Thursday, December 31, 2009

Real Progressive Reform in Government or Anywhere Else is Not Merely Rhetorical


This is a very interesting, insightful, and yet highly contradictory article. On the one hand Bai does an excellent analysis of what is currently wrong with the Obama presidency and why so many factions of the progressive liberal and left wing of the Democratic Party--and among independent radicals and progressives outside of the DP--are so justifiably upset with the meandering and heavily compromised directions domestic and foreign policy have taken over the past year. On the other however Bai establishes a curiously apologetic tone on Obama's behalf that is just as flat and disingenuous in its own way as Obama's half hearted rhetorical slap at Wall Street. For example: In no way is Obama's present political trajectory like that of historically mainstream progressive politicians like FDR and La Follete. Progressivism in government is not merely a projection of individual "temperament" or "populist sentiment". That is, the issue is emphatically not whether Obama himself is or is not a "populist"--by either temperament or style. No. The real issue is whether he is a true progressive by dint of his actual governmental policies and programs. In other words SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE is what is most important and valuable in any truly progressive or reformist agenda. It's absurd to assert as Bai does in this article that Obama's pursuit of national healthcare reform in and of itself "may well place him alongside F.D.R. and Lyndon Johnson in the pantheon of progressive presidents who were able to substantially amend the nation’s social contract." That would be true if in fact Obama and the Democratic Party in Congress had actually proposed, pursued, and won a truly progressive or even liberal reform of the health insurance industry. However as we all well know by now that is very far from the case. By contrast FDR's "New Deal" strongly progressive reforms in social security, union protections, workers' rights, and financial and corporate regulation among many other programs were far more substantive, useful, and dynamic than anything Obama has yet advocated and fought for; even LBJ's "Great Society" domestic policy agenda--however marred and distorted by his disastrous foreign policy in Vietnam-- was actually progressive with regard to civil rights and anti-poverty legislation in ways that the Obama administration have not even yet proposed let alone actually politically fought for and won.

So the real issue for the Obama Presidency and all progressives and liberals challenging him is not whether as Bai absurdly suggests that if "today’s liberals are serious about calling themselves progressives, then they may yet have to give up on the ideal of a president who enthusiastically excoriates fat cats — settling instead for a leader who is serious and methodical about reforming their ways." That deceptive and ultimately empty statement still smacks as one of "style over substance." It's not a matter of whether Obama and his administration does or does not rhetorically excoriates "fat cats." It's a matter of whether his policies and programs actually does something valuable, concrete, and definite that advocates, promotes, advances, and protects the political, social, and economic interests of the masses of working people and the poor that goes far beyond mere excoriation of the wealthy elites toward widespread democratic reform and fundamentally progressive change in the society and culture as a whole. That's what "progressivism" in government or anywhere else really means and Obama-- like any other President or politician --has to be held fully accountable for whether he's actually on the side of the great majority of the citizenry or that of the wealthy political and economic elites--who most decidely are not. Rhetoric or personal style in and of themselves are not enough...


January 3, 2010


No-Commoner Obama
New York Times

20% of liberal Democrats say that Obama listens to liberals in his party more than moderates.

There was something discordant, even tinny, about Barack Obama’s attempt to castigate Wall Street last month. No doubt the president was trying to acknowledge and channel the resentments in his own party — and in the country — when he told CBS’s Steve Kroft during a “60 Minutes” interview, “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.” Yet the rhetorical slap felt a little flat. In part it was the oddity of the epithet, a musty Washington cliché that had the effect of making Obama, the most urbane president in a half-century, sound as if he belonged in some black-and-white talkie from the ’40s. Why, listen here: I oughtta pound you — and all your fat-cat pals!

But it was also Obama’s body language, the dutiful way in which he delivered the line and elaborated on it, that gave the impression of a dapper man trying on an ill-fitting suit. When the president sat down for an amiable conversation with a group of those very same fat cats the next day, it only reinforced the impression among disenchanted Democrats that Obama shows more deference to moneyed interests than he does to liberals.

Go to any Democratic enclave in Washington these days, and you will hear the same complaint: Obama isn’t a real progressive, and not only because his economic team, culled mostly from Wall Street, boasts an elite pedigree. Union leaders are incensed over the administration’s ambivalence toward a bill that would make it easier to organize workers. Black lawmakers accuse Obama of doing little to stem unemployment among the poor. Liberals in Congress are appalled that the president has jettisoned the “public option” he once championed for his health care plan, which has only temporarily distracted them from their fury over the military buildup in Afghanistan. The left is on the verge of full revolt.

For any Democratic president of the modern era, of course, such a state of affairs is about as predictable and unavoidable as repeats of “Law and Order.” Going back to the 1960s, a succession of Democrats have had to navigate two currents — on one side, the movement liberals who embrace social justice as their guiding cause, and on the other, more moderate coalition builders. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both identified more with the moderates than with the liberals and paid the price. Carter faced a challenge from his left, in the person of Ted Kennedy, during his 1980 re-election bid, and Clinton’s legacy of “triangulation” haunted his wife’s candidacy last year. Obama has long managed to plant himself in both camps, by virtue of his rhetoric and his résumé. In his writings, Obama casts himself as a flexible idealist, a less-partisan Democrat who rejected the dogmas of the ’60s generation. But largely because of his early stance against the Iraq war, and because he was a onetime community organizer and the first African-American president, liberals felt certain that he had to be, at heart, one of them.

By the definition of the word as it came to be used in the early part of the 20th century, Obama is indisputably in the progressive tradition. Like both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson, he has pursued financial regulation — radical by the standards of the last two presidents — that would seek to temper the power of the markets without controlling them. His recalibration of campaign fund-raising, achieved through the triumph of small-dollar donations over the influence of lobbyists and corporations, would have delighted progressives like Robert La Follete, who fought in their day for women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. And Obama’s relentless pursuit of health care reform, even at the expense of provisions that liberals held sacred, may well place him alongside F.D.R. and Lyndon Johnson in the pantheon of progressive presidents who were able to substantially amend the nation’s social contract.

What Obama is not, at least not by temperament, is a populist. This is why digressions like his “fat cat” moment come off sounding forced and why a lot of liberal activists find his governing style disconcerting. In the last decade of Democratic politics, going back to Al Gore’s theme of “the people versus the powerful,” the party has rediscovered its populist voice in domestic policy, a strident counter to the pro-Wall Street policies of the Clinton era and the corporatist culture of the Bush years.

What so many liberal critics really want in a Democratic president now is someone who will denounce the wealthy and punish the barons of industry (and insurance). Exasperated by the old notion of a rising tide that lifts all boats, something that turned out not to be true in the era of globalization, the left demands confrontation and contrast, and, at almost every juncture, Obama gives them compromise and complexity instead.

A year into Obama’s presidency, it is no longer inconceivable, if still unlikely, that he could face a challenge within his own party in 2012, especially if Democrats suffer sizable losses next November. (When Howard Dean made a point of trying to scuttle health care reform altogether, was he simply trying to get a better bill, or was he setting himself up as a populist insurgent?) And yet, history would suggest that it is the progressive, and not his populist antagonist, who makes change palatable and, in doing so, alters the trajectory of the country. William Jennings Bryan remains something of a patron saint to the economic populists, but it was Theodore Roosevelt who channeled the popular unrest of the day into a movement away from unbridled corporatism. And it is T.R.’s distant cousin Franklin, not contemporaries like Huey Long, who is celebrated for having made the New Deal the guiding framework for 60 years of American government. If today’s liberals are serious about calling themselves progressives, then they may yet have to give up on the ideal of a president who enthusiastically excoriates fat cats — settling instead for a leader who is serious and methodical about reforming their ways.

Matt Bai writes about national politics for the magazine.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company