An essay in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait this weekend has rebooted the standard debate about the “professional left” and why liberals can’t bring themselves to love Obama despite his accomplishments (see Sullivan for a supporting salvo). Chait tries to argue that there’s something in the progressive psyche that’s “incapable of being satisfied with a Democratic president” due to a persistent “failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline.” Chait then rolls through the historical record of Democratic presidents back through FDR, noting that they’ve always been castigated from the left, and concluding that there’s just something inherently unreasonable about the liberal mentality on this score.
I’m inclined to partly agree with Chait, but it’s an important “partly.” I have found myself exceptionally disappointed by many elements of Obama’s leadership – his solidification of the Bush-era civil liberties regime and his inability to grasp the magnitude of the 2008-2009 economic crises stand out as the cardinal sins in my book – but I often find myself taking “his” side in debates with progressive friends. Healthcare, for all its compromises, was an epic victory. He’s handled the Arab Spring reasonably well. He’s withdrawing American forces from Iraq. He found and killed Osama bin Laden. These are accomplishments and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, he’s facing down an opposition party that has moved beyond intransigence and into the realm of political nihilism, and an allied party that is far from unified around a progressive agenda. And Chait is right that if you simply start listing accomplishments, Obama compares pretty well to most Democratic presidents that anyone alive can remember. Chait’s remark about “plausible baselines,” though, needs a bit of unpacking, and makes progressive disappointment a bit more understandable.
To my mind, at least for the purposes of a barroom conversation about presidential performance, there are three metrics to use, between which most people tend to oscillate without realizing it. The first is what you might call comparative historical: stacking up Obama’s leadership against that provided by other Democratic presidents and seeing where he stands. I think the President does pretty well in this regard, but that says more about the weakness of the field than it does about his abilities. Clinton governed as a moderate Republican, and the medium-term blame for our current economic crisis falls at least partly on the shoulders of his policies. Carter was dealt a crappy political, cultural and economic hand, which he played poorly; there’s a reason a guy like Reagan was so popular in 1980. Johnson, well, Vietnam; ’nuff said. Much as it’s heretical for me to say this, Kennedy makes a better historical symbol than he ever did a President, though his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis will always keep him high on my list. Truman gets unfairly maligned, but, well, Korea; ’nuff said. Roosevelt was fantastic largely in retrospect; the long-run effects of his labor policies, creation of the Social Security Administration, bank regulation, war leadership etc. transformed American society largely for the better; but, the fact is he didn’t handle the Great Depression well in an economic sense, and he did round up Japanese-Americans and throw them into internment camps. So on that list Obama looks pretty good.
A second way to judge Obama is based on his ability to enact policies appropriate to the magnitude of the issues they mean to address. By this metric, he doesn’t look so impressive. His stimulus package, while large enough to cover immediate local government budget shortfalls and keep the economy from diving headlong into Great Depression part deux, wasn’t sufficient to avert years of economic stagnation. He expressed some decent ideas about infrastructure repair, alternative energy development and material renewal, then seemed to drop them at the first sign of concerted opposition. Furthermore, he hasn’t really made the case to the American people for a broad progressive agenda, so on crucial issues he’s conceded the discursive field as well as the material one.
A third metric is idealist: measuring the President’s performance based on his ability to push for the kind of society progressives want to see. I’m overgeneralizing, but I’d wager most American progressives want a society that looks more like other Western social democracies, with more robust redistributive mechanisms, stronger social services, expanded material rights, lower inequality etc: a model somewhere between Canada and Sweden. To the extent that Obama hasn’t put the U.S. on a path to that kind of society – and he emphatically hasn’t – progressives are understandably disappointed.
Chait gets at this a bit with his note that Obama hasn’t been a “transformational” president in the mold of Reagan or Roosevelt; but, he presents this as largely about narrative construction rather than material reality. The disappointment becomes more concrete if you consider the interaction between historical, material and ideal performance metrics. For progressives, the American socio-economic trajectory of the past three decades has been catastrophic. Current levels of material inequality, economic justice, social service provision etc. aren’t simply suboptimal; they’re horrifying. Progressives want their leaders to correct them, not just tinker around their edges. As these social pathologies get more extreme, the effort necessary to do that becomes more herculean, but that hasn’t (and shouldn’t have) led progressives to just lower their standards. In 2008, I had so much hope for Obama not because I thought he was exceptionally progressive, though that was part of it, but because I thought his election, in the midst of a serious crisis, would open up space for transformational politics that hadn’t been dreamed of in decades. In the face of a collapsing economy and two foreign wars, but with a landslide election and a veto-proof majority at his back, I believed Obama had an opportunity to do more than just implement a few good policies. I thought he had an opportunity to fundamentally alter the plane on which political battles were fought in this country, relegitimizing the idea of responsible regulation, attacking income inequality, expanding social services and forcefully confronting the utter lunacy that makes up so much of modern conservative politics.
Maybe that opportunity was illusory. Maybe Obama didn’t see it. Maybe he just didn’t seize it. But progressives who are disappointed in his leadership feel that way because they understand the magnitude of Obama’s task and are upset he hasn’t risen to it. Arguing that he’s accomplished more than Jimmy Carter is kind of beside the point.