Dems Urge Obama to Take a Stand
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's recent complaint about the ingratitude of the "professional left" is a small symptom of a larger problem for President Barack Obama: He has left wide swaths of the Democratic Party uncertain of his core beliefs.
In interviews, a variety of political activists, operatives and commentators from across the party's ideological spectrum presented similar descriptions of Obama's predicament: By declining to speak clearly and often about his larger philosophy - and insisting that his actions are guided not by ideology but a results-oriented "pragmatism" - he has bred confusion and disappointment among his allies, and left his agenda and motives vulnerable to distortion by his enemies.
The president's reluctance to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, who spoke without apology about his vaulting ideological ambitions, has produced an odd turn of events: Obama has been the most activist domestic president in decades, but the philosophy behind his legislative achievements remains muddy in the eyes of many supporters and skeptics alike. There is not yet such a thing as "Obamism."
The ability to transcend ideological divides and unite disparate parts of the electorate was a signal strength of his candidacy in 2008. But that has given way to widespread - if often contradictory - complaints about his agenda (too radical or too cautious?) and the political tactics (too partisan or too conflict averse?) he uses to pursue it.
At first blush, it is a mystery: How could a political leader preside over nearly $1 trillion dollars in stimulus and other spending, and pass overhauls of the health care and financial services sectors, but still leave many of his own supporters uncertain of his larger aims?
"He hasn't sought, I think, to bring coherence to the achievements of the last 20 months," said former Democratic senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, adding that "it would not hurt" to do so soon.
"What may be missing from the White House is a clear and convincing narrative into which all the various initiatives neatly fit, so that the public can make sense of everything that's done," said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, now a frequent commentator.
By contrast, Reich said, Republicans have stuck with what he views as a wrong-but-consistent message about how Obama's agenda is simply too big: "They're connecting the dots in a way that has hurt the administration and harms Democrats. Obama needs to connect the dots in a way that explains to the public what he's done and where's he's taking the nation."
Notably, the judgments of liberals such as Reich are echoed at the other end of the Democratic spectrum - by the moderate "New Democrats," who in the 1990s backed Bill Clinton as a way to steer the party away from doctrinaire interest-group liberalism.
Will Marshall, head of the moderate Progressive Policy Institute, said, "If you're a serial pragmatist and just go from issue to issue and say, ‘Here's a problem we need to solve,' then the play of values and ideas gets lost in that."
By these lights, Obama's opaque ideology invites everyone to see something different in him - and those perceptions often do not work to his advantage.
In liberal intellectual circles, it is now common for Obama to be described as rudderless and politically expedient. Liberals said he retreated too early on a public option for health care, was too soft on big banks during financial reform and has continued too many of George W. Bush's national security policies. These criticisms prompted Gibbs's recent catcalls - starting in an interview in The Hill newspaper - that some people on the left would not be happy unless Dennis Kucinich were president and the Pentagon were dismantled.
While liberals wonder where Obama stands, in many precincts of the right there seems to be no uncertainty about who he really is: a would-be socialist, determined to dethrone private enterprise and individual liberty in favor of government power.
Disaffection on the ideological wings might be a good bargain for Obama if it were matched by robust support in the center. But, for the moment, he does not have that, either. Obama's disapproval rating cracked 50 percent for the first time in a Gallup Poll this month, while his approval rating dropped to a new low - 44 percent - for the week of Aug. 9-15. That's driven in part by the flight of the independents who put him over the top in 2008: The same Gallup survey showed only 39 percent of independents approve of his performance.
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll last month found a plurality of voters, 47 percent, saying Obama is too liberal, up from 35 percent in April 2009. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in the spring found the same trend - a notable spike in the number of voters who think Obama's views are too liberal.
In a "60 Minutes" interview after his election but before his inauguration, Obama spoke of his "pragmatism" and said he doesn't "get bottled up in a lot of ideology and 'Is this conservative or liberal?' My interest is finding something that works."
This was consistent with his aversion to being boxed in by philosophical labels in the campaign. During the primaries, he steered clear of the familiar Democratic intraparty debate over whether he was a liberal or a "New Democrat" centrist. He avoided linking himself with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. He ran to the left of Hillary Clinton and other rivals (with his early opposition to the Iraq War) or slightly to the right of her (with a more incremental plan for health care), depending on the circumstances.
In the general election, he easily united the disparate wings of his party and attracted a clear majority of independents around disdain for the Bush years and the symbolic power of his personal story.
By some lights, however, he and his team became so enthralled with the idea of a personality-driven "Obama brand" that they neglected the need to explain - and, in a modern media environment, to explain and explain again - the ideas behind the personality.
"You have to provide the country with a narrative of where we have been and where we need to go and how to get there," said Don Baer, a communications director in Bill Clinton's White House. "That requires a theory of the case on the role of government - and the role of the president."
Clinton, Baer said, spoke often about the general state of the country, and "the specifics of policy flowed from that." Obama, by contrast, seems more comfortable talking about the specifics of policy and then letting people conclude the general from the specific. "This poses a challenge because people need context, and I imagine this leaves the president unhappy when they reach what he thinks is the wrong conclusion" about his vision for the country.
The question of Obama's ideological true colors will likely come into sharper relief over the next several months. He faces questions on Afghanistan (whether to continue a surge or begin to withdraw), Iran (whether to threaten and conceivably use military pressure against that regime's nuclear program), the environment (whether to try to revive a "cap and trade" plan on carbon emissions) and the deficit (how seriously to try to tame it, and what mix of tax increases or spending cuts to employ) - all questions that sharply divide the Democratic Party along ideological lines.
Eric Alterman, who wrote an influential article in "The Nation" last month urging progressives to be patient even though Obama's presidency has been a "big disappointment" for them so far, thinks Obama errs by flinching from the dramatic promise of his own campaign.
During the primaries, Obama tweaked Hillary Clinton by praising the leadership style (not the policies) of Reagan, who he said made Republicans "the party of ideas."
"Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said in early 2008.
Alterman complained in an interview: "The vision of progressive values that was enunciated by this candidate [Obama] disappeared the day after Inauguration Day." This vision, he added, "would have provided much better context for a discussion of his policies - that's really missing."
An Obama aide asked to be "on background" to address the intraparty quarreling among Democrats who think the president is insufficiently ideological or too compromise-minded.
"Most Americans aren't looking for ideological debates, they want pragmatic, common-sense solutions," the aide said. "The campaign was in many ways premised on the idea that people wanted to stop some of the ‘80s and ‘90s that made a lot of noise but not a lot of progress."
Obama, the aide continued, "believes that government has a role to play, but he's not dogmatic in his approach. He believes that progress sometimes requires compromise, which is honorable and justified, so long as you don't compromise your principles or the ultimate goal."
In an article in the current New Republic, writer John Judis hits Obama for ideological skittishness - noting the "fitful and sporadic" way he confronted Wall Street leaders and then seemed to retreat during the financial crisis.
Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America's Future, a liberal policy shop, said Obama has been bold in trying to pursue a lot of big policy changes quickly. But he faulted him for trying to cut deals before drawing clear battle lines against conservatives and their ideas - looking for incremental changes instead of pushing for an elemental shift in the country's direction.
"From the beginning, if you listen to his description of why we're in this mess, he's chosen not to make it ideological or partisan" - running against Washington or the excesses of both parties rather than making a direct attack on the failures of Republican rule, Borosage said.
He said Obama has been willing to pursue big policies, but has focused too much on Washington deal-making at the expense of rallying a progressive coalition. "This combination of bold objectives and insider dealing, as opposed to outside mobilization politics ... I think confused everything," Borosage argued. "The right went after the bold objectives, and the left focused on the special deals."
Although they disagree on many policies, Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From echoed a key part of Borosage's analysis: Obama has been too defined by Washington. Because Obama "doesn't have such a clear philosophy of his own," From said, "he's more been defined by congressional leadership of his party, which most Americans see as left of center."
In private conversations, particularly early in Obama's term, it was striking how many of his close aides expressed contempt for Bill Clinton's presidency, even as Obama was enlisting Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, and former Clinton aide and then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel to be chief of staff. The Obama crowd tended to dismiss Clinton's presidency as too timid, with too many small policies.
The reality, said From, is that Clinton had a more fully formed worldview - and more ease in talking about it - than Obama has demonstrated. Clinton launched his candidacy in 1991 with a sustained critique of where both parties had gone wrong, and constantly explained his policies with the same mantra: Using government to expand opportunity, demand more responsibility from citizens, and restore a sense of national community.
"It seems to me that one of the big differences between Clinton and Obama is Clinton's political strength came from what he stood for and what he did," From said. "Obama's political strength comes more from who he is ... He tries to be practical, but practical without a philosophy can look political."
In fact, Obama has given some major statements of philosophy. In a speech at Georgetown University in April 2009 he spoke of the "five pillars" of his domestic agenda. But he has not returned frequently to these themes or imprinted them on the public mind.
For now, Gibbs's shots at the "professional left" continue to echo in the party.
Matt Bennett, with the centrist group Third Way, expressed sympathy. "The Gibbs comments were accurate, if not too politic," he said. "So it's the blogosphere. It is the cable guys and others out there who feel he has betrayed them, notwithstanding the fact that he has done pretty much what he said he would do on most things."
But political consultant and commentator Bob Shrum called the Gibbs episode "politically stupid" and "a train wreck." Shrum, a former speechwriter for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, said Obama needs to be rallying his most ardent supporters, not picking fights with them.
"I think he has to have the courage and smarts to do what Roosevelt and Reagan did, which is draw a real-life contrast: What does he stand for? What does the other side stand for?"