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Can Obama Rise Again?

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Michael Reynolds/epa/Corbis
House Republican leader John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at a press conference after the election, November 3, 2010

Many liberals also believe that he has completely reneged on his campaign promises to limit executive power and reform the national security state. Thus, for the next two years he faces a dilemma: if he tilts too aggressively toward moderates, the left will head into 2012 even more discouraged; if he becomes more aggressively liberal, middle-of-the-road independent voters might stay with the Republicans.

Obama and his relations with the left is a story that has received only intermittent attention in the mainstream press, but in the liberal blogosphere it is a drama that is debated intensely on a daily and even hourly basis. High-profile websites have placed themselves strategically along the continuum. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo rarely criticizes Obama from the left and keeps most of its focus on Republicans. The Huffington Post, in contrast, has heaped far more invective on Tim Geithner and Larry Summers than on Karl Rove or Sarah Palin or Mitch McConnell or Glenn Beck. Among quality journals, Harper’s Magazine, under the editorship of Roger D. Hodge, has most consistently attacked Obama from the left, headlining an article “Barack Hoover Obama” as far back as July 2009.

Hodge was fired by publisher John R. MacArthur back in January, but he has used his free time to keep the jeremiad alive. The Mendacity of Hope is a roundhouse punch at the notion that Obama is anything but a conventional corporate liberal, supine before the moneyed interests. Hodge is perhaps even angrier at Obama’s defenders than at Obama himself:

That Obama is in most respects better than George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point. Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America’s shameful past. Even as many supporters begin to show their inevitable displeasure with his policies or his job performance and his poll numbers decline, to his liberal supporters the character and motivations of the president remain above question. He is a good man. I trust him to do the right thing.

Berman is a reporter who goes to places like Polk County, where one must observe the conditions that people trying to do politics in this country have to face. Hodge is a detached critic whose very purpose is to stand outside of the process entirely and not be bogged down by state and local matters. The world needs both kinds of observers, and Hodge grounds his critique in the kind of constitutional and intellectual history that is outside the purview of Berman’s work.

The “American liberalism” that Obama has in Hodge’s view betrayed is not the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson or John Kennedy or even Franklin Roosevelt, all of them fallen sinners to one degree or another, but the liberalism of James Madison, whom he venerates over the other Founders as the prime author of American small-r republican values and impulses. The virtues to be respected are restraint, checks and balances, suspicion of powerful interests, and fear of excessive factionalism. Hodge has much to say about Obama’s corporate backers, his weak economic prescriptions, his cave-in to the major lobbies during the health care process, and his apostasies on civil liberties and national security; but he frequently recurs to early American controversies, such as the debate over the founding of the first national bank to underscore Obama’s betrayal and his unfortunate affinity for the principles of the iniquitous Alexander Hamilton.

That Obama will only rarely live up to Madisonian principles is beyond dispute, but in my view it is completely beside the point. President Madison himself, who approved the second national bank in 1816, likely did not live up to them from time to time. We are, to put it mildly, very far removed from the republic our founders envisioned. Meanwhile it does matter, profoundly, that Obama is in most respects a better leader than John McCain, particularly in his awareness of people who are less well off. Perhaps Hodge and I will not be seriously threatened personally no matter who governs this country (and we may be better off under Republicans in the strictest pecuniary sense). But the difference between the two parties matters a great deal, not only on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, but for poor people and minimum-wage workers and working- and middle-class people, who have gained considerably more under Democratic administrations over the past half-century than they have under Republicans, as the political scientist Larry Bartels showed in Unequal Democracy.3

A more persuasive work of dissent might at least have taken account of the pressures under which the new administration had to work and then analyzed its specific choices at specific moments, and made a plausible case that a more liberal path might have succeeded. Michael Hirsh’s Capital Offense, for example, which is mainly concerned with the decades-long capitulation of politicians of both parties to Wall Street, discusses the Obama administration in its closing chapters and is harshly critical of Geithner, Summers, and Obama himself in several respects.4 Not only Hirsh but such writers as Paul Krugman make serious criticisms of Obama from the left, starting with his economic team. But Hirsch’s analysis is much more tethered than Hodge’s book to the actual choices Obama could have made. Emanuel, whose sharp disdain for traditional liberals is well known, would be a strong candidate for such condemnation as well. Even if this administration can accomplish only a fraction of what its supporters on the left had hoped, there is no excuse for a chief of staff ridiculing those well-intentioned liberals who knocked on doors and signed checks in 2008. And there is no excuse for Obama tolerating this. On the whole, Republicans would be more respectful of their loyalists.

Obama must now find ways to do two seemingly incompatible things at the same time: win independents back and reestablish better relations with those to his left. His party lost sixty-five House districts, six Senate seats, and eight crucial governorships that he carried in 2008—in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Iowa, New Mexico, and Florida (technically governed by an independent, Charlie Crist). This means, among other things, that Obama has a smaller political base from which to operate than anticipated, and a weaker political machine. Critics from the President’s left and center, not shy to start with, will become less so.

And most of all, fissures that Obama’s election and early period managed to paper over will start to come out into the open now. His deficit commission may have made its recommendations by the time this article is published. The liberal and centrist wings of the party, both mollified by Obama the candidate in 2008, will start arguing now, and demanding that he make choices. On Social Security, for example, should the retirement age be raised? On Medicare, how can the trust fund that may soon run out be replenished? Can Obama find a way to direct public investment toward job creation? And he must now deal with a Congress that will try to force him to accept large spending cuts. What will he get in return? In the days after the election, both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner made bullying claims that Obama was “in denial” (Boehner’s phrase). It was dismaying to see that Obama had really nothing to say in response.

Bill Clinton found a way in 1995–1996, after the Democrats lost the House in 1994, to placate both the middle of his party and its base. Most controversially, he agreed to a punitive kind of welfare reform. But he also stood his ground when Newt Gingrich threatened cuts in Medicare, among other major programs. And when Gingrich tried to shut the government down, Clinton made him suffer a major defeat. Clinton got a big assist from the GOP. Its leaders overestimated their mandate and nominated a weak opponent to face him in 1996. Today’s Republicans might overreach on health care repeal, an issue that would certainly unite the liberal and moderate Democratic factions.

Counting on Republican overreach isn’t exactly what Obama and his admirers had in mind in 2008. But he must now fundamentally rethink the premises of his presidency. He moved into the White House believing that he really could persuade enough Republicans to work with him for the good of a country in crisis. (Nine GOP senators came from states he’d carried.) It was not an absurd belief, but time has revealed it to be a wrong one. Whatever he does or does not say publicly, one hopes that we can safely assume that he has given up any such illusion. But what comes next? It seemed, two years ago, that Obama had a strong capacity for self-reflection and awareness, and for arriving at fresh solutions. That capacity is now open to question. He’d better develop it quickly or his presidency will not recover.

—November 11, 2010

  1. 3

    Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton University Press, 2008); see my review in these pages, December 18, 2008. 

  2. 4

    Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street (John Wiley, 2010). 

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