Liberals Analyze Their Obama 'Despair'
For many liberals, it is the summer of their discontent.
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
"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
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 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
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
"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
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.
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."