Jonathan Chait wrote a brilliant editorial for the New York magazine about liberal dissatisfaction with the president. Other than the headline, it’s impossible to pull a single quote of from the piece (but I’ll try), so you’ll have to take a few minutes and read it for yourself — especially if you’re one of the dissatisfied liberals.
He details the “liberal failures” of previous Democratic presidents who are currently enjoying a popular resurgence contrasted with progressive anger about the Obama presidency. During the historical recap sections, my mantra about “name a president with whom you were 100 percent satisfied” kept springing to mind.
Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?
Chait’s broader point is that liberals are too self-loathing and idealistic to accept success when it’s staring them in the face.
Chait missed two bits of analysis.
First, many liberals weren’t with the Obama campaign in the first place. We may have all voted for him in November, 2008, but the primary left a lot of liberals pissed off with a lingering ambivalence about the Obama campaign. In fact, most A-list liberals were John Edwards supporters until he dropped out, then they divided into Hillary and Obama cliques. From there, the fisticuffs began (read Eric Boehlert’s “Bloggers on the Bus” for more).
Second, there are Glenn Greenwald types with large audiences who have taken a “we hate the system and Obama is part of the system, so crush him, too” approach. Glenn believes it’s his place to hold leadership accountable for their mistakes and he’s willing to undermine efforts to move the country leftwards in the process (the president is, in fact, moving policy-making to the left, it’s just slow-going after 30 years of Reaganomics). So he writes about what he perceives to be continuations of Bush policies by the Obama White House, and he doesn’t care much if it generates increased dissatisfaction with the president among his readers — and he doesn’t care if they stay home on election day and a Republican wins. Actually, I’m not sure if he cares about a progressive movement or shoving the discourse leftward — it’s all collateral damage in his slash-and-burn approach. Sadly, too many of his readers don’t understand the idea of smart accountability: making a strong case for our values and ideas without undermining a left-friendly White House.
Ultimately, I’m disillusioned with too many progressives who I believed were smart and understood objective reality. We used to rip into Karl Rove for talking about his “non-reality based empire.” But too many of us are so bent out of shape that we’re losing sight of how this country functions — while some of us are too willing to compromise our values to get what we want. I’ve heard some liberals suggest the president should just act as a unitary executive — an idea that was popular in Dick Cheney’s circle during the Bush years. We don’t seem to get history. 30 years of Reagan-style politics. Republicans have ruled the discourse, even when Democrats controlled the White House or Congress, they moved to the right in order to keep up (see also President Clinton). We don’t seem to get the idea that if we turn our backs on the most liberal president since FDR, we will get more moderate presidents and Republican presidents.
I really don’t know what’s next, but judging by my Twitter feed and conversations I’ve had with colleagues, it sounds like the pragmatic left is gaining momentum. Here’s to hoping it continues…