That said, it is obvious that these mistakes are coming not from conservative convictions, but from a desire to win support from those who don't share his views. As seen in the early months of Obama's tenure, even when he was initially capable of pushing through a highly ambitious agenda without bipartisan support, his desire to "reach across the aisle" by bringing conservatives and Republicans to the fold has defined his approach to governing (see the preemptive reductions of his stimulus and health care packages as two main examples). If given the choice between trying to earn right-wing support for his programs by watering them down or abandoning his hope of "building bridges" in the name of implementing the strongest measures possible, he chooses the former every time.

In short, when liberals say that there is a problem with Barack Obama, they are not in error. The problem, though, isn't that he isn't one of them, but that he has an additional priority which they do not share.

Before we delve into that, though, it is important to note that - left-wing gripes notwithstanding - Obama has racked up a long list of impressive achievements during the twenty months he's been in office, virtually all of which were staunchly (and often viciously) opposed by Congressional Republicans and conservatives throughout America. Although a comprehensive list would take up more space than this article can afford, the chances are that historians doing a thumbnail sketch of the early months of Obama's presidency will emphasize the Big Four:

- The most comprehensive health care reform bill since Medicare and Medicaid, one that - though far from perfect - will cover thirty-two million previously uninsured Americans and stamp out many of the rampant injustices that have long plagued our medical system.

- An economic stimulus package that, despite its inadequacies, prevented the recession from turning into a depression by spending enough money to cause once-exploding unemployment rates to level off; in conjunction with this, a series of relief measures that provided basic humanitarian aid to the victims of the recession, from extended unemployment benefits to mortgage assistance, all of which greatly alleviated the suffering caused by the economic downturn.

- Measures to prevent a recurrence of this type of recession by addressing the factors that caused it, from a financial regulatory bill that will help prevent many of the reckless and unethical practices which caused the Wall Street meltdown to a credit card reform plan that will protect consumers from exploitation at the hands of large credit card companies.

- Ending the war in Iraq - a conflict that many once that would be as intractable as the Vietnam War - and thus fulfilling one of Obama's central campaign promises, improving our foreign relationships, and removing one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Similar progress is being made by the administration on other foreign policy fronts as well, from the war in Afghanistan to the illegal detention centers in Guantanamo Bay.

None of this is meant as a way of dismissing or downplaying the areas in which Obama has fallen short. Nevertheless, liberals must not forget that for the twenty-eight years before Obama's rise to power, we had three conservative presidents interrupted only by a Democrat who, after the failure of his one progressive initiative, subsequently abandoned all liberal efforts in the future. Obama may not have done enough to be a great president yet, but he has achieved more substantial good in less than two years than his four predecessors did in almost three decades. This is not "nothing" and, regardless of how we feel now, history will applaud Obama for these accomplishments.

That said, it is true that Obama has often fallen short of the liberal ideal, to the detriment both off his presidency and the country. While examples of this abound in areas ranging from health care reform to gay rights, the most important one is in economic policy. After all, a president's ability to get reelected often depends on his success in handling the nation's major economic issues. When Obama took office, those issues involved a worsening recession, rising unemployment, and stagnating incomes. To effectively handle all three, Obama needed a $2 trillion stimulus package; instead, because he made premature concessions to conservatives in the hope of winning their support, he pushed for legislation that was only one-quarter that size (technically it was $788 billion but, when tax cuts are removed, only $500 billion was actually spent on stimulus projects), thus solving the first problem (worsening recession) while not adequately handling the other two. As a result, lingering unemployment and income stagnation continue to wreak havoc on Obama's political fortunes as well as those of the Democratic Party, to say nothing of leaving millions of Americans in desperate straits. What's more, not surprisingly, none of his overtures succeeded in obtaining for him the conservative support that caused him to make such concessions in the first place.

That last point may be especially difficult for some disenchanted left-wingers to understand. If Obama shares the values and goals of progressives, then why doesn't he do more to implement a progressive agenda? Why is he so determined to please conservatives?

Part of his reasoning, of course, is purely strategic. After the resounding reelection of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the devastating defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988, many Democrats erroneously concluded that Reagan's presidency had pushed America to the right, thus making it hard for openly liberal candidates to win or get reelected. The fact that Mondale's defeat in 1984 resulted from Reagan presiding over an unexpected economic turnaround (one unrelated to his polices) and Dukakis's loss in 1988 was caused by his own ineptitude as a campaigner was overlooked; the fault in both cases, it was decided, must have rested with excessive liberalism. That theory was then given false validation when Bill Clinton - a self-described "New Democrat" whose center-right economic, social, and international policies openly refuted the party's left-wing past - was elected over President George H. W. Bush, even though once again liberalism had nothing to do with the outcome (Clinton benefited from the fact that Bush was saddled with a recession). Ever since, the notion that Democrats must move to the right to be politically viable has been a dominant one. To not embrace it is to risk being dismissed as lacking pragmatism.

Yet there is another aspect to Obama's reasoning, one that - paradoxical though it may seem - is borne not of misguided pragmatism, but from excessive idealism. What's more, the nature of this idealism, like Poe's famous purloined letter, is often overlooked precisely because it's hiding in plain sight.

For a clue, let us look to the famous keynote speech he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the one that transformed him overnight from an obscure Illinois state legislator into a political superstar:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us - the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America.

So far what he says, though admirable, is hardly novel, since liberals have fought strenuously for racial equality since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Then again, there is that one sentence - the one that places the divide between "liberal America" and "conservative America" on the same level as racial divides - that gets further emphasized in the next paragraph:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

At first glance this paragraph may seem like nothing more than an unusually eloquent espousal of a fairly common patriotic theme, but take a closer look. In this section of his speech Obama doesn't just issue the standard call to "come together"; by placing it right after the paragraph on racial diversity (one which also included a reference to unity between all ideological sides), he implicitly conflates partisan divisiveness with racial divisiveness. This is noteworthy because (a) it is inaccurate, as racism is always based on hate whereas partisanship, though sometimes unduly hateful, is just as often based on legitimate and important differences of opinion and (b) it transforms the cause of bipartisan unity from a practical desire for government effectiveness and political civility to a highly charged moral imperative. It assumes that, just as solidarity between all races should be an end unto itself rather than a means unto an end, so too should solidarity between individuals of all ideological vantage points be an end unto itself rather than a means unto an end.

This idea is elaborated upon in The Audacity of Hope, Obama's 2006 book that laid out his vision for America. In this excerpt, he not only reiterates his deep belief in the moral imperative behind bipartisanship, but outlines (to what liberals may feel is an eerily prophetic degree) how he plans on making ideological compromises in order to achieve the bipartisan ideal:

Genuine bipartisanship assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority will be constrained — by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate — to negotiate in good faith.

If these conditions do not hold — if nobody outside Washington is really paying attention to the substance of the bill, if the true costs . . . are buried in phony accounting and understated by a trillion dollars or so — the majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100% of what it wants, go on to concede 10%, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this ‘compromise’ of being ‘obstructionist.’

For the minority party in such circumstances, ‘bipartisanship’ comes to mean getting chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist.’

What is particularly striking about this passage is the high priority Obama places on using a bipartisan method when passing legislation. When one looks at presidents who are esteemed as ideological icons because of their ability to successfully pass an agenda that made sweeping changes - Franklin Roosevelt among liberals, Ronald Reagan among conservatives - one finds that they always started out by "asking for 100%" of whatever it was they wanted. This doesn't mean that they weren't ready to compromise if doing so was necessary in order to receive enough support to pass their measures (on the occasions when a president did commit this folly, such as Woodrow Wilson when trying to pass the League of Nations, the results were usually tragic). Indeed, it was the very fact that they expected compromise would be necessary that caused them to ask for so much in the beginning; because their priority rested on getting as much done to advance their goals as was conceivably possible, they maximized their demands so that, after the inevitable wheeling-and-dealing had taken place, the bill that was ultimately passed would be as consistent with their ideological vision as reasonably possible.

This is the approach that you use if an ideological agenda is your end and the manner in which you bring about that agenda is the means. The very fact that Obama scorns the notion of using the bully pulpit of the presidency and the power of congressional majority to get as much as he conceivably can for his cause - the fact that he views this not as mastering the resources of leadership and power to achieve meaningful results but as a way in which one group worsens national divisions by forcing its will on another - reveals the fundamental difference between him and the liberals he represents. In his mind, the ideological agenda is very important, but getting as many people as possible on board to support it is just as important. Ideological diversity in one's support isn't just a means unto an end; it is also, like racial diversity, a great end unto itself.

The problem with Obama's approach is that ideological differences are not inherently destructive and reconciling them is not a moral imperative. Partisanship only becomes dangerous when it impairs the intelligence of debate (which, since it happens in areas of life apart from politics, is bound to happen anyway), leads to violence (see the Tea Party movement), or prevents progress (see the Tea Party movement vs. health care reform). Otherwise, not only is partisanship not problematic, it is healthy and necessary. Ideological bickering may be acrimonious, but it also exposes flaws in bad policy ideas that need to be brought to light. Unchecked extremism may lead to the proliferation of wacky beliefs and proposals, but it also allows radical notions that better serve the needs of humanity to receive a public forum they might otherwise never receive. Even the heightened passions of partisanship have their place since, without them, it would be that much harder to rally people together behind important causes when they were most necessary.

Finally, and most importantly, if on a given issue one party is absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong, then partisanship - and particularly the aggressive use of partisan sentiment so as to fulfill one's agenda even when it involves ramming it down the throats of those who disagree - is a very, very good thing. In fact, it was the lack of hyperpartisanship and an excessive willingness to "meet in the middle" that caused the institution of slavery to exist for as long as it did in this country, forcing millions to spend their lives in bondage and millions more to lose their lives in the Civil War; it was an insistence on always compromising to avoid conflict that caused the Allies to appease Nazis, thus facilitating the terrors of World War Two and the Holocaust; it was the unwillingness to "be partisan" by questioning the domino theory that caused us to get mired in the tragedy of the Vietnam War for years before we finally challenged its legitimacy.

This is what Obama fails to understand. When one side is just plain right and the other side is just plain wrong, the important thing is not to make everyone get along, but to guarantee that the right side wins.

Because Obama doesn't agree with that notion, he abandoned the public option instead of fighting for it, compromised on issues such as gay rights and the use of torture instead of standing strong, and, most significantly and tragically of all, didn't fight for a stimulus package large enough to serve the needs of this nation needed - and of his presidency. Because of these decisions, Obama's has lost popularity from the two groups whose support he could have won - from liberals who feel betrayed and from independents who are disappointed at the lack of results - while he has utterly failed to win over the one group whose support he was wooing with his concessions in the first place, the much desired conservatives.

That is perhaps the final noteworthy point about the error in placing bipartisanship in unduly high esteem - it's unrealistic. Unless you are a president whose popularity inherently transcends party lines (of which American history has provided only three in George Washington, James Monroe, and Dwight Eisenhower), nothing you can ever do in the White House will ever make those whose careers depend on being your political enemies become your permanent friends. Even if partisanship wasn't ultimately undesirable (which it is), it is undeniably immutable.

This isn't to say that hyperpartisanship is without its flaws; of course they exist, for the simple reason that partisans are also people, and so long as people retain their human nature, they will be terribly, terribly flawed (something no statesman will ever be able to change). That said, partisan divisiveness - unlike racial, religious, and sexual divisiveness - is not an inherent evil. While it can sometimes bring about terribly evil results, it is - in its own right - a great good. Counterintuitive as it may seem, there is virtue in being disagreeable.

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