Progressives and Evaluating the President

[My latest for the Huffington Post.]

I am no one’s disciple. However, any attempt at an objective view of both the progressive and broader accomplishments of the Obama administration has been histrionically, unfairly and chronically mislabeled as the blind allegiance of an “Obamabot” or “Obama apologist.” Therefore, because I’ve been attempting to observe the successes and failures of President Obama and peg them according to both historical precedent and modern political reality, I’ve been accordingly mislabeled.

That said, the goal of this essay isn’t to antagonize or kneejerk in reaction to the most caustic anti-Obama attackers, or to acquiesce to their misguided view of the president and his achievements. In fact, I’ve been struggling recently to come up with a line of reasoning that will facilitate a sort of Progressive Détente. This post is meant to continue and expand that process — perhaps in futility, perhaps not.

Like Melissa Harris Perry and others before him, Andrew Sullivan is this week’s target of anti-Obama attacks from both flanks of the political debate regarding his cover story for Newsweek in which he makes a case for the successes of the Obama presidency and how critics are missing the big picture — the “long-view.” Far-right fire eaters, in particular Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly and Sarah Palin, have been dismissing Sullivan’s post offhandedly because of Sullivan’s so-called “Trig Truther” questions about whether Palin actually gave birth to Trig (I hasten to note that the Trig issue is Sullivan’s fight and not mine). On the other end of the continuum, anti-Obama progressives have been critical of Sullivan’s omission of things like “secret kill lists” and drone attacks.

Much like my view of President Obama’s record, I don’t agree with everything Sullivan wrote. Specifically, I disagree with the general point that, according to Sullivan, President Obama is a moderate, centrist president. At the risk of begging an “I knew it!” reaction from conservatives, I firmly believe the president has chiefly governed with the same worldview outlined in his second book, The Audacity of Hope: a center-left agenda pursued with a measured, pragmatic strategy. On a finer point, I also disagree with Sullivan’s assertion that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) codified the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. It most certainly did not. The NDAA simply didn’t ban it. There’s a difference. Because a procedure isn’t banned doesn’t make it suddenly codified.

I hate to have to preface anything with qualifiers like this, but, likewise, I disagree with the president on a number of things despite firmly believing that his record has been successful within the frame of progressivism as well as within the frame of the average American voter. Since it’s mandatory to do so in order to be taken seriously these days in certain progressive circles, I vocally spoke out against the debt deal and cautioned that spending cuts would harm economic growth. I argued against anti-gay preacher Rick Warren delivering the invocation at the inauguration. At every mention, I’ve opposed the continuation of the war on terror and, with it, indefinite detention. I opposed the president signing the four-year renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act. The expansion of TSA body scanners is an on-going source of disgust. I can’t get beyond the fact that Joe Biden supported the Bush-era bankruptcy bill. I have repeatedly spoken out against the president repeating the meme that tax cuts create jobs. I wasn’t happy with the signing of the NDAA, though not for all of the reasons anti-Obama critics have (often erroneously) enumerated. Oh, and I once wrote a piece here comparing the president to George McFly, for crying out loud. The fits-nicely-into-140-characters reaction that I’m an Obamabot is, at best, inaccurate.

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, though, I’ve been beating the drum for “smart accountability” in the progressive movement — a path for the movement to maintain its credibility and a means of consistently holding leadership accountable for its actions, while also not shooting the broader movement in the foot by ostracizing and undermining the most progressive-friendly administration in generations with screechy white noise and perpetually dissatisfied griping.

Petitioning a politically friendlier administration should carry with it a vastly different tone than petitioning an unfriendly administration (obviously, President Obama is the former and Bush the latter). In finer terms, it’s easier to convince a center-left president to take on a far-left cause than it would be to convince a center-right or far-right president. Therefore progressives should make a case for their position to the friendlier leader without seeming irrational or unreasonable. And if dissatisfaction isn’t modulated and tempered, and, instead, progressives lapse into apoplexy at every headline, their views get lost in a cacophonous blast of nothing. To the people tasked with actually moving ideas through the sausage factory of government every day, it’s very easy for the constant loud noises to be met with, There goes the left — they’re screeching again. Ignore. For similar reasons, the administration will never really listen to the ceaseless and dissonant cannonade from far-right talk radio, which is so consistently off the rails and hysterical, there’s no foothold for discussion or understanding. So why bother?

The better approach with this president, instead, is to simply make an effective case for a position, point by wonky point, without the nonsense (i.e. “worse than Bush,” and the like). For example, during the health care reform debate, Steve Benen wrote a memorandum and delivered it to the Democratic leadership, and, as I recall, the White House used some of Benen’s suggestions. Additionally, the White House has created an online petition system and, as we witnessed with this week’s administration decision to opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), they actually pay attention to the results.

As I’ve written numerous times here and elsewhere: this president’s biography indicates that he responds to reasoned, rational discussion, and there is nothing in his biography indicating he reacts to shouting. Nothing.

In a larger sense, the most effective means of influencing policy is to go door-to-door and convince voters on the ground that progressive government is better for America. Do the hard work and make it easier for conservative Democrats to vote for liberal legislation by changing voter opinions in those districts. Screaming at the president on your Facebook might feel good and it will certainly generate comments, but it might also be the least effective means of creating a more progressive government. The only thing it achieves is to foment half-informed group-think rage and, ultimately, apathy if not outright contrarianism.

I fail to understand why it’s somehow robotic or mindless to applaud as well as to jeer. Rachel Maddow, for her part, has been highly critical of the president when criticism is deserved, and she’s also never shy about pointing out his successes. I don’t think any sane progressive would suggest that Maddow is an Obamabot. In fact, I can’t think of a more effective reporter, journalist and, yes, storyteller on television. But more than anything else, Maddow has shown an aptitude for fairness and reality in a cablecast parade of cheap shots and ratings stunts. Her balancing of applause with constructive criticism is something to be admired and replicated throughout the rest of the progressive movement.

Indeed, there are many things about the Obama administration’s record to applaud. Significant things. In response to Sullivan’s essay, his former colleague at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, wrote a scathing rebuttal in which he listed 14 foreign policy items that he assumes Sullivan and others would vocally oppose if they came from a Republican candidate for president. By the way, Friedersdorf inexplicably assumes a Republican candidate would promise to do all of President Obama’s liberal achievements. I’m not quite sure I followed that analogy.

Friedersdorf’s list, including the aforementioned indefinite detention, drone strikes and the hyperbolically worded “secret kill list,” is very similar to lists of grievances composed by Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uygur and others including, shockingly, me (see above). 14 things. Taken at face value, they’re all pretty heinous. In these areas, it appears as if the president has intermittently succumbed to the dark side of the Force. But how are these items to be squared against an objectively longer list of achievements? In terms of composing a basic numerical list and in terms of substance, should the roster of achievements be discarded in an evaluation of the president and, subsequently, his worthiness for a second term, in lieu of 14 trespasses?

I don’t believe they do.

By my accounting, and conservatively speaking (small “c” conservative), there are more than 100 achievements of varying importance ranging from the rescue of the economy from the brink of another Great Depression to the rescue of the American auto industry to the largest middle class tax cut in American history to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. At the very least, and not insignificantly, President Obama’s ideas and political savvy paved the way for African-Americans to finally reach the highest political office in the world. The last segregated office is now multi-racial. This can’t be understated or ignored. Furthermore, the president just wrapped his third year in office and, much to the chagrin of the far-right, he has at least another year in which to tackle more items on the to-do list.

These items and dozens more are legitimate and undeniable successes, some of them are historically important and many of them are distinctly liberal. Some of them are compromised successes for the sake of passage through a deeply divided Congress and some of them are exacting and untouched. (Various critics note the president had a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic vote supermajority in the Senate for his first two years. This is a fallacy as the Democrats have never been a lockstep caucus. There were at least 10 conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson who vigorously opposed legislation like cap-and-trade and the public option and who often voted or threatened to vote with the Republicans to filibuster such items.)

Historically speaking, no president in American history boasts a flawless record of achievement without dark stains on his record. The chief executive lauded as being the liberal hero of the previous century, Franklin Roosevelt, committed some of the most egregious crimes against humanity in the name of prosecuting World War II, not to mention other, lesser shortcomings. He authorized total war against the Axis powers, giving the military complete latitude to annihilate civilian populations in Europe and Japan using the most deadly weapons of that era. In a modern sense, the firebombing of Tokyo alone would earn Roosevelt an hourly shaming from the progressive blogosphere, if not an outright call for impeachment. Add to it the indefinite detention of the entire Japanese-American civilian population and the authorization/funding of the Manhattan Project ushering in the Cold War nuclear era and progressive heads would be exploding all over the Roosevelt administration’s record. But historians, both liberal and unaffiliated, regard Roosevelt in a very different light. The New Deal achievements, Social Security and his posthumous victory in World War II outweigh the questionable deeds along the way.

So despite differences on the progressive side, can’t we agree that, in numerical terms if not ideological terms, the victories outweigh the failures by a notable ratio, even if the failures seem, on the surface, considerably disturbing? Therefore, shouldn’t a positive evaluation be in order? As a movement that regards itself as being reality-based, a measured analysis is crucial to realistically evaluating the president so far. Admitting to a larger number of successes than failures won’t make you less vigilant and it won’t make you less capable of holding the president accountable.

On that note, I’d like to suggest that progressives calm down and attempt to have a rational discussion about the areas where we differ, areas where we agree and how to proceed regarding the president. But any sane discussion has to revolve around objective facts and observation. The central question is this: should we undermine the most progressive-minded president in at least a generation and will his failure to attain a second term help or hurt the progressive cause? Will his failure pave the way for a more progressive president or a less progressive president? At the gate of an election year this is the debate on the left. I hold out hope that it will be a unifying one.

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  • ranger11

    I would be hopeful for rational debate to take place but three years of reading and hearing the most heinous and irrational shite from certain sectors of the Left I’m not so hopeful anymore. History always seems to look so good 10-20 years into the future.

  • The_Dork_Knight

    So despite differences on the progressive side, can’t we agree that, in numerical terms if not ideological terms, the victories outweigh the failures by a notable ratio, even if the failures seem, on the surface, considerably disturbing?

    Yes we can.

  • http://twitter.com/KQuark KQµårk™

    Excellent article Mr. Cesca. Of course it will fall on many deaf ears but I hear more progressives turning around their view on the president.

    In any fight you have to understand who is for you, who is against you and who is persuadable to be on your side. 90%+ of the time President Obama fits the first and last category. Like you said if he only gets criticism from the left like he does from the right he will tone the left out, it’s just human nature.

    The left that refuses to acknowledge the president’s accomplishments are really the intellectually dishonest people because every so called Obamabot, like you me and Maddow do criticize what we don’t like about the president and his polices but you never see an Obamanot on the left give him credit for any of his accomplishments.

    The only sure fire way to progress is to vote for the most progressive candidate in every election not just when they fall in love. That’s the only way to move this country back to the center left at least. The illogical memes on the left that letting Republicans make this country sooooo bad that we will finally get a “true” progressive is just invalid. The only thing moving right has done, is well move the country right and that’s how we go 30 years of conservative policies.

    Finally yes government is about policies and legislative achievements and the president has those, but it’s also about good and fair governing and Democrats are always better at governing than Republicans because Republicans count on government to be bad as one of their major platforms.

    • Scopedog

      Well said.

      I liked Bob’s article, and I went over to HuffPo and read it….and then I made a huge mistake.

      I started to read the comments.

      I shouldn’t have, because after a couple of minutes or so the thoughts running through my mind were:

      a) Some people still don’t get it.

      b) Some people are really, REALLY fucking stupid and uniformed and seem proud of it.

      c) Some people seem to have some weird, fucked-up idea that everything should fall apart in a glorious revolution and the utopia will appear.

      d) I must have a mental disease, because I could not believe I was reading these.

      I had to stop, because I value my sanity. Part of me feels that I lost a small portion of my marbles while reading those comments.

      • http://twitter.com/KQuark KQµårk™

        I always tell nihilists on the left who want to see the whole system crash that they will regret what they ask for because if they had not noticed right wingers had all the guns.

  • mrbrink

    Maybe this caught me on a bad day, and maybe I’m not a renowned online blogger for The Atlantic, like, who-the-hell-is-Conor Friedersdorf?, but that silly little grocery list of Obama-hates-America deal breakers is comprised of about TWO total issues that don’t sound like home school amateur hour at the hash bar, maaaan.

    It’s a real shame that he considers that anti-intellectual bullshit to be something other than every other ‘dumb’ critic out there dry-humping the contrarian glory hole.

    Fuck it all. The TSA?! Regulating the rapid growth of industrial weed dispensaries? Some vague idea of blowing whistles and state secrets? 5 and 6 are the same fucking thing! and 14? get fucked. We went from -6.8 GDP and 750,000 jobs lost in the months leading up to the bottom falling out of the global economy to recovery and growth– but he just doesn’t like… the results? Fuuhuuhuuck off.

    This is why we can’t have a reasonable discussion with idiots in tin foil hats.

    Thanks for being a steady hand at the wheel of the democracy bus, Bob.

    • muselet

      Bad days seem to bring out the best in you.

      … home school amateur hour at the hash bar …

      I laughed out loud. I’m stealing that description, without shame.

      –alopecia

      • mrbrink

        Reading the best anti-Obama dissent nowadays is like Albert Brooks Looking for Comedy in the New World Order. Does that make any sense, alopecia?

        • muselet

          Makes sense to me, but I’m almost always up for an obscure (obscure-ish?) pop-culture reference. (On the other hand, if you listen carefully you can hear people frantically searching IMDb.)

          –alopecia

      • JMAshby

        I don’t know. I’m kind of partial to…

        …dry-humping the contrarian glory hole….

        • Dan_in_DE

          agreed – I will be saving this one in a special place in the ol’ memory hole.

  • Robert Scalzi

    Bob, that has got to be one of your GREATEST pieces EVER !! thank you (and JM) for all you do.

  • jjasonham

    One of those articles I couldn’t read during my commute, but had to schedule time for my full attention. Great job.

  • muselet

    Well said, Bob. Well said.

    –alopecia

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TLHIXVS2CHDJNWYPZJIZ5NNZ3A Robert

    Both this piece and (gasp) Sullivan’s deserves wide distribution.

    Great job Bob

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJRCM6JJWT6QX4O3UKG2QJ7YEM ma-gaga

    Also, remember the filibuster proof “2 years” was actually “7 months”.
    Al Franken, Scott Brown.

    • i_a_c

      Right on. And even fewer, when you consider that Kennedy and Byrd fell ill.

  • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

    Bob, this is an excellent article and lets hope the more reasonable among the progressive critics will take it to heart. However, I am afraid that too many of them are truly intellectually dishonest or have some other non-rational reason to oppose the President. In which case, no amount of logic or appeal to their better natures is going to persuade them.

  • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

    Bob, I’m all for smart accountability, but on your show last week, you asked for reporting that the President has actively opposed the progressive take.

    Well: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/01/key-reform-ally-dishes-on-weak-kneed-white-house-health-care-pushes-on-weak-kneed-reform.php

    I understand that Max Baucus and the other conserva-Dems would never have allowed the public option; that would explain the result and I don’t fault Obama that. But I would be put at ease if I knew that the President was actively fighting for it and making the case TO these conserva-Dems, and using the bully pulpit to force their hand, whether he succeeds or not.

    Here’s another: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-froomkin/suskinds-confidence-men-r_b_1123660.html

    What are we supposed to do with reporting like this? It’s really hard for me to believe that Ron Suskind is a firebagger like Glenn Greenwald or Jane Hamsher.

    You’re right, we shouldn’t run around going crazy. But I have my doubts that President Obama responds to even a rational measured discussion with personalities around him like Larry Summers or Tim Geithner.

    • http://twitter.com/lysana Space Marine Lysana

      Right. Because you aren’t personally aware of every move Obama makes and everything he thinks about, you’re worried he’s a patsy? That has you losing sleep at night, bunky? Just because you politely word your proof you haven’t really read what Bob just wrote doesn’t mean you aren’t coming across like you wanted Morgan Freeman and got Barack Obama.

      • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

        I never claimed to have proof of anything, just that these reports exist.

        I do find that even bringing these reports up seems to inspire a great deal of hostility, which I don’t think is warranted.

        Like Bob said, I’m interested in the rational discussion. If these reports are wrong, explain to me how they are wrong. And keep in mind, this only refers to the two things that I think Obama didn’t push hard enough one: health care reform and Wall Street Reform. That’s it. The rest I agree with Bob 98% or so.

        • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

          Gussie, you’re relying on those reports though and you have to take into account the authors’ personal stance AND the quality of the sources. Brenda is right when she says that just because you don’t know about every move the President makes doesn’t mean he isn’t doing exactly what you want. It’s a matter of trust no matter who is in the office. Without Nixonesque tapes we have no idea what he says or does behind closed doors. So you either trust his good intentions or you don’t. And putting it in historical perspective…look how easy a pass the entire MSM gave to Bush when he pushed for war in Iraq….almost everyone assumed his intentions were good because what else did we have to go on? At the time I told people around me….’I just don’t trust him and the country is taking an incredibly dangerous risk by trusting him.’ Now I am not saying that history will prove the Obamanots right but that no matter what the rational arguments are, people are going to present their gut instinct because we have nothing else to go on. And when it comes to trusting a gut instinct, I am not going to rely on the guts of those sources you listed. I am going to rely on as many demonstrable facts as possible and then make my own judgment.

          And even if you STILL have the gut feeling that he didn’t argue for the public option or he isn’t standing up to the Geitners in his administration, the fact remains that he has had more successes than failures AND he is MUCH more likely to push a progressive future than anyone from the Republicans. That’s is good enough for me to say he has my vote.

          • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

            I’m not implying you should vote for anybody else. But these reports come from interviews and statements of people close to the administration. It’s really tough for me to give the President the benefit of the doubt as being interested in actively promoting a centre-left agenda in terms of Wall Street reform.

            Of course I don’t know everything that’s going on. But I can’t rely on the President’s speeches when those close to him contradict his own words.

            Bottom line: I can’t be certain as to the President’s intentions. I have my doubts. That’s it. So how can YOU be certain of his intentions given his economic team?

          • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

            So how can YOU be certain of his intentions given his economic team?

            I have never been happy about his economic team….however, the stimulus worked, the auto bailout worked and a depression was averted….regardless of what I think of his team members….things are going to be okay. Do I still want to see Wall Street Execs pay? Yes. Am I more likely to get that with a Democratic President than a GOP President? Yes. And even if Pres. O can’t make them directly pay (because in truth he is limited, Dept of Justice aside), we are more likely to have reforms, e.g., Consumer Protection Bureau, put in place that will make what Wall St did in the past less probable in future. Again that is something that can only happen with a Democratic President. So I can trust him with my gut because of that assessment.

            Also, I assume all parties have agendas. Froomkin who is interpreting Suskind’s book for us…Suskind who wrote his book (I never read it but have read interps of it and seen him do interviews)….Beutler who is interpreting Kirsch’s book….Kirsch, etc. Furthermore, the sources, named and unnamed, inside the White House that spoke out have their own agenda as well. They might have a personal grudge against the other people on the WH team, they might be planting false info….I have long thought that the WH might be planting false info to piss of the far left on purpose. Why? Because if you have both the far left and the GOP angry with him, it makes him MORE appealing to those in the middle and the voters in the middle are who determine elections. It helps tremendously that people like Sullivan see Pres. Obama as a centrist, because that’s what the majority of people in this country want. And quite honestly, regardless of his soaring campaign rhetoric I’ve always seen Pres. Obama as a centrist (so I disagree with Bob on that issue). In the end it all comes down to this, I don’t really know what’s going on in the WH and I never will. I have Pres. Obama’s record of success to look at. I have his verbal and written promises. I have his team, of which only a minority are Wall Street or GOP aholes.

            All that makes my gut feel it’s okay to trust him for one more term particularly since my gut roils with horror at the GOP options.

          • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

            I agree with the vast majority of your analysis. Don’t get me wrong, Obama MUST be re-elected. Any progressive thinking otherwise is detached from reality.

  • emily carin jacobs

    Once again..you have demonstrated exactly why I have been reading your blog since 2008.

    Thank you…