Last Chance, Mr. President, to Go Big and Go Left

A year ago, in the midst of the explosive health care debate, I argued that health care reform wouldn't be President Obama's defining issue:

The New York Times blares: In Health Care Fight, Defining Moment Nears for President. It's the "Waterloo" talking point, promulgated by Republicans, seized upon by the White House, and echoed by the punditocracy and online commentariat. It's false ... this is not the defining moment or issue of Obama's presidency. There will be many more watersheds, many unforeseen events, many highs and lows, many poll dips and spikes. In the end, Barack Obama's presidency will be defined by the extent to which he attempts to right America's (badly adrift) moral ship. Providing universal quality affordable health care is only a part of that process, albeit a significant one.

Sure enough, it looks like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy will rival or eclipse health insurance reform as one of the life-altering events of the Obama era. This, the greatest man-made environmental disaster in our history, is the mother of wake up calls: either we appreciate that the damage to our planet and the decisions we make about it are a turning point for humanity, or we ignore the warnings and fail the test of history. It is a rare moment for the world, for our nation and for the besieged presidency of Barack Obama.

The Gulf catastrophe encapsulates all that is wrong in our politics:

For the right, anti-environmentalism is an addiction and a passion, a visceral hatred for 'tree-hugging' hippies. The GOP will contort itself trying to appease oil companies and working to block any meaningful legislation.

For the media, sideshows like the one about the president's 'anger' (or lack thereof) will distract from meaningful reporting.

For the White House and Democratic leaders, shunning progressives is standard operating procedure -- disgust and disdain for the left is deeply ingrained in the Beltway culture that infuses and informs Democratic inner circles. Since the grand vision for Democrats (on energy, the environment and just about everything else) is born and nurtured among progressives, the result is a listless, rudderless response to a planetary emergency.

Looking at the bigger picture, the White House may scoff at the notion that they're floundering, taking solace in the passage of health insurance reform, believing it to be a singular accomplishment that will trump the smaller disappointments and outlast temporary fluctuations in the polls. But in the Internet era, with conventional wisdom being framed, reframed, shaped, mangled, distorted, interpreted and re-interpreted by millions of online denizens in real time, relying on the long view of history may be an anachronism.

Criticizing Obama is a cottage industry by now, no surprise. Diatribes against him inundate the opinion world. Everyone is doing it, which dilutes the value of legitimate critiques. And it creates a more serious problem: shrugging off all negative commentary as a media concoction results in a White House isolated from valuable, well-intentioned external advice. A bunker mentality won't lead to greatness. If anything, it's a sure path to defensiveness, frustration and ultimately, mediocrity.

The challenge for this White House is not to punch back at all critics, but to know which ones are worth heeding.

From day one, the principled critique of Obama has come from the left. From gay rights to civil liberties to secrecy to the environment to Afghanistan and national security, progressive opinion-makers have gone after the administration for failing to fulfill its overarching purpose of being the anti-Bush, to reverse America's near-fatal, turn-of-the-millennium mistake, to restore sanity to a nation that temporarily lost it, to reinstate fealty and respect for its greatest values. Unfortunately, the president and his advisers have been far more solicitous of opponents on the right, treating progressives like a familial annoyance, a needless irritant.

In a blur of post-election elation, over-confidence, an extended campaign mindset, barely-suppressed scorn for the 'angry left' and a futile dream of post-partisanship, the White House has slowly and steadily allowed the unthinkable to happen: George W. Bush's image is improving. And genuine hope for a new progressive age is dying.

The saddest part of all this is that principled progressive policy is also good politics, something lost on the vast majority of Democratic strategists.

  • How long has the left been warning that if Obama reinforces Bushian policies, he'll lose the ethical high ground and with it his administration's entire moral compass?
  • How early in the health care debate were progressives arguing for a stronger bill through reconciliation?
  • How forcefully have progressives been warning that the public derision expressed toward them by the White House Chief of Staff and other officials will suppress the leading edge of the Democratic base?
  • How blindsided and disappointed were progressives by the administration's supremely ill-fated announcement of new offshore drilling?
  • And how unlikely would Obama's election have been in the first place without the thankless and tireless progressive opposition to Bush when Bush's approval ratings were astronomical and Democrats had no stomach for fighting him?
Obsessed with the minutiae of polls and focus groups, busy trying to appease unappeasable opponents on the center-right and worried about a handful of crusty Washington pundits, the White House and Democratic leaders have blithely ignored the advice of the left and ended up facing potential midterm losses unimaginable in the heady days of

With the Gulf calamity, Obama is once again a step behind the progressive community. Problem is, you can only play catch up for so long before you're perceived as a follower not a leader.

Three weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter:

Prediction: sooner or later, President Obama will address the nation in prime time about the #OilSpill

I'm relieved he's finally doing it. Communication is an essential component of leadership. The self-admitted flatfooted response to this historic calamity is easier to understand when you look at the pattern of listening to the wrong critics. Obama's defenders may say it's just piling on and that better communication wouldn't have plugged the leak. But they do him a disservice. That's a straw man. Stepping up and speaking out immediately and forcefully changes perceptions. Perception generates action. As Democrats and progressives, our elected leaders speak on our behalf - their urgency is our urgency, their leadership is our leadership, their guidance is our guidance, their vision is our vision.

Those who care most about your success, who are most invested in you, whose dreams and hopes you represent, are your best sounding board, your truest mirror.

With the address to the nation on Tuesday, it's time for President Obama to show the world that we won't let this catastrophe fade into the bottomless ocean of inaction, that we will save ourselves and our home. It's time for him to look in the progressive mirror and go big, and go left.