Recently my friend and colleague Bill Scher challenged progressive critics of President Obama's conciliatory approach toward corporations with a New York Times op-ed entitled "How Liberals Win." Far from being "business as usual," Bill writes, "the Supreme Court's upholding of Mr. Obama's health care law reminds us that the president's approach has achieved significant results."
Bill argues that, critics notwithstanding, ours is not "a system paralyzed by corporations." He adds: "The most liberal reforms in more than 40 years have been brought about because Mr. Obama views corporate power as a force to bargain with, not an enemy to vanquish."
Sorry, Bill. I'm with those who have concluded that the Obama White House has failed, both pragmatically and politically, on a number of key progressive issues. In my view, believing otherwise requires an almost ahistorical view of liberalism. We can't preemptively limit the definition of "liberal victory" to whatever corporate interests will allow.
Wherever the truth lies, the road ahead is clear: We can't allow the radical right to take power this year. But we need to fight for results, not politicians, by building a mobilized and truly independent citizens' movement.
Young and Estranged
This is an important discussion, especially in an election year in which liberals should be terrified. A Romney Presidency and increased Republican control on the Hill would endanger much they hold dear, including representative democracy, our social safety net, and workplace rights. And yet the outcome of this election may depend on the ability to mobilize precisely those voters who believe, not unreasonably, that the Obama Presidency represents "business as usual."
That may not be easy. Youth voters helped propel Obama into office and handed Democrats the House of Representatives. But youth turnout was lower in 2010 than in the previous off-year Congressional election of 2006, meaning they'd been more turned off in the preceding two years than they had been turned on by Obama.
To be sure, they still favor Obama over "generic" Republicans by a wide margin. But a poll which otherwise bodes well for Obama shows that young voters' enthusiasm has diminished considerably since 2008.
Why? Here are some clues: Another poll shows that three out of four young voters consider unemployment a "critical" issue. Obama's jobs messaging was ambiguous for years, at best, promoting jobs-destroying deficit panic as he "bargained" with corporations and their political representatives.
Three out of four young people also believe our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, while a plurality of them feels their generation will never achieve the American Dream reached by those who came before. The President's rhetoric has improved on these issues in recent months - but that's precisely because independent progressives and the Occupy movement refused to believe that dealmaking with corporations was a "win."
It's a similar story with middle-class voters who struggle with unemployment, stagnating wages and growing wealth inequity, retirement insecurity, lost home value, and tax laws which help the wealthy avoid paying their fair share. Who's speaking for liberals on the economy?
And let's be clear: By "liberals," what we really mean "most Americans." Take Social Security and Medicare: Poll after poll has shown that most Americans oppose their benefits to balance the budget. And yet, through his Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission and on numerous occasions afterward, the President has opened the door to doing precisely that.
Most Americans want more government action on jobs, yet the President has offered only weak job proposals - and tempered even those with tax cuts that muddy his own message and lave the public confused.
As our own analysis showed, more than twenty million voters live in underwater homes. There, too, the President's corporate-friendly agenda has limited his ability to connect with disaffected voters. These homeowners have been tormented and exploited by the Administration's own HAMP program, which is now better known by the name "extend and pretend."
Obama's Wall Street-friendly approach may be netting him a lot of banker contributions again this year, but a recent poll shows that independents in crucial swing states believe the President has mishandled the mortgage crisis and isn't holding Wall Street bankers "accountable" for their role in the housing crisis.
And when it comes to taxing the wealthy, the President has opted for the milquetoast Buffett rule (Is that the most Warren Buffett should be asked to chip in - the same rate as his secretary?) rather than making the case for truly progressive taxation. On all of these key issues, the President's corporation-placating agenda has hamstrung his ability to connect with key voters the way he did in 2008.
Sure, the President's popular. But there's a difference between approval and votes. The difference is turnout.
There are two possible ways to get these voters to the polling booth: One is to convince them that the Obama Presidency has been a great liberal success. That's the approach taken by my friend Bill, undoubtedly because that's what he believes. Will that bring young voters, the unemployed, underwater homeowners, and other disenchanted citizens to the polls? That means convincing them that what looks like defeat - burdensome debt, foreclosed homes, prolonged joblessness - is really victory.
Good luck with that.
The other approach, which I believe is both more accurate and more effective, is to explain two very important things to them: that the GOP will cause enormous harm if it gains more political power, and that neither a President nor a party will fight for what's right - or even what's popular - without relentless pressure from an independent and mobilized activists.
It didn't have to be this way. Had the President made different decisions, these voters could have been energized over the last three and a half years by hearing clear and forceful arguments in their favor. He could have used his bully pulpit to explain the extent of Wall Street's crimes and then used his Justice Department to investigate them. By viewing "corporate power as a force to be bargained with," Obama chose instead to sacrifice the principle of "one law for all." That alienated voters while leaving our economy at risk.
But what's done is done. That means there are two ways to get out the progressive vote in November: either to pretend that the Obama Presidency has been a victory for progressive values, or to build a movement that will fight for deeper change.
The health care bill which Bill touts as a liberal triumph is a perfect case in point. I don't envy Democratic leaders who must defend it against charges that it contains tax increases - because it does. Some of those taxes, like the surcharge on high earners, would actually be quite popular if the President chose to explain it clearly. Others are un-progressive, unjust, and unwise - and directly contradict the President's campaign promises.
The RIght's "big lie" of the week is its claim that the health bill contains "the largest tax increase in history." It's not even close, and its biggest increase is for those who earn more than $200,000 per year. But middle-class families will take a hit when the law raises the limit for deductible medical expenses to 10 percent of adjusted earnings, up from its current 7.5 percent. Rule changes for health pending accounts will also increase the tax burden for some middle class families.
And they weren't all the result of compromises with corporate power, either. A case in point is the excise tax on higher-cost health plans, which is based on ivory-tower economics and will punish people economically for belonging to health plans whose demographic cost drivers they can't control. he President aggressively fought for the unpopular excise tax - one of the few provisions he personally fought to include in the bill - despite campaigning against it in 2008.
Public Option, Private Deals
Then there's the individual mandate, which will affect very few Americans but will nevertheless impose a financial penalty on middle-class and lower-income people. The President asked for trouble when he jettisoned the public option early on in secret negotiations with for-profit health providers.
The public option (a Medicare buy-in for people under 65) was popular across the political spectrum - 51 percent of Republicans supported it, according to polling - and it provided a ready answer for Americans (liberal and otherwise) who were outraged at the idea of being forced to buy a private insurance product that offers inadequate coverage and lousy services at exorbitant prices.
That answer? You can always choose the public option instead.
Instead the President cynically chose to keep backing the public option publicly, long after he'd traded it away privately. But he did so in a lackluster manner that quickly made it clear to some of us that he had made some sort of deal with someone, somewhere. He damaged both himself and liberalism with this approach, by undercutting his personal credibility while failing to champion progressive principles.
The Right Proposes, The Left Disposes
The most direct message Obama sent to Congress as healthcare deliberations began was this one: "I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. "To cynical parliamentarians that sounded very much like this: I'll sign pretty much any health care bill you send my way.
The way in which the President got his health care bill passed - which mostly involved letting conservative Democrats parlay with Republicans, then failing to win Republican votes anyway - carried the seeds of troubles yet to come.
The end result was a bill whose key provisions were developed by the conservative American Enterprise Institute an enacted into law by Republican Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.
Here's a question: Is it a liberal "win" if Democrats enact policies in 2010 that were first proposed by conservatives in 1993?
Medicare For Almost
Bill Scher points to legislative triumphs of the past, like Medicare under Lyndon Johnson, as proof that dealmaking with the powerful gets results. But Johnson never abandoned the rhetoric of liberalism, even when he sacrificed some of its goals in pursuit of the best achievable outcome. On far too many occasions Obama has abandoned that rhetoric.
The President has also treated progressives inside and outside his party with scorn that borders on contempt. "Sanctimonious," he called them, and "purists" who would be "without victories."
And yet, as some of us predicted at the time, a more "progressive" outcome would have been far more popular than the one he got. Obama's push for unpopular provisions like the excise tax wasn't politically expedient. It was the result of his own choices, by all the evidence, and not the product of political necessity. He owes the left an apology, and more attention to its advice, now that it has proved to be prescient on so many issues.
Obama's defenders defend the healthcare bill's weaknesses by pointing to the improvements made to Medicare since it was initially passed. But could those improvements have taken place if LBJ had dismissed their importance during Medicare's initial passage?
There's no evidence that the President tried to win liberalism's battles before trading them away for the sake of expediency.There are many ways to lose a battle, but the most important one of all is this: First you must try to win it.
The Long View
Something else is missing from the "How Liberals Win" approach: a long view of liberalism. Obamacare's a textbook example, since it was first proposed as a conservative alternative to "Hillarycare" (itself a cumbersome compromise with corporations) in the early 1990s.
Yes, its passage was "historic" in several ways, at least one of which was ironic: Had Democrats agreed to support this conservative proposal in 1993, when Republicans like Warren Rudman were introducing it in the Senate, it would be approaching its twenty-year anniversary.
That doesn't make it a bad bill or mean it's worse than nothing, but it illustrates something very important: While liberals focused on a narrow, short-term definition of "winning," conservatives took a longer view. As a result, conservatives have moved the national dialog radically rightward while liberals frantically shift their definition of "winning" accordingly. A "liberal win" is apparently now defined as the passage of a conservative proposal, as long as it's better than nothing and is signed into law by a Democratic President.
If this keeps up in a few years we'll be celebrating passage of the Romney/Ryan Medicare voucher plan as yet another "liberal win." Didn't America's seniors get something? And didn't a Democrat sign the bill?
The health care bill does some good things, but it also contains many flaws and weaknesses. Bill Scher's engaging in faith-based reasoning, as anyone does when suggesting that the outcomes the President got were the best that anyone could have achieved. Like most professions of faith, that statement can neither be proved nor disproved.
But even if it's true (which we doubt), these outcomes could have - and should have - been accompanied by stronger rhetoric, by clearer defenses of the good things that were being sacrificed and a pledge to work for them again in the future. That didn't happen, and we're all paying the price.
On issue after issue, President Obama adopted positions that would have been considered center/right Republicanism in previous decades: Over-emphasizing the urgency and importance of deficit reduction. Willingness to cut Social Security benefits to balance the budget. Minimal or destructive action regarding underwater homeowners. Claiming that "Wall Street and Main Street rise and fall together" while failing to investigate criminal bank activity. (And this list doesn't include civil liberties issues, since the topic is economics.)
Would a more progressive Obama be in a stronger political position today? That gets into alternate-history scenarios that can never be proved or disproved. He might have met with more corporate resistance to his agenda - although its hard to imagine much stronger resistance than we're seeing now, despite his many concessions - and his donations from Wall Street and other large donors would have undoubtedly been smaller. That's not trivial in this post-Citizens United world, and we understand that.
On the other hand, a truly progressive President Obama would presumably be enjoying the enthusiastic backing of the core voters who propelled him to the Presidency in 2008. Would a more progressive economic agenda have been a net political advantage? We can't know.
But isn't it about time a Democrat tried it? Clinton's corporate-friendly agenda including the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of Wall Street. Obama's corporate-friendly agenda left his party vulnerable to a GOP attack on the left over Medicare, wounded his party's brand as the defender of Social Security, and tainted him as too cozy with Wall Street. How that workin' out?
And here's something we do know: The passage of better bills would have been better for the country.
The Way Forward
One thing is clear: Victory for liberalism cannot and must not be defined by the limits of what legislators can accomplish. Legislators operate within the realm of the politically possible, while independent movements change what's politically possible.
One of the President's greatest failures over the last three and a half years is that he chose to think like a legislator, not a leader. And one of liberalism's greatest failures was allowing so many people to identify with a leader, not with the principles and values that should be a movement's guiding star.
We can't change the past, but we can learn from it. We know that we need to think both short-term and long-term. We know now that electing persuadable politicians is the first step in the change process, not the last one. (Sure, re-elect them, as long as we can pressure them. But don't confuse tactics with strategies, compromises with goals, or politicians with ideals.)
Most of all, we know that we need a vigorous and truly independent movement - one that will speak to disaffected voters like the adults they are, mobilizing them with honest talk about the limits of elected leaders, the power of a engaged citizenry, and the perils of outsourcing ultimate accountability to any politician or party.
That, and not attempting to put a positive gloss on inappropriate compromises, is the way forward. That's the right path, and the pragmatic path, for liberals to take - this year, and in the years to come.