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Progressives vs. the President

As a movement, we'll never succeed in moving the nation leftward by engaging in dumb, kneejerk politics and by demonizing a president who is arguably the most sympathetic to progressivism in generations.
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This isn't the first column in which I've addressed this dynamic and it won't be the last. So consider the following an overview or a recap of what I feel is the disconnect between President Obama and some vocal factions within the progressive movement.

Clearly there are progressives, most visibly in the liberal blogosphere, who have ventured well beyond the realms of being disillusioned with the president to being outright antagonistic and, in a broader movement sense, utterly self-defeating. I still believe that this is based upon a misreading of political reality and a misinterpretation of the president's first year in office. In some cases, I believe this anger is genuine and fair, and many other cases, I believe it's wholly unfair, misguided and, dare I say, wingnutty.

Stating the obvious by way of a preface, the goal of the progressive movement is to, of course, move government further to the left and thereby achieve progressive policies. The argument right now is about how best to achieve this goal in the context of the current political landscape. I've always thought that a successful progressive movement involved three things: an ongoing marginalizing of the far-right; arguing for progressive policies; and promoting and encouraging the careers of politicians and organizations that are best equipped to help pass progressive legislation.

With that in mind, one of the many reasons why I endorsed, voted for and still support President Obama is because I strongly believe that he's perhaps the only American politician equipped to move the nation in a distinctly leftward direction from within the context of the Oval Office. But at no time have I ever held any delusions that he was some kind of progressive superhero -- a Kucinich or Sanders or Dean with a better jump shot and Jon Favreau on the payroll.

While Barack Obama is, in fact, a liberal, he's not necessarily a progressive who fits squarely into the progressive movement's wheelhouse.

But he's close.

I've always believed that he would be, and currently is, the most liberal president in a generation -- if not since FDR. Furthermore, he's uniquely equipped with the talents to sell it. Who else, off the top of your head, has the presidential right stuff while also being as relatively left-leaning as Barack Obama? I'm talking about the complete package here. Loyal family man, well-above-average intelligence, sense of humor, dynamic personality, legendary oratory skills, political instincts, the knack for managing chaos and possessing a fundamentally liberal world view. (Say nothing of the historical nature of his presidency.)

All that said, he's not perfect. I don't know anyone who's suggesting he is. He's made a variety of miscalculations in his first year, and he'll surely make more mistakes as his first term continues to roll out. Some of the mistakes are only mistakes in that they don't entirely line up with progressive priorities; some of the mistakes are political errors regardless of policy.

Here's where everything begins to fall apart in terms of the anti-Obama left. How do we best call out these mistakes? What does accountability look like?

Some very prominent members of the progressive movement have taken a punitive approach, not only towards the president but even towards allegedly disloyal progressive members of Congress. You've read all of the various descriptions of this movement. The kill-billers. Activists and writers who have a penchant for suggesting that the president is too similar to George W. Bush. Some have promoted the idea of pressuring Bernie Sanders with a primary opponent, while others have suggested that maybe progressive Democrats in the House should return their donations as punishment for (eventually) voting for health care reform without a public option. Some have attempted to team up with wingnuts like Grover Norquist and Dick Armey's tea party movement to attack the administration, as if this will somehow help progressivism.

Just a year into the Obama presidency, these activists and writers have over-emphasized the president's mistakes while almost entirely ignoring the very respectable list of his progressive successes. Almost as if they never happened. I can't seem to pinpoint exactly why there's an almost deliberate ignorance about the president's positions.

Every day, you can find progressive screeds about how the president is "just like Bush" because of trespasses as wide-ranging as Afghanistan to the individual mandate. In one case, the president is wrong for doing what he said he'd do, in the latter case, he's wrong for changing his mind. It's worth noting that the progressive primary favorite in the 2004 election, Howard Dean, was just as hawkish about Afghanistan. And more recently, the progressive primary favorite in 2008, John Edwards, supported individual mandates. Yet the president is a sell out for enacting these positions.

Okay, then. To each his or her own.

But here's the mistake. As a movement, we'll never succeed in moving the nation leftward by engaging in dumb, kneejerk politics and by demonizing a president who is arguably the most sympathetic to progressivism in generations.

Yes, to repeat: the president isn't flawless. He clearly could be more progressive on a number of fronts. But as a movement, we could be more effective with how we get him to do that. Here's how.

1) Modulating our loudness. If we're always yelling, then we're easier to ignore. Oh, it's just the left and their screeching again. But if we remain proactive, if we give credit where credit is due and pick our battles, then, when we have to get loud, we get noticed. Rachel Maddow is a good example of modulating her tone. When it comes to the administration, she's always been fair and reasonable, yet tough when necessary. So when she has to yell, it really, really resonates. Her exchange with Jared Bernstein is a perfect example. I think it's safe to say that the White House took very seriously her segment with Bernstein about the spending freeze. Why? Modulation. Dynamics. Fairness.

2) Smart accountability. We have to avoid using right-wing frames and accidentally engaging in arguments that can be borrowed by political enemies. Teaming up with someone like Norquist only elevates Norquist and diminishes us. A similar argument was used by the Obama campaign when arguing against a series of town hall debates with John McCain. Obama had everything to lose and McCain had everything to gain. Do we really want to lend our credibility to Norquist and the teabaggers? Do we really want to send the mixed message that it's okay to join up with someone who wants to drown government, while also trying to convince voters that government can be a force for good?

3) Winning the debate on the ground. How do we make America more progressive (moving the Overton Window)? By changing minds. Yelling at the president won't change the fact that a considerably large chunk of the American electorate is moderate and independent. The Democrats need the middle in order to win because the left simply isn't large enough. But if we systematically and deliberately change minds -- if we're disciplined about taking the longview approach and convincing voters that progressivism is the best way to govern, then we will eventually force politicians to move leftward as the electorate does.

Until then, we need to accept (albeit begrudgingly) the political reality that the president will occasionally have to do things that appeal to the middle in order to get other things done. And some of those things will be progressive. I hasten to note that we don't have to merrily accept all of it (see item #1 above), we should simply keep this reality in mind before we kneejerk ourselves into a spastic mess. You might not like what the president is doing in Afghanistan, and you should continue to make your case against it. But don't take it as a betrayal. Perhaps winning support by being aggressive in Afghanistan will buy the president some votes on a more progressive bill elsewhere.

So be angry with the president. Hold him accountable. But do it in a way that doesn't work against the practical advancement of the progressive movement. Ask yourself what we'll win in the long run by accusing the president of being a "sell out" or by promoting the myth that he hasn't achieved anything in his first year (again, he has -- and much of it is very progressive). We're the smart ones. We're the ones who are "reality-based." We can win without being counterproductive. We can figure it out. And I think that in doing so, we can make our peace with the White House.

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