Why The Presidency Matters, And Why It’s Okay To Believe So
Eric Alterman just published a massive essay in The Nation, entitled "Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now"
I don't recommend it.
First, it's damn hard to find a thesis in this extended disquisition. The article does a fine job of cataloguing the many ills that beset American democracy today (no wonder it's so long), but is far less clear about answering its own title question. In fact, not only does Alterman not answer the question substantively, he doesn't even - as far as I could see - provide a thesis statement identifying his argument. As near as I can tell it is that the campaign finance system and the media in America are so polluted that no president could actually govern as a progressive. I already get that this country badly needs reform of those two sectors of our political system - I sure don't need any convincing there. But the next step is altogether missing. Elaboration of the argument as to why these malignancies necessarily preclude a progressive presidency was sorely missing from the piece.
Even so, I thought the thing was more or less worth reading for its thorough chronicling of what ails us today. Until I got tot the end, that is, when I badly wanted to hurl as I read the final substantive paragraph of the essay: "What's more, one hypothesis - one I'm tempted to share - for the Obama administration's willingness to compromise so extensively on the promises that candidate Obama made during the 2008 campaign would be that as president, he is playing for time. Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but hopes and expects that once he is re-elected in 2012 - a pretty strong bet, I'd say - he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring on the fundamental ‘change' that is not possible in today's environment. This would be consistent with FDR's strategy during his second term and makes a kind of sense when one considers the nature of the opposition he faces today and the likelihood that it will discredit itself following a takeover of one or both houses in 2010. For that strategy to make sense, however, 2013 will have to provide a more pregnant sense of progressive possibility than 2009 did, and that will take a great deal of work by the rest of us."
Do I really have this straight? Alterman believes that by allowing the right to crawl back up off the mat it had leveled itself upon less than two years ago, by alienating progressives and moderate voters in droves, by not improving any of the crisis situations on his plate, by failing to defend his policies from the worst sort of excoriation from insane troglodyte freaks, by giving the GOP control of one or both branches of Congress (and thus also investigatory power - can you say "Whitewater"? "Vince Foster"? "Monica"?), and by running a recession with massive unemployment for the full length of his term, it's a "pretty strong bet" that Obama is supposed to get reelected in 2012? My god, are you using the word "bet" literally, man? Can I get some serious action against that proposition?!?!
Oh, but there's more. Then, once reelected, he's going to morph from a right-wing plutocrat carrying out the agenda of George W. Bush's third term into some kind of reborn progressive? He'll shut down Afghanistan, restore civil liberties, get all that money back from Wall Street, raid BP's coffers, unwind the offshore oil plots he's opened for development, slash military spending, restore taxes on the rich, make Israel stop building settlements, quit defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, force Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to resign and replace them with real progressives, reel in his idiotic health care bonanza for insurance companies and pass real socialized medicine instead, fire all the Republicans and Goldman Sachs retreads in his cabinet, and lead the world into taking serious action on global warming? Is that you notion, Eric? Oh, and that he'll do all this without any support from left, right or center, having alienated them all, and despite the fact that he will be a lame-duck president, and despite the fact the presidents almost always do far less in their second terms than their first, and despite the fact that in part that is because they also almost always have a major second-term scandal explode in their face?
That's ludicrous. Most importantly, though, what is wrong with Alterman's take on Obama is that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the American presidency (as does Obama himself, assuming - as I most certainly do not - that this president is something other than a right-wing hack at his core). This shows up emphatically in Alterman's phrasing just in the single paragraph quoted above. When he talks about Obama "taking the best deal on the table today" so that later he can "bring on the fundamental ‘change' that is not possible in today's environment", he unfortunately demonstrates how little he understands of American politics.
Let me be blunt. Strong and successful presidents (meaning those who get what they want - whether that happens to be good for the country or not) do not accept "the best deal on the table". They take out their carpentry tools and the build the goddam piece of furniture themselves. Strong and successful presidents do not get dictated to by the political environment. They reshape the environment into one that is conducive to their political aspirations.
In short, strong and successful presidents are the bat, not the ball.
It's absolutely true that presidents are not the be-all and end-all of American politics. I (mostly) sympathize with the (sometimes too politically correct) notion that we need to emphasize strong advocacy movements to force change where it would otherwise not happen. First, of all, this is certainly true for the far-more-frequent-than-not occasions when there is not a progressive in the White House (such as the last half a century now, for instance). And even when that's not the case, strong movements make it easier for progressive presidents to go further, faster. So, heck yes - let's do some serious movement building, and absolutely, let's never rely on electoral solutions exclusively.
At the same time, however, taking that logic too far to its extreme negates both the principles of democracy and the evidence of history. In the former case, to argue that presidents cannot matter is to argue that American democracy is entirely false. I might be willing to accept that argument if I saw it actually made - as opposed to the bumper-sticker version - but I haven't, and so I don't. And I especially don't because of the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. It takes no small degree of historical revisionism to pretend that these two individuals didn't advance the ball for progressivism way down the field by virtue of their actions as president. They did. And unless something has changed dramatically in the structure of American governance since that time (again, I need to see the argument to be persuaded of that), then I see no reason it could not happen again.
While we're making a list of presidents who mattered, we have to hold our noses and include Reagan and the Boy Bush. Of course they wrecked the country. Of course they told dramatically dishonest lies to the public. Of course they sold out the very people they were pretending to be serving and defending. In a way, that's just the point. Look at what you can get away with if you get serious about communications strategy in the White House. Look at what George W. Caligula did in his first term, without solid majorities in Congress, without (mostly) real crises, without (mostly) a public mandate, without international good will, and without either good common sense ideas or respect for the established traditions of American domestic and especially foreign policy.
Alternatively, look at how little Half o'Bama has done, with all these same powerful winds in his sails that Bush lacked. Forget about the stimulus bill, the health care bill and the financial regulation bill. They're all nothingburgers, which is evident as much by the lack of public support they have engendered as by the absence of corporate antipathy in reaction to them. Obama had everything going for him had he wanted to legitimately be a transformative president. He had perfect raw material, not least including a hated GOP and the definitive exposure of the public's real enemies in the form of Wall Street bank predators and rapacious oil companies.
Sure, there would have been resistance. But if he had been inclined to really do the job, and if he had been smart, he could have used the force of that resistance adroitly against the regressive resisters themselves, like a clever practitioner of political jujitsu. Instead, he did they opposite, and they have now miraculously revived themselves. It's as if Adolph Hitler had staged a comeback in 1947, without even acknowledging, let alone atoning for, the destruction he had wrought over the prior decade. "More war, more genocide!" might have been the new campaign slogan. "The problem isn't what we did, but that we didn't do it enough!" Heck, take out the genocide part (though a million dead Iraqis might disagree even with that bit of generosity) and substitute tax cuts for the rich, and today's GOP could basically run under the same banner: "More war, less taxes". Great work, Barack, bringing the Republican Party back from the dead. You know you're a useless punk when you're getting rolled by the likes of Sarah Palin. Or at least you should know - it's even sadder when you're so lame you don't even realize your ship is sinking.
But I digress.
My point is that successful presidents will minimally exploit the opportunities given to them, something the Obama administration has utterly failed to do. More importantly, though, they make their own realities when the one they've inherited is unfavorable to their agenda. This is so critical right now, because the single biggest deficiency for progressives on the national stage is that we're being pummeled in the war of narratives. Indeed, we're not even in the arena. I cannot think of a single prominent voice in American politics today articulating a genuinely progressive agenda and, more crucially, pitching a progressive frame for the understanding of what ails us. There is no Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush of the left. No one even close. This is all the more astonishing for three reasons. First, because progressive ideas - such as fighting discrimination, environmental protection or regulation of the private sector - have a long and esteemed history of great success. Second, because regressive policy prescriptions - such as tax cuts, needless wars or deregulation - could not possibly have blown up in our faces more obviously and more emphatically than they have this last decade. And, third, because the logical benefits of progressive solutions are often so plainly transparent to anyone with half a brain.
Given all these factors, it would be so easy to make the sale, if only there was a salesman. But since there hasn't been for a long, long time, deeply destructive sheer idiocy, like the effluent that spews from the sewers that are Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck's mouths, is uncontested and our politics somehow miraculously gets stupider daily, just when you thought that was no longer physically possible.
Regrettably, Eric Alterman's article has given us no evidence whatsoever that a progressive presidency is "impossible" right now. To put it in stark, non-abstract terms, what would have happened if Barack Obama had used his mandate and the set of enormously favorable conditions surrounding his inauguration to be a progressive president, and if he had sold those ideas as effectively as Bush or Reagan or Johnson or Roosevelt did in their respective days? Alterman never answers this question. Would the blogosphere and talk radio go ballistic? Would pundits and paid hacks make up huge lies about him that millions of dopes would actually believe? Would he encounter stiff opposition in Congress? Would his poll ratings drop twenty points? Would his reelection prospects and those of fellow Democrats be imperiled?
Of course, all those things are precisely what has happened!! Except that they happened as Obama has pursued a non-progressive agenda, non-boldly. So, given that he has already paid every imaginable penalty for not being progressive, what exactly would be the cost of instead pursuing progressive politics? What additional stumbling block remains to make a progressive presidency "impossible"?
Many progressives feel that it's a mistake to focus so much energy on electoral politics generally, and presidential politics specifically. I certainly agree that movement organization is crucial, and that there is some point after which enough focus on electoral politics transitions into being too much. But I might dispute where that point is. The presidency remains crucial. There is no other soapbox in the country - or even the world - that comes close to the power of the White House bully pulpit.
And that power would be hugely magnified if the bully pulpit was not only used properly and effectively, but also infused with some absurdly necessary truth-telling. What if we had a president who made it issue number one to tell the American people that its government is for sale to special interests and this must be stopped right away? How hard a pitch would that be? How foolish would Republicans look in opposing that idea? How self-destructive would their defense of the status quo be? And how huge a difference would this make in American government, across the board, if we could finally break the stranglehold of money over government?
Imagine if a progressive president explained to the American public how badly they've been wounded by regressive economic policies for three decades now, which have shifted wealth in this country back to nineteenth century-style distributions, have left the middle class tattered and insecure, and have rendered the federal government drowning in debt. What if that president led the way toward the reform of tax and trade and labor laws so that this kleptocratic imbalance could be rectified? How hard would that be? How much would the debate change if the White House was shaping it in a full court press every day? How clearly would the opposition be perceived to be the tool of plutocrats, especially if the president called them just that, and pointed out the connections?
What if we had a president who honestly told us that the Iraq war was based on lies, and gave us the evidence for that? What if he informed Americans that, while their schools and roads and local governments were falling apart from resource starvation, their country spends more on ‘defense' from a non-existent enemy than all the other countries in the world combined? Could you not maybe sell massive cuts in military spending if you told the truth, made a ridiculously logical argument, and said it loudly, repeatedly and boldly? Wouldn't people really rather have schools than expensive military bloat that does nothing for national security?
What if the president had the courage to tell the public that our for-profit health care system costs us vastly more than any other country's in the world, and still does not provide health care for tens of millions of people, leaving the quality of the US model ranked almost fortieth on the planet, according to the World Health Organization? How many American have the slightest clue as to how the American system compares to those of other developed countries? I would bet that very few do. In fact, it's worse than that. I'd bet most Americans suffer under the corporate-promulgated and regressive-promoted illusion that the systems in Britain and Canada and elsewhere are abysmal. That's because, in part, nobody - including no president - has ever had the guts and an interest in selling a counter-narrative, which also just happens to be true.
We could go on and on here, but the point is made. There is no persuasive power in the country anything like the presidency, and if we had a bold progressive in that position, articulating a truthful counter-narrative to the endless lies we get from the right and from the talking heads of the media (both avowed right-wing screamers and the mainstreamers who pretend to be dispassionate centrists), it would massively change the dynamic of politics in America.
There's even a certain efficiency argument to be made here. You get a lot more progressive bang for your buck by just putting one good person in the Oval Office than you do by the long and hard and expensive work of movement organizing. In the end, though, both kinds of political work are critical. Neither should be dismissed.
Progressives were right to be hopeful in 2008. A bold progressive president would have had a dramatic and sustained impact on American politics for generations, changing not only policy today, but sticking a spike tomorrow though the heart of right-wing vampires who have long been bleeding the country dry.
That Barack Obama is not remotely that person does not mean that it's impossible to have a progressive president.
Or that the presidency doesn't matter.