Should liberals be more thankful for Obama?

He won healthcare and banking reform as well as the super committee standoff. Great. We have to keep pushing

Published November 23, 2011 1:00PM (EST)


I got to debate Jonathan Chait about his much-discussed New York magazine piece, "When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?" on "Hardball" Tuesday night. He's aiming at President Obama's liberal critics, but in fact his article proves that criticism is nothing new. Apparently, we've always been unreasonable, because Chait's survey of Democratic presidents going back to FDR finds that the left has always found a reason to squawk. But he seems to think we're particularly unreasonable when it comes to Obama. With Thanksgiving ahead, I found myself wondering whether liberals should be more grateful to the president.

First, let's take in the list of Obama's accomplishments as Chait describes them. They're considerable:

His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.

Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.

We could, and I do, quibble about details in each of Chait's examples, but his overall point is important: Even if every measure he lists has its flaws, the list itself is impressive. That President Obama took office in the middle of the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and with a nominal Democratic majority in both houses, helps explain why some people still expected more, but we should still stop more often and acknowledge what's been accomplished in the last three years.

Having conceded that, I think Chait's piece suffers from big definitional problems. First, how do we define liberals? Polls show self-described liberal Democrats are happy with Obama – in Gallup's weekly tracking polls upward of 75 percent approve of the job he's doing (and the same was true for Clinton), and that's been true since he took office. There's no crisis of liberal support for the president.

Also, Chait's roster of unreasonable "liberals" includes MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. That's silly: Schultz, cited along with New York Times centrist Thomas Friedman, rails against politicians who refuse to cut the deficit by trimming so-called entitlements and raising taxes. But that's exactly what Obama tried to do with his proposed debt-ceiling "grand bargain"; Republicans wouldn't cooperate. Those guys aren't liberals; Friedman is a formerly liberal, formerly smart writer who got rich and stopped paying attention. (You'd think he could at least pay someone to pay attention for him, so he'd stop asking Obama to do what Obama has already done.)

What about actual liberals, people to the left of Schultz and Friedman – people like Rachel Maddow and, OK, sure, me. Yes, some of us have demanded more from Obama – on the economy, on Wall Street regulation, on gay rights, on civil liberties. But you know what? That's our job. And when Chait goes down the list of the ways liberals have been disappointed with Democratic presidents going all the way back to FDR, I found myself thinking, Good job, liberals! Because we were usually right, and the country's a better place for our pushing.

While liberals lionize JFK today, Chait notes, during his presidency (cut short 48 years ago Tuesday) they criticized him for not moving faster on civil rights. Yes, they did. Kennedy was trying to find a way to hold his party together and postpone the departure of the Dixiecrats, and he needed pushing. Should Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have said, "OK, Mr. President, we'll skip the March on Washington, we know you're doing what you can." Liberals were right to push Kennedy. (I am not trying to say that Obama is compromising on anything equivalent to the basic human rights of African Americans, just that on the social justice issues of their day, presidents need pushing.)

Similarly, while FDR gets more historic veneration from liberals (mainly because there's almost no one here with us who actually lived through his presidency as an adult), his New Deal only came about because of left-wing agitation (and corporate desperation) in the first place. And liberals were right to criticize some of Roosevelt's compromises: leaving most African-Americans out of the Social Security program (again to mollify Dixiecrats) and easing up on government spending in 1937 (to mollify conservatives and business leaders), which reversed some of the progress he'd made getting us beyond the Great Depression. Japanese internment was a shame that more liberals should have criticized.

In my adulthood, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton got elected with liberal support but wound up disappointing the left, particularly on the economy. Sadly, both men accepted the Republican premise that the economic problems and social disorder of the late '60s and early '70s required that Democrats trim back on government and make nice with business. Chait himself admits that while we all love the outspoken human rights defending, "Habitat for Humanity" supporting ex-president we know today, we didn't love Carter during his term, and for good reason:

The truth is that Carter’s domestic agenda carried only small bits of liberalism, and those small bits (a consumer-protection agency, tax reform) met with total failure in the Democratic Congress. Carter’s policy accomplishments tilted right of center—he deregulated the airline and trucking industries and cut the capital-gains tax. Most infuriatingly to liberals, Carter refused to push for comprehensive health-care reform. A Carter adviser later recalled that the president “did not see health care as every citizen’s right, nor did he think the government has an obligation to provide it."

When it comes to Clinton, I think many liberals are frustrated with Obama not because of some supposed great contrast with his supposedly liberal predecessor, but because of similarities between the two. Both of these liberal presidents spent considerable political capital trying to compromise with Republicans, and they failed. That's been a particular problem for Obama because he didn't have the strong economy that made Clinton's inability to wrest concessions from the GOP less painful.

It was precisely because Clinton failed to neutralize the critique of Democrats as the "big government" party that I objected to Obama's effort to do the same thing in a time of economic crisis. Before it all fell apart, the president defended the idea of his deficit-cutting grand bargain to progressives. "Get this problem off the table," he argued, "and then with some firm footing, with a solid fiscal situation, we will then be in a position to make the kind of investments that I think are going to be necessary to win the future." But Clinton already tried that, balancing the budget and endorsing a welfare reform plan largely crafted by Republicans. He believed that getting the issue of bloated government "off the table" would set the table for a progressive agenda. Of course, it didn't work.

Before writing his New York magazine piece, Chait got a lot of attention for a scathing retort to Drew Westen's left-wing critique of Obama that ran in the New York Times in August. Chait made a lot of good points; some of the things the left blames on Obama either didn't happen, or couldn't have happened otherwise given the Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. But he made one point I wanted to answer at the time, and didn't. He accused Westen and other lefty Obama critics of romanticizing the power of the bully pulpit and the presidential speech:

Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.

I think that's a caricature of liberals' criticism. I have an actual model of what I wish the president had done, and it doesn't come from Bill Clinton or JFK or FDR, it comes from Barack Obama. Look at the way he tried to sell the deficit-cutting grand bargain, to settle the 2011 debt-ceiling stalemate, even though in the end, the GOP didn't bite -- and probably, predictably, never was going to. That let the president tell voters he was the one who really wanted to cut the deficit, but Republicans wouldn't let him. He railed, he ranted, he ordered both parties' leaders to work night and day on a deal. He told the American public to call their congressional leaders and demand compromise -- and sure enough, they tied up the phone lines in Congress for a while. In the process, he accepted the Republican premise that deficit-reduction was more important than job creation, a hallmark of the Clintonian "third way" politics he'd supposedly rejected, but even critics had to admit it was a bold political move, and he worked hard and risked a lot for it.

Now, imagine the new president had told a comparably bold story about the recession in early 2009: that he was the one who knew how to use government to fix the economy -- but Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats wouldn't let him do all that was needed, so he was probably going to have to compromise to do what was possible. Obama failed to give voters a vision of the kind of government role that would be required to fix the economy -- his advisors were telling him it would take at least $1.2 trillion in stimulus -- even if he had to compromise and settle for less. And let's be clear: He did have to settle for less. Since the Senate barely passed the $787 billion stimulus bill, even though 40 percent of it went to tax cuts, it's hard to imagine the president getting more than that.

But what if the president laid out bigger, bolder plans for the Recovery Act? What if he'd gone on television every few days, as he did during the debt-ceiling crisis, and demanded the American people lobby Congress? Then, when the compromise stimulus worked as well as it did -- and it did work, keeping the country out of a Depression and reversing the steep trend of job losses that began under Bush -- but its effects trailed off, he'd have been in a much stronger position to push Congress to do more. But Obama never made that case. That was a missed opportunity that wound up hurting the president politically, and hurting the country.

One last thing about the debt-ceiling debacle: Obama's approval numbers fell as he pushed for compromise with the GOP, and they have climbed since he's begun pushing for a jobs bill he knows has no chance of getting Republican support. I think Obama's liberal critics weren't just right morally, they were right politically. But I'll also give the president credit for what now looks like shrewd bargaining: He got the debt ceiling raised without cutting Social Security or Medicare, reckoning he could offer whatever he felt like knowing the GOP would never agree to raise taxes.

I think Chait's right that liberals are less inclined than conservatives to close ranks around their president, right or wrong. Conservatives tend to defer to authority, by definition; our side, not so much. I think he's right to remind liberals how much Obama has done. I'm grateful to Obama for a lot of those things, but mostly, I'm grateful to be a member of a party that fights openly about what's right. When the president got heckled by some Occupy Wall Street protesters Tuesday in New Hampshire, he modeled that tolerance, listening to them; he didn't have them pepper-sprayed. I guess I'm grateful for that too -- but I wish I didn't have to be.

Here's our "Hardball" debate. Have a great Thanksgiving.

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By Joan Walsh

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