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Has Obama Lost the Trust of Progressives, as Krugman Says?
Paul Krugman has an excellent column today arguing that progressives have backlashed so intensely over the prospect of Obama's dropping the public option because -- for reasons extending far beyond specific health care issues -- they no longer trust the President. Citing Obama's steadfast continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, the administration's extreme coziness with crisis-causing banks, and the endless retreats on health care, Krugman says that "a backlash in the progressive base . . . has been building for months" and that "progressives are now in revolt. Mr. Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it."
Krugman contends that while "the fight over the public option involves real policy substance," it is at least as much "a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach." That's the argument I made the other day about why the health care fight is so important regardless of one's views of the public option. The central pledges of the Obama campaign were less about specific policy positions and much more about changing the way Washington works -- to liberate political outcomes from the dictates of corporate interests; to ensure vast new levels of transparency in government; to separate our national security and terrorism approaches from the politics of fear. With some mild exceptions, those have been repeatedly violated. Negotiating his health care reform plan in total secrecy and converting it into a gigantic gift to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries -- which is exactly what a plan with (1) mandates, (2) no public option and (3) a ban on bulk negotiations for drug prices would be -- would constitute yet another core violation of those commitments, yet another bolstering (a major one) of the very power dynamic he vowed to subvert.
It is difficult to dispute that there is rising progressive anger over what the administration appears to be doing in the health care realm. Consider the remarkable, blog-based fund-raising campaign to embolden progressive House members who vowed a NO vote on any health care bill lacking a public option even if that's the bill returned from conference reconciliation. If those House progressives adhere to their pledge, that would be an enormous impediment to the White House's plans -- and Kevin Drum astutely notes that the purpose of the fund-raising effort is to force the notoriously hapless, impotent and capitulating House progressives to adhere to their clear commitment (as The Hill put it yesterday: "House liberals have a history of getting rolled"). In just a few days, that campaign has raised more than $300,000. From what I can recall, that is the most prolific single-issue Internet fund-raising since the fundraising bonanza fueled by anger over the 2008 vote by Democrats (revealingly including Obama) to legalize Bush's warrantless eavesdropping program and retroactively immunize telecom lawbreakers.
If one were to analyze matters from a purely utilitarian perspective, one could find ways to justify the White House's attempt to write a health care plan that accommodates the desires of the pharmaceutical and drug industries [mandates (i.e., 50 million forced new customers) plus government subsidies to pay their premiums plus no meaningful cost controls (i.e., no public option)]. All other things being equal, it's better -- from the White House's political perspective -- that those industries not spend vast sums of money trying to defeat Obama's health care proposal, that they not pour their resources into the GOP's 2010 midterm effort, that they not unleash their fully army of lobbyists and strategists to sabotage the Democratic Party. That's the same calculating mindset that leads the White House to loyally serve the interests of the banking industry that caused the financial crisis (we don't want to make enemies out of of Goldman Sachs or turn investment bankers into GOP funders). Indeed, that's the same mindset that leads the White House to avoid any fights with the Right -- and/or with the intelligence community and permanent military establishment -- over Terrorism policies (there's no political benefit to subjecting ourselves to accusations of being Soft on Terror and there's plenty of reasons to cling to those executive powers of secrecy, detention and war-making).
In essence, this is the mindset of Rahm Emanuel, and its precepts are as toxic as they are familiar: The only calculation that matters is maximizing political power. The only "change" that's meaningful is converting more Republican seats into Democratic ones. A legislative "win" is determined by whether Democrats can claim victory, not by whether anything constructive was achieved. The smart approach is to serve and thus curry favor with the most powerful corporate factions, not change the rules to make them less powerful. The primary tactic of Democrats should be to be more indispensable to corporate interests so as to deny the GOP that money and instead direct it to Democrats. The overriding strategy is to scorn progressives while keeping them in their place and then expand the party by making it more conservative and more reliant on Blue Dogs. Democrats should replicate Republican policies on Terrorism and national security -- not abandon them -- in order to remove that issue as a political weapon.
If those Emanuelian premises are the ones that you accept, if you believe that Obama should be guided by base concerns of political power, then you're likely to be satisfied with the White House's approach thus far -- both in general and on health care specifically. That would also likely mean that you're basically satisfied with the behavior of Democrats during the Bush era, and especially since 2006 when they won a majority in Congress, since that is what has driven them for the last decade: all that matters is that we beat the Republicans and we should do anything to achieve that, including serving corporate donors to ensure they fund Us and not Them and turning ourselves into war-making, civil-liberties-abridging, secrecy-loving GOP clones in the national security realm.
But that isn't what Obama pledged he would do when he campaigned. He repeatedly vowed he would do the opposite -- that he would reject that thinking and battle aggressively against domination by what he called "the interests of powerful lobbyists or the wealthiest few" who have "run Washington far too long" -- and he convinced millions of people that he was serious, people who, as a result, became fervent devotees to his cause. Those are the people who New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently said have been "punked by Obama" because it is precisely that same narrow group which continues to be the prime beneficiaries and masters of Washington behavior during the Obama presidency.
More than any betrayal on a specific issue, it is Obama's seeming eagerness to serve the interests of those who have "run Washington for far too long" -- not as a result of what he has failed to accomplish, but as a result of what he has affirmatively embraced -- that is causing what Krugman today describes as a loss of trust in Obama from those who once trusted him most. This approach is not only producing heinous outcomes, but is politically self-destructive as well. In a superb post the other day, Digby recounted what fueled the Naderite movement in 2000 and warns, presciently I think, that the willingness of Obama/Emanuel so blatantly to disappoint those to whom they promised so much (especially young and first-time voters who were most vulnerable to Obama's transformative fairy dust) will lead them either to support a third party or turn off from politics altogether:
Rahm Emanuel believes that the key to Democratic success is a coalition in which Blue Dogs and corporate lackeys mitigate progressive change on behalf of the moneyed interests which he believes the political system must serve. Regardless of his malevolent view of how the political system should work, on a political level, I think he's living in the past. . . .
But on a political level, the left has been betrayed over and over again on the things that matter to us the most. The village is pleased, I'm sure. But the Democratic party only needs to look back eight short years to see just how destructive it is to constantly tell their left flank to go fuck themselves. . . .
At the time [in 2000] nobody believed that an incumbent Vice President in a roaring economy would have a race so close that the Republicans could steal it. But we know differently now don't we? And you would think that the Democratic establishment would also know that because of that, it may not be a good idea to alienate the left to the point where they become apathetic or even well... you know. It can happen. It did happen. Why the Democrats persist in believing that it can't happen again is beyond me. . . .
Obama mobilized a whole lot of young people who have great expectations and disappointing them could lead to all sorts of unpleasant results. Success is about more than simply buying off some congressional liberals or pleasing the village. It's worth remembering that a third party run from the left is what created the conditions for eight long years of Republican governance that pretty much wrecked this country.
After 2000, what is it going to take for the Democrats to realize that constantly using their base as a doormat is not a good idea? It only takes a few defections or enough people staying home to make a difference. And there are people on the left who have proven they're willing to do it. The Democrats are playing with fire if they think they don't have to deliver anything at all to their liberal base --- and abandoning the public option, particularly in light of what we already know about the bailouts and the side deals, may be what breaks the bond.
It's really not too much to ask that they deliver at least one thing the left demands, it really isn't. And it's not going to take much more of this before their young base starts looking around for someone to deliver the hope and change they were promised.
On most fronts that matter -- civil liberties, national security, economic policy, servitude to corporate interests, even rising opposition to Obama's long-promised escalation of the war in Afghanistan -- that defines rather clearly what the Obama/Emanuel approach has been thus far. Stopping it somewhere -- anywhere -- is vital, and for many reasons, the health care fight provides an excellent opportunity (at least as good as any) for doing so. Clearly -- as first became conclusively clear when Obama so shamelessly reversed himself on FISA and telecom immunity -- the Obama White House will not, on its own, cease following the dictates of Blue Dogs, "centrists" and the corporate interests which own them. That will only happen if they realize that their political power is threatened by building their power in service of corporate interests and by continuing to ignore the interests of those who elected them. The signs which Krugman identifies to show that Obama has lost the trust of many progressives is one important step, but preventing a health care bill that is nothing but an ill-gotten gift to the insurance and drug industries is a far more important step still. Whatever else one might want to say, changing who wins in Washington is the most important goal there is.
UPDATE: The new weekly Research2000/Kos tracking poll was just released and -- according to Daily Kos polling analyst Steve Singiser -- Obama's approval ratings have taken a dive (as have the Demorcratic Party's) due to increasing dissatisfaction with him on the part of Democrats:
Across the board, the drops among Obama and the Democratic Party have come not from the loyal opposition, nor have they come from dismayed Independents.
They have come from Democrats.
A cursory look at the graph for Obama's favorability, broken down by party, shows that after a long period of relative stability among Democrats, there was a sharp drop this week . . . Anyone who thinks the protracted arguments over health care aren't frustrating the Democratic base need look no further. A ten-point dip in net favorability, in a single week, is a pretty solid statement.
That speaks for itself. The Obama/Emanuel approach not only produces awful policy but is also self-destructive politically.
UPDATE II: On the general question of "trusting Obama," BTD makes an important point: "I am against the idea of trusting any politician, including Obama, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and Anthony Weiner. Watch what they do, not what they say." Indeed, as I've written many times, "trust" is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians. That's what John Adams meant when he said: "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." "All" means "all" and "none" means "none."
But that's not how our political culture works generally. Our politics have become entirely celebretized. Political discussions typically resemble junior high chatter about one's most adored and despised actors: filled with adolescent declarations of whether someone "likes" and "trusts" this politician or "dislikes" that one. "I trust Obama" has long been a common refrain among his most loyal supporters. The fact that, as Krugman says, that is much less true now is quite significant, even if "trust" is an inappropriate emotion in the first place to feel towards any political official.
UPDATE III: It's not just the Research 2000/Kos poll that shows a significant decline in Obama's approval ratings among Democrats. According to Greg Sargent, the ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week shows the same and even worse:
A major factor in President Obama's slide in today's big Washington Post/ABC News poll, which is preoccupying the political classes today, is his surprisingly sharp drops among Democrats and even liberals, according to crosstabs that were sent my way.
Much talk today has focused on Obama's difficulties with independents. But the drop among Dems and liberals is also a key driving factor in the President's skid, according to WaPo polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta, who graciously provided the additional data.
Even for those of you who are willing to justify anything and everything in the name of "political pragmatism," betraying clear campaign commitments and constantly exhibiting contempt for core progressive values doesn't seem to be working very well as a political strategy, to put that mildly.