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Liberals Analyze Their Obama 'Despair'

by Abby Phillip

For many liberals, it is the summer of their discontent.

Many liberals are disappointed with President Barack Obama’s ability to deliver on his campaign promises. Already disappointed with President Barack Obama's ability to deliver on campaign promises, they now contemplate a slowing economic recovery and a good chance of Republican gains in November. Such developments would make enacting Obama's agenda even more difficult.

Two recent essays framed the debate raging within the progressive community over why the promise of Obama's candidacy has not lived up to their expectations - and how liberals should proceed in what they fear will be difficult months ahead.

In a 17,000-plus word piece published in The Nation on Thursday, journalist Eric Alterman calls the Obama presidency "a big disappointment" for progressives and blamed a broken system in Washington that he says allows the minority party to rule with impunity, and special interests and big money to dictate legislative policy.

"Face it," he concludes, "the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us." His essay is subtitled: "Why a progressive presidency is impossible for now."

But writing in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Michael Tomasky, the editor, counsels patience, arguing that American history has shown that change always takes time and continued effort against entrenched conservative opposition.

"The changes we want to see won't happen in 18 months, or in two years, or four, or probably even eight," he concludes in his article, "Against Despair."

The essays suggest it is a time of reckoning for a liberal community whose relationship with Obama has had a series of ups and downs since the climactic moment of hope and expectation when he claimed the presidency in Chicago's Grant Park on Nov. 4th, 2008.

"It's not just really about Obama, it's about the state of our country. Every day, you have a sense that people are wondering where this country is headed," says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation.

The elation of that night in 2008 quickly gave way to the realization that the Number One issue, the economy, and the ensuing fight over an $800 billion stimulus bill, would make Obama's agenda different from the one he had described in his campaign.

From the beginning, the stimulus bill was viewed as containing too many compromises in a futile attempt to garner Republican support. Economist and columnist Paul Krugman led the charge, arguing that the bill was not ambitious enough, containing too many tax cuts and not enough funding for infrastructure projects.

But the bill's $800 billion price tag created a toxic environment for congressional Democrats when they began the long debate over health care, and many liberals viewed Obama's compromises on the legislation as a betrayal. The low point may have been after the special election victory of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in January, when the possibility of any health care legislation seemed lost.

"It's open season on Obama, whom so many hoped would lead us out of the neo-liberal wilderness," Firedoglake blogger Les Leopold declared not long afterward. "He once was a community organizer and ought to know how working people have suffered through a generation of tax breaks for the rich, Wall Street deregulation and unfair competition. When the economy crashed, he was in the perfect position to limit the unjustified pay levels on Wall Street. ..."

"Instead, we got a multitrillion dollar bailout for Wall Street, no health care reform, no serious financial reforms whatsoever, record unemployment and political gridlock that will be with us for years to come."

The bill's passage was viewed as a major victory for the White House, but the reaction among progressives was mixed, at best. Only 10 days after the House bill passed, Tomasky writes, "things on the liberal side were more or less back to the dour normal."

"It simply took too long to pass health care," The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. said. "What should have been seen as an important progressive victory didn't feel like it was as much of a victory because it just took so damn long."

But the worst seems yet to come.

"The bad economy creates a mood in which everything looks a bit more bleak than it did before," Dionne said. "The economy helps to create the less-than-wonderful poll numbers for Democrats, and it conditions the national mood - and all of that affects the way that progressives feel."

The list of grievances includes a slew of agenda items yet to be meaningfully addressed: a climate change bill, immigration reform, "don't ask, don't tell," and the Employer Free Choice Act, not to mention a war in Afghanistan that many liberals oppose.

Yet, some of the blame that once was put squarely on Obama and his White House staff has now shifted to a broken system where congressional Republicans have exerted power that does not rightfully belong to them.

"Whatever the motivation, it has become easier and easier for a determined minority to throw sand in the gears of the legislative process," Alterman writes. "It is therefore no coincidence that the 40 Republican senators with the ability to bottle up almost anything in the Senate represent barely a third of the U.S. population."

Tomasky sees this shift as an inevitable one that will eventually bring liberals around to the realization that the great periods of change - Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society - took place after years of effort and many setbacks along the way.

Slower to come around to this view, Tomasky acknowledges, have been the vanguards of the liberal blogosphere: the Huffington Post, Firedoglake and, to an arguably lesser extent, The Daily Kos.

"People have to work through stages like that before they get to the point where they say that ‘this is not exactly what we thought it would be, but let's just deal with it,'" Tomasky said in an interview with POLITICO. "I don't know that the progressive community is at that stage yet, but people are getting there."

Ironically, given the generally more pessimistic tone of his essay, Alterman sees a more immediate time of possibility than Tomasky - Obama's second term, assuming there is one.

"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," Alterman writes in his piece.

Still, others are wary of putting too much stock in the promise of 2012.

"I think that depends on what we build," says Bob Borosage, president of the liberal Institute for America's Future.

Borosage says that over the past 18 months, progressives have learned the hard way that they need to be more independent of the White House to realize the change that they are seeking.

The remedy for the problems that progressives face, Borosage says, lies in the need to create an equal and opposite force that can rival the enthusiasm of the tea party movement.

"If there is a progressive movement that is demanding change, driving the debate, challenging conservative Democrats and Republicans and challenging the White House, you might see a bolder agenda," he says. "But it's equally possible that this reform moment ... that we miss it and conservatives come back with the same ideas they had when they drove us off a cliff."

"It was always naive to expect a president to start a movement," says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor and co-editor of the liberal magazine, Dissent. "It's a little bit like expecting a chief executive to start a union."

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