Tom Frank: Obama's made left "futile and irrelevant"

Obama's the clear choice Tuesday. But the writer doubts progressives will find a louder voice in a second term

Published November 3, 2012 3:22PM (EDT)

There have been poetic, soaring odes written in support of President Obama's reelection in recent days.

The New Yorker endorsed him by noting "a run of ambitious legislative, social, and foreign-policy successes that relieved a large measure of the human suffering and national shame inflicted by the Bush Administration. Obama has renewed the honor of the office he holds."

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, in a piece titled "Why He Is a Great President. Yes, Great," noted that "what can be said without equivocation is that Obama has proven himself morally, intellectually, temperamentally, and strategically. In my lifetime, or my parents’, he is easily the best president."

And yet. It's possible to agree with them and still wince when the New Yorker ascribes disappointment in Obama, in part, to "a reflection of the fantastical expectations that are attached to him."

These things might not get said during a campaign season when the alternative means Mitt Romney and the Republicans. But Obama has largely punted on climate change and gun control -- it's hardly "fantastical" to want a Democratic president to take such common-sense issues on, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy and Aurora. And while Obama achieved some new oversight of Wall Street, it's hardly fantastical to wish that the reckless gambling that led to the worst collapse since the Great Depression had led to more consequential and lasting change.

So how do we get beyond fantastical in a second term? How can progressives exhibit the same influence that the Tea Party had on Republicans? How do we ask this president for more -- demand more -- in a second term, but with clear eyes, not lovestruck ones?

With these questions in mind, we called Tom Frank, a columnist for Harper's and the author of several books, most notably "What's the Matter With Kansas?" "The Wrecking Crew" and "Pity the Billionaire."

Frank's been so clear-eyed on Obama that he recently wrote: "The only honest way for progressives to assess the experience of these past four years is by coming unflinchingly to terms with our own futility and irrelevance." And he's been so clear-eyed on the rise of the right that, in "Pity the Billionaire," he noted how Democratic impotence post–Great Recession allowed something very strange to happen: another conservative revival and the rise of politicians like Paul Ryan who "rage against the machine" while being in the pocket of the 1 percent.

We talked Thursday about what progressives might do to get more of a voice in a second term.

The national polls have begun to turn the president’s way, and he has held small but stable leads in the key swing states. Nate Silver’s 538 blog has his reelection chances pegged at nearly 81 percent on Friday. It does seem like there's been more genuine excitement from liberals about a second term ever since Obama came to life in the second debate and since Hurricane Sandy reminded people about the purpose of government and what is really at stake.

But if progressives went into the first term of Obama's presidency over-excited – and perhaps blinded to the establishment, centrist nature at his very core – and set themselves up for some disappointment (rationally or not), what is the realistic way to approach a second term? 

Good question. That’s what I’m writing about at this very moment. Well, if you’re like me, you’re resolved to voting for him because he’s not Mitt Romney and he’s not Paul Ryan. He does have some things to his credit that you cannot diminish. He ended the war in Iraq; that was really good. People like me often forget that when we’re tallying up all his failings and [talking about] how he didn’t go far enough with this and that. But he did end the war. That’s a big, big deal. Now Mitt Romney can’t send more troops there; he can’t get that war going again. That’s a very important thing. He got some form of national healthcare passed. He didn’t go far enough; he brought all kinds of headaches on himself that he didn’t need to do; he played it very poorly -- but he got something passed. And that’s also huge.

Exactly. If you have a pre-existing condition, if you're in your 20s and need to piggyback on your parents' insurance, all of that is now covered. That's reason enough to support him right there.

That’s right. I think those things alone are enough reason to vote for him. He did the stimulus also; the stimulus was great. He didn’t go far enough with it, as with so many of his other things. He didn’t go far enough; he compromised and frittered it away.

What would you say he frittered away? The opportunity posed by the financial crisis to genuinely remake government with a second New Deal and to actually re-regulate Wall Street?

Yes. It was within his power to make himself an extremely popular president in the Franklin Roosevelt manner. And he didn’t do that; he didn’t take those steps. It wouldn’t have required him to do some horrible demagoguery. If he had just addressed the country’s problems in the tried-and-true methods that we remember from the last go around, from the 1930s ...

If he had done those things, there would be no question about it being a close election or him possibly losing to a guy like Mitt Romney; he would be miles ahead. He would have never lost the House in 2010. And so I feel like the tragedy of Barack Obama is that, for whatever reason, he chose not to go that route -- and now there is a really good chance that he might lose, and it's totally unnecessary.

You wrote in Harper's two months ago that "the only honest way for progressives to assess the experience of these past four years is by coming unflinchingly to terms with our own futility and irrelevance. We reached a historical turning point in 2008, all right. We just didn’t make the turn." Is there a way to have more input in a second term -- or to learn from futility and irrelevance in a way that progressives might generate the kind of political influence the Tea Party has over the Republicans?

I think there is. Look, I’m 47 years old now. This has been going on … Clinton did the same thing. Obama has less contempt for the left and liberals, but still a lot of it. [If] you think of all the names his people call liberals and the left, their contempt for liberals is towering. Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, all these guys – they see liberals as a species of humanity that they don’t have to be bothered by.

And you actually see the same attitude towards Mitt Romney and the right. Obama is visibly disgusted that he has to endure a challenge from this guy.

It showed during the debates.

I kind of understand that. (Laughs.) I kind of get that one! But he has the same feeling toward people like me. And this, by the way, is very typical of Washington, D.C. The left is something that everybody in the circles of power in the city ... everybody knows that they don’t have to deal with. And when they are asked by people like you and me to answer to left-wing criticisms, they instantly react with contempt. They don’t have to answer. That’s something that they do not have to pay attention to. And I think that any understanding of our position has to begin with that.

The fact that you had this great progressive revival, the reaction against George W. Bush -- and I don’t want to say that progressives delivered the White House to Obama, but they certainly won him the primary over Hillary Clinton. And it’s always labor that the Democrats look to to win their elections. Always, every four years: “Get out there guys, go door to door for me.” And then once they’re back in power, they do nothing for these constituencies. We have to come to terms with that, and we have acknowledge that it happens and that it’s been going on for a long time. And where do you go from that?

I think the obvious answer is that you build strengths outside the Democratic Party. You influence the Democratic Party, you work within the Democratic Party, but you have to build social movements that are outside of it in order to do that. And the thing is that most of my journalistic career I’ve been very enthusiastic about organized labor, in a historical and theoretical sense. It’s very easy when you look at the broad sweep of things; it’s very easy to see that liberalism won its various victories because of organized labor, and liberalism has lost since organized labor has declined. Look at things like inequality, and they basically track the rise and fall of the labor movement. There’s no question about it. That’s the movement that made all of this possible, with various assists from other social movements. And, of course, organized labor is in deep trouble these days. It’s very hard for them to win anything, let alone increase their numbers. I sort of expected that to change during the Obama years -- there were various proposals out there to organize, and they went nowhere.

We haven't heard about card check since 2008.

Right, look at card check, which Obama voted for as a U.S. senator. He didn’t lift a finger to get it passed. He could have passed it, if he wanted; he could have passed some version of it. There are a lot of lesser reforms in there that he could have passed easily to make it possible to form a labor union again, but he didn’t bother with that. Which is also typical of his species of Democrat, basically conniving in the destruction of the social movement that made their party. Bill Clinton did the same thing.

So the obvious answer is that you need some sort of social movement to push from the left. And I don’t see anything on the horizon, hence my cynicism and my sense of futility. The other thing that may help is third-party candidates or third-party movements, and those are very hard to build in the current legal situation, [with] the way elections are run in this country. The way things are set up now, a third-party candidate in an election is just a spoiler.

After Ralph Nader and Florida in 2000, though, it's very hard to convince progressives that the third-party route is a good idea.

But there are other examples; third-party movements once were not futile in this country. A hundred years ago, there was a sort of vibrant tradition of third-party movements.

Right, they would drive the conversation on an important issue, and essentially, as Richard Hofstadter said, they sting and die – they'd be co-opted by a major party at a time when co-optation might have been a good thing.

Exactly. That was by design. They would cross-endorse at various levels. In Kansas, the Populist Party, which was this sort of left-wing movement -- and by the way it wasn’t just a billionaire like Ross Perot running for the presidency. It was a real political party from the top to the bottom – they had sheriffs and candidates at the lowest level, and then state legislators, U.S. senators, all of that stuff. What they would do is cross-endorse Democrats in Kansas because Kansas was a Republican state. And in the South they would cross-endorse Republicans; the Southern states were Democratic. That way they would combine forces, and they would win now and then.

That’s against the law now, and there’s no reason for it to be against the law. It’s just the two parties protecting their monopoly. They’ve made that against the law in almost every state. So you could bring back a really lively third-party tradition, but it would take the two parties agreeing to end their monopoly. You know what would be awesome? A social movement that called for that. I don’t know what you would call it; not representative democracy in the European sense, but something other than the two-party monopoly.

Occupy once looked like it could play that role. Certainly the focus on income inequality and the concept of the 99 percent never would have resonated without their hard work. And it just …

It sort of fizzled. That was a real shame. I was real excited about it at first. There was a moment when I was on the subway train in D.C., and this guy comes on, and he’s clearly just come back from a trade show or something. He’s got a tote bag with one of those slogans that you see about how winners are really awesome, something like that -- one of these corporate slogans about delivering shareholder value or some such bullshit. And it was at the height of Occupy, and this guy was clearly uncomfortable with this on his person. What a moment that was!

There really was a moment when you could tell that the hedge-fund guys felt shamed, that Wall Street was on the defensive.

Well, it should have gone on. It should have built and built. It was a great start that didn’t go anywhere, and that’s also tragic -- really tragic. It wasn’t the first massive left-wing thing we have seen in a long time because the progressive people signing up for Obama was a massive thing that also failed. Before that, the protests in Seattle in '99 -- people were enthusiastic about that, and that fizzled, too. There’s a larger problem here about why the left can’t get off the ground, take off, failure to launch…

And the problem is what?

Well, there’s a bunch of interrelated problems, but a big part of it is the academization of protests. I don’t mean that it is just student-based -- students should be protesting, I think. They are totally being screwed by the universities these days -- the mounds of debt they are forced to incur, all those things. There’s a bunch of different problems, but one of the problems is that these movements always -- somehow -- get sucked into the academy. They get taken over by people who are absolutely determined to not speak in a way that is comprehensible to average Americans. In fact, [these are] people who have enormous contempt for average Americans. The whole idea of the left is about empowering average people, and you can’t do that if you despise them.

There’s another thing I’d like to add to this, and that is the issue of the state. Occupy tended to be pretty unsophisticated about the state. They sound like libertarians, frankly, when they’re talking about the state. If you want to do something about Wall Street in this country, there is only one power that can do it -- and that’s the state, obviously. That’s government. And government did perform that role for a long time. Glass-Steagall, that was the law of the land. Banks were closely regulated; you didn’t have anything like this sort of madness of the last decade, the shadow banks ...

Regulatory capture …

I feel that I myself am responsible for some of this cynicism. Because I wrote a book like "The Wrecking Crew," and I’ve written other things about regulatory capture and about how government fails. And the problem is -- and this is one of the things I said when I wrote that book -- that to talk about government failure should not lead automatically to this Republican dogma that government fails because it is in the nature of government to fail, because government always fails, because government is the problem. That’s what they say whenever something like that happens, whenever you have one of the regulators asleep at the switch or something like that, and that’s just not the case.

But here’s Barack Obama, supposedly this great progressive -- if you listen to the Republicans, he is a communist -- and he will never forthrightly make the case for government. He just won’t do it. He’ll say government should do some things, but then he will always say, in the very next sentence, “Now I’m not saying that government is the answer, blah, blah, blah …” He always does this, always has a caveat; he can never just forthrightly come out and talk about it.

Is there a chance that Hurricane Sandy changes this, assuming the government's response is competent and successful?

It might, in the sense that it brings back memories of Katrina. But, look, this has been going on for years. He’s had plenty of time to do this, and he hasn’t done it. He should’ve been doing it throughout his entire presidency; he should’ve been showing us what good government looks like, and he should’ve started by kicking ass on Wall Street -- you know, breaking those banks up, putting them out of business. They should’ve been out of business, a whole bunch of those investment banks. The idea that they are propped up with public money is so reprehensible. I know he didn’t invent that program, but he embraced it, he made it his own.

And that's the lingering frustration. There are others whose criticism of Obama very validly focuses on drone strikes, or the expansion of the security apparatus, or the way they've gone after whistle-blowers. But my disappointment -- and it is tempered by many other successes -- is that at a really critical moment for change, Obama thought too small.

Exactly. It's kind of funny that he wrote a book called "The Audacity of Hope." The audacity of anything! I mean, this guy has been so cautious. And that moment when I finally grasped that he wasn’t going to do anything audacious, that was sort of the horrible moment for me. We’re not going to get another chance like that in our lifetimes because of Citizens United. You may see the Republican Party dwindle as their voter base erodes and as the country becomes more and more Democratic, but at the same time you are going to see the kind of politicians who are acceptable at the national level become ever more of a certain type. They already are this way, to a great degree, but they would have to be increasingly the kind of people that billionaires like because billionaires are going to fund it from now on.

What if some of those billionaires are progressives? Is there a way that an anti-Koch-brothers type could push the Democrats to change?

That’s a good question. I don’t know if that would do it. You can always point to the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of examples where liberals were right about things, but that tends to not really help. I mean, God, how many times have I gone the I-told-you-so route? That doesn’t make any difference.

Let's look ahead for a moment. You wrote recently that Democrats had to figure out how to talk about the economy -- and fast -- in a way that appeals to regular people. Because if they don't, Paul Ryan and his cohorts have a simplistic message that takes hold of the rage and anger people feel but directs it in the absolutely wrong direction. "Until the day Democrats learn how to speak meaningfully about The Issue -- the flagrantly rigged casino of American life -- plenty of voters will continue to buy what Paul Ryan is selling," you said. "Does it matter, as he strides down the ruined streets of a deindustrialized Midwestern wasteland, shaking his fist at the powerful, that he has trouble keeping his facts straight? Or that he is a reliable tool of the 1 percent? Hardly."

How confident are you that Democrats understand this?

I’m confident of the opposite -- that they don’t understand it. This has been going on since Nixon, and they’ve never responded to it in a realistic way.

This has been going on for a long time. What makes Ryan interesting is he is going at it now in this context of the financial crises and slump. What is amazing about it is that they get away with it -- and the reason they get away with it is because of all the crazy things that are going on in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are to blame for this just as much as the evil-genius Republicans are.

Last question: Your most recent book is called "Pity the Billionaire." Did you ever imagine that it would actually come true – that so many billionaires, as a recent New Yorker story chronicled, would prove to have such thin skin about any criticism at all? Even during a time of record corporate profits? Why must billionaires be loved, on top of having everything else?

When I chose the title of the book, it was a joke -- a sarcastic joke. And now it’s really happening. There are billionaires demanding that we pity them all over the country.

I think they do it because they can, because they want to have it all. They have the money, but they also want us to love them. They’ve developed an entire theory to explain this – the theory of the job creator. They do it because it’s flattering to themselves, because it’s who they are. They’re living in this little bubble of a world; they’re surrounded by people who agree with them all the time. And there’s an entire class of intellectuals dedicated to this.

I got the title from Ayn Rand, from "Atlas Shrugged." She doesn’t say those words “Pity the billionaire” ...

No, Ayn Rand doesn't pity anyone!

She’s a harsh, mean person. But billionaires think they are society’s producing class and society’s victim class at the same time.

Neat trick.

That’s simply how the American business class likes to imagine itself. Everybody would like to imagine themselves that way if they could.  

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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