On the Left, a False Choice Fuels the Growing Civil War Over Obama

There is a civil war on the left over Barack Obama. The fault lines are jagged, and depending on the issue, porous, but broadly, the split is along two fronts:

  1. Those who believe that critiquing -- and occasionally opposing -- the president on issues such as gay rights, civil liberties and national security is healthy and necessary and those who believe that Obama's progressive critics are going too far, reinforcing rightwing attacks and undermining his presidency.
  • Those who argue that an incremental approach is the best we can hope for and that Obama's list of accomplishments is impressive and those who say that in the long run, watered-down legislation, half measures and empty 'bipartisanship' are worse for America (and the Democratic Party).
  • Grist's David Roberts tweeted the following over the July 4th break:

    I fear, deep in my bones, that Bob Kuttner is right.

    Roberts is referring to Kuttner's My Private Obama, another installment in a long series of "Disillusioned Progressive" critiques from leading pundits on the left:

    We in the progressive community have projected our own visions onto Barack Obama ever since we first noticed him as a remarkable political novice. It was clear from the 2008 campaign that he was a basically a centrist and seeker of common ground. But sometimes a crisis makes a presidency. And history has seldom delivered a more graphic, teachable crisis than the one that Obama inherited. So we voted our hopes that events could compel Obama to govern as a progressive. We are still waiting, and we are a cheap date. Throw us a few bones and we brim over with gratitude. ... [E]ven a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof president. He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism. Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.

    An even harsher assessment comes from a liberal commenter at Democratic Underground:

    I'm not criticizing Obama for failing to be perfect. I'm criticizing him for failing to be mediocre. Perfect = courageously calling out union-busters, supporting EFCA, pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq, boldly championing LGBT rights and shaming the bigots, ending torture, debushification on par with denazification/Kruschev's destalinization. Mediocre = fighting against union busters and supporting EFCA -- but being less bold and more apologetic, pulling out of Iraq with the help of the UN and drawing down troops in Afghanistan, announcing no expansion into Pakistan and Yemen. Overturning DOMA, DADT. Piss poor = abandoning and shaming unions, abandoning EFCA, continuing to build grotesque and palatial US bases in Iraq/Afghanistan, surge in Afghanistan, continuing renditions/murders/abductions, expanding Bagram (which also houses a black site torture prison), making it legal to assassinate US citizens abroad "suspected" of terrorism, cowardly and shameful on LGBT issues -- can't even fully champion DADT at wartime with LGBT soldiers returning in bodybags, Bush et. al given a pass.

    Jonathan Cohn takes the other side of the debate in a piece titled What Do Liberals Want From Obama?

    To suggest that Obama hasn't governed as a progressive seems pretty wrong to me. Look at the record: Obama has made a pair of liberal appointments to the Supreme Court, the second of whom appears to be on track to easy confirmation. He's populated the National Labor Relations Board with officials who actually believe in labor law. He's rescued the auto industry, and the region of the country that depends upon it, from economic oblivion. He'll likely get the chance to sign a major Wall Street reform package, just as he did an overhaul of the student lending program. And, of course, he led and won the fight for comprehensive health care reform. Bob isn't that impressed and, I know, neither are many other liberals. Among other things, they think Obama made too many compromises. The recovery act was too small. Financial reform won't break up the big banks. Health care reform has no public option. Etc etc. The compromises are real enough. But, to make what should be a familiar point by now, so are the political constraints.

    Over at Daily Kos, Bruce Maples looks for common ground, describing the problem as one of "Incrementalists versus Completionists."

    Completionists keep us honest; Incrementalists keep us moving. We need both. In fact, each of us needs to BE both. Teddy Kennedy was both. There was no question about his value system; he was the liberal Lion of the Senate. Everyone knew what his goals were. Yet, he found ways to work with his fellow Senators, even Republicans, to get progressive legislation passed. ... I think it is clear [Obama] is a complex Incrementalist with Completionist tendencies. He has a large set of Big Wins he wants to accomplish, but realizes that the current reality forces him to use Incremental tactics.

    Maples' attempt to reconcile the two sides is admirable but the rift may already be too deep. Keith Olbermann slammed head first into the problem:

    Olbermann wrote a blog post, presumably his last for awhile, headlined "Check, Please", as a response to the diary he found and one particular comment that insinuated his criticism came because attacking the President was good for ratings (a pretty strange notion when discussing MSNBC). "It can't be verified because it's nonsense, and it wasn't checked because nobody bothered," wrote Olbermann. "Unfortunately there's been a lot of this here lately." According to Olbermann, this is symptomatic of a larger issue at the liberal site that he has been a part of for years now, and he's ready to go his separate way: "You want Cheerleaders? Hire the Buffalo Jills. You want diaries with conspiracy theories, go nuts. If you want this site the way it was even a year ago, let me know and I'll be back."

    At DU, the civil war plays out daily and is well summed up here:

    We've become fractured as a family. Those of us with the most emotional investment in Barack Obama's presidency have come to see those with the most at stake (i.e. gays like my daughter) as threats to a "successful" presidency simply because we refuse to take a back seat to anyone else's agenda, and vice versa. We've lost our focus.

    Strikingly, this civil war is premised on a false choice: that an incremental legislative approach and a well-articulated grand ideological vision are mutually exclusive. They're not. Rapid, sweeping changes may not be feasible in the face of entrenched interests and steely GOP obstructionism, and credit should be given to the president for seeking and achieving solid wins. But neither is the White House prohibited from standing up for core Democratic ideals and presenting them powerfully and unflinchingly, explaining to the public in clear terms why Democrats have the better plan for America. Nor does the glacial pace of progress in Washington obviate the need to reverse George Bush's radical excesses, something the Obama administration has failed (so far) to do.

    Progressives demanding more of the president shouldn't discount every accomplishment, but they are correct in pointing out that if you do the legwork but a) fail to frame it with an overarching vision, and b) undercut it by imitating some of the worst practices of the Bush administration, then your efforts are largely for naught.

    The dispute on the left over Obama's response to the Gulf reinforced this false choice. Supporters reiterated the White House's claim that Obama wasn't a superhero who could personally plug the leak and that he had done everything possible to address it. Others, like Jonathan Hiskes at Grist made the case for 'going big':

    Wake up, Obama. The Gulf spill is our big chance. What happened to never letting a crisis go to waste? This mother of a crisis runs straight into our fossil-fuel addiction. It's a prime opportunity for progressives and clean-energy advocates to demonstrate the desperate need for new forms of energy. It's a prime opportunity to pressure the Senate to put a price on carbon pollution and invest in the R&D necessary to jump-start a clean energy economy. It's a prime opportunity to do all this without the corrupting influence of Big Oil. The president doesn't get this, according to his public actions and words so far.

    However, there was no reason Obama couldn't do both:

    Communication is an essential component of leadership. 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...

    The great mystery to so many progressives is why the White House fails to grasp this most basic of concepts: act and frame your actions. It makes little difference if Obama is a progressive at heart or if Rahm Emanuel hates the left - simple politics dictates that you have to make the 40,000 foot case for your inch-by-inch progress. If you don't, your opponent will do it for you. The imminent November electoral disaster bears out this point.

    Still, despite the intensity and passion and the increasing fracturing of the left, the White House has consistently telegraphed that it doesn't care about progressive disquietude. Liberal blogosphere stalwart Atrios points out that the White House is more solicitous of center-right critics: "Important people in the White House waste valuable time giving a s**t what David Brooks thinks."

    Perhaps the White House should take more notice, since the contours of Obama's legacy are being sketched by the two sides in this Democratic civil war and not by Republicans, the media, pundits, or historians. Out of the tension and internecine strife on the left emerges the portrait of a president who made tangible progress on big legislative challenges, but whose unwillingness to tie them to a comprehensive and cohesive ideological agenda and whose embrace of his predecessor's shameful legacy on civil liberties, secrecy and national security allowed opponents to paint victory as defeat, thus swaying the nation and severely denuding his accomplishments.