Yesterday, conservative commentator George Will called Barack Obama a “timid progressive.”
Will is an interesting writer. He’s far more thoughtful and articulate than the bloviators who dominate the talk channels, and he will criticize both the Right and the Left as he sees fit. I’ve often said that one of my secret fantasies is to be “a George Will of the Left.”
And I’d agree with him about Obama’s timidity. Obama talks a big, bold line, but when it comes to action, his moves are for the most part tiny little reforms, and even those don’t get pushed very hard for the most part. Obama was pretty progressive a few years ago, but his term in the Senate and his desire to be President seemed to have cooled his ardor. By the time he was elected, I figured he was a mainstream liberal, somewhere to the right of Ted Kennedy but well to the left of any recent occupant of the Oval Office.
Still, although my expectations for Obama’s presidency were pretty low, they haven’t even come close to being reached. On the timidity factor, he’s drowning the hopes of his mandate in the bathtub of timidity. I appreciate Obama’s conciliatory approach—but there’s a difference he doesn’t understand between trying to make common cause with the other side and walking away when it’s obvious the other side doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be engaged, and will do everything in its power to sabotage you.
Why do I say Obama’s not progressive anymore?
Health care: Medicare for All, a one-paragraph or at most one-page unamendable document that would have galvanized support, been hard to attack, and would have passed easily, months ago, with none of the backroom dealing that gave so much leverage to people like Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.
Foreign policy: Rapid withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan (three to six months). Strong condemnation of the Iraq venture as an illegal war waged under utterly false pretenses. Immediate halt on torture, rapid closing of Guantanamo, some sort of legal proceedings (perhaps a Nelson Mandela-style Commission on Truth and Reconciliation) to hold the Bush administration accountable for the rogue state we had become. An indelible message to Israel that its actions in Gaza were unacceptable and would have consequences for US support, insistence on a settlement freeze, and pressure on the Palestinian Authority to both crack down on terrorists and to negotiate in good faith.
Domestic policy: Consequences and safeguards around the Wall Street bailout that held the banks and brokerage firms accountable and prevented large bonuses going to executives of failing companies. Economic measures in addition to TARP that addressed working-class and middle-class Americans, especially in the areas of foreclosure and Main Street business help. A Marshall Plan-size effort to move off oil/coal and replace fossil fuels with true renewables (nuclear emphatically doesn’t count).
This is what a progressive agenda would have looked like:
Energy is one area where Obama did make a start, at least. The appointment of Van Jones and the attention to Green jobs were laudable, but Jones was quickly kicked out under pressure from the Right, and the momentum for Green jobs withered.
Timidity: George Will Was Right
The other big problem was that not only did his agenda lack real progressive substance for the most part, but he hasn’t been willing to use his considerable persuasive powers to retain his support base and pressure Congress. Nor is he able to simply hold the Democratic Party together long enough to move change forward. The lack of 60 reliable votes in the Senate is a red herring; during the few months he had the supermajority, the Democrats still couldn’t get much done. Look at the GW Bush administration, which never head anything like 60 votes, whose election legitimacy was never certain, and which generated significant public opposition to many of its policies. Bush was still was able to ram through all kinds of things, many of which the country has lived to regret.
From a marketing and PR point of view, Obama could have taken a leaf from Franklin Roosevelt’s book: When Roosevelt couldn’t get things through Congress, he turned to the people; he appealed directly to voters. He used Republican intransigence to build up pressure, and then at election time, was able to replace some of the obstacles. For the last year, Obama has totally blown the opportunity to blame the mess both on the past administration and on the unwillingness of Republicans to let him through to make the change he promised during the campaign. If he had used different strategy, 2010 should have seen a sweeping housecleaning in the House and Senate and a vast Democratic majority in place for the next two years. Instead, I think Obama’s cushion will be a lot thinner, and he’ll have even less room to work. The result will be a one-term presidency with meager accomplishments, and probably another round of Republican aggression.
The last Democrat who was willing to use some muscle to move his agenda forward (an agenda that was not at all popular in large sections of the country) was Lyndon Johnson. From his grave, LBJ must be wondering why Obama is afraid to lead.
Of course, the Left hasn’t had Obama’s back. We’ve given the streets to the tea partiers, where we should have been out there putting pressure on of our own (for example, not letting a health care bill move forward that doesn’t even have a public option, let alone single-payer/Medicare for All), and marshaling support for the few progressive initiatives.
Obama has eight more months to change the dynamic. Eight months in which he needs to start being very public about why change is not emanating through Congress. Eight months to appeal to the American people for support, and to get winnable candidates in place to challenge the intransigents. I wish him luck.