Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Emerging Conflict Between the Neoliberal Policies of President Obama and the Progressive Reform Agenda of His Democratic Party Base

Supporters congratulate Barack Obama at his 50th birthday party: Standard and Poor's later delivered a very unwelcome present. Photograph: Scott Olson/EPA

Why the liberal base has so little leverage with Obama

The outcry from progressive voices over his debt ceiling posture is loud, but Obama is betting it won't last


Progressive elite disgruntlement with the administration of Barack Obama has been aired so many times during the last year that it is sometimes difficult to remember how deep and wide it has become. Like lights blinking off in house after house late at night, the number of liberal opinion-leaders willing to offer robust support for Obama’s policies and political strategy and tactics has steadily dwindled to the point where it appears as an occasional dull glimmer on the cable news shows and in the op-ed pages and the blogosphere. But up until now, signs of any rank-and-file liberal Democratic "base" revolt against Obama have been few and far between. Perhaps that’s why a poll from CNN last week publicized as showing that liberals were the main source of his latest drop in approval ratings got more attention than a random survey normally captures.

There has certainly been a persistent and growing gap between elite and non-elite progressive attitudes towards the 44th president and his administration. Liberal elite defections from the Obama camp started early and have spread steadily.

First off the grid were those angered by TARP and the coddling of miscreant CEOs and other elements of the financial community. They were quickly followed by civil libertarians upset by the failure to reverse Bush policies on surveillance and treatment of terrorist suspects; foreign policy doves alleging broken promises on Iraq and Afghanistan; and economists pining for mega-stimulus. The health reform debate produced another cohort of progressive dissenters baffled by the administration’s successive concessions to private health industry lobbies and Blue Dogs, while many environmentalists denounced a watered-down climate change bill before that entire effort was abandoned. In the months since the appalling 2010 midterm elections, progressives have largely deplored the president’s “cave” on expiration of the Bush tax cuts and, with ever-greater intensity, his advocacy of deficit reduction and “entitlement reform” as paramount national priorities.

Suffusing all these sources of discontent on the left has been a growing impatience with Obama’s steady commitment to bipartisanship in the face of Republican disrespect and obstruction; frustration over his apparent inability to articulate progressive values and goals in a way that mobilizes public opinion and gives hope to down-ballot Democrats; and contempt for suspected incompetence in such quotidian matters as executive and judicial appointments. To say that liberal elites are "disappointed" with Obama is a great understatement; terms of moral opprobrium such as "betrayal" and "sellout" are now routinely tossed at the White House.

But so far, this profound unhappiness has failed to translate into any tangible intramural challenge to the administration, in a way that defies all precedent. During his first term Bill Clinton faced regular revolts from congressional Democrats, losing a majority of House Democrats on NAFTA, GATT and welfare reform. Despite threats over the healthcare public option, Afghanistan funding, and most recently, administration offers to "reform" Medicare and Social Security, congressional Democrats have yet to bolt from Obama on any major legislation. LBJ and Carter attracted powerful left-bent primary challenges. Not so Obama, beyond vain fantasizing among the chattering classes.

A big part of the paper-tiger nature of progressive protests against Obama’s policies and politics has been the absence of any mass base for a serious revolt. Until such time as Democratic (or Democratic-leaning independent) liberal voters begin to share elite anger toward the incumbent, then all the thundering from thinkers and writers on the left (or even from staunch Progressive Caucus members in Congress) represents little more than a standing invitation to be "triangulated" by a White House seeking swing voter approbation.

And that’s why the headline accompanying the new CNN poll -- "Drop in liberal support pushes Obama approval rating down" -- is arousing fresh hopes of the left finally obtaining some political leverage over the administration at a critical moment in the budget/debt limit brouhaha.

But they are probably false hopes.

First of all, CNN’s numbers don’t quite back up the hype. The results note that Obama’s approval rating among self-described liberals is "only" 71 percent, "the lowest point of his presidency." CNN doesn’t provide a trend line for liberal approval ratings of Obama’s job performance, but Gallup’s latest weekly tracking poll has him at 75 percent among liberals, five points higher than in mid-May and six points higher than in early December of 2010. Among "liberal Democrats," probably a more reliable subcategory for capturing the sentiments of normally progressive voters, Gallup has Obama’s approval rating at 85 percent, roughly where it’s been on average throughout 2011. CNN also shows Obama’s approval rating among Democrats at "only" 80 percent, and his"renominate" number among Democrats at 77 percent, "relatively robust by historical standards but also down a bit since June." (The "historical standard" CNN supplies is a 1994 post-election poll showing Bill Clinton’s "renominate" number at 57 percent, which is indeed less robust than Obama’s). Finally, CNN’s latest survey shows that fully 13 percent of the electorate disapproves of Obama’s job performance on grounds that he is "not liberal enough," up from nine percent in a spring survey. But other survey findings (an all-time high percentage saying Obama’s not cooperating enough with congressional Republicans, and an all-time low approval rating for the direction offered by congressional Democratic leaders) call into question the idea that Obama’s in trouble because liberals are revolting against Obama for excessive cooperation with Republicans to gut Social Security and Medicare.

But the more important cautionary note to mention is that approval ratings are absolute, not comparative. Everything we know about Obama’s reelection strategy indicates that he hopes to make this a comparative rather than a "referendum" election, as he must unless economic conditions improve more than they are expected to prior to November 2012, or there is some incumbent-strengthening national security crisis. This strategy might fail, as it did for Jimmy Carter in 1980, or it might succeed, as it (arguably) did for Harry Truman in 1948 and for semi-incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1988. A Republican Party that is on a remarkable ideological bender is certainly doing everything possible to cooperate. But if a "comparative" strategy works at all, it will work most effectively with liberals, who are more acutely aware of the stakes for everything they care about -- from the survival of anything like a social safety net to the maintenance of constitutional guarantees on urgent priorities like abortion rights -- in an election that could give return Washington to united Republican control. Liberal voters are precisely the least likely Democratic-leaning segment of the electorate to sit on their hands in 2012, no matter how they feel about Obama.

And that reality, I suspect, is contributing significantly to the anger and despair expressed by progressive elites about Obama. They may now regret his nomination in 2008, or even (on strategic grounds) his election. But they know in their hearts they will be voting for him in 2012, and for the most part, speaking out for his re-election. Next time there is an open Democratic presidential nomination contest, the organized left will be almost certain to make far greater ideological demands on candidates, and make a far less speculative choice of a favorite, than it did in 2008. In the meantime, liberals will mostly have to bury a sense of cold fury that they have been "had" by a politician who in the course of less than three years has devolved from being the left’s great hope for a "transformative" presidency to a heresiarch over whom the Left has virtually no leverage.

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

Barack Obama under fire as blame game follows US credit downgrade
by Paul Harris in Chicago
August 6, 2011

Left and right turn on president, raising questions over his chances of winning the White House again

Outside the Aragon ballroom in the north Chicago neighbourhood of Uptown, little sign remained of the president's 50th birthday party. The night before, 2,000 well-wishers had crammed inside the beautiful old building to mark Barack Obama's half-century. They had partied and danced as R&B singer Jennifer Hudson crooned "Happy Birthday".

But now, only one forlorn birthday banner still hung from a local bar. The party was truly over. As unwelcome late birthday presents go, the dramatic downgrading of America's debt rating by Standard & Poor's was hard to beat. The shock news sent reverberations through US politics, triggered an ugly blame game and plunged the economy into a fresh crisis that looks set to reverberate all the way to next year's presidential election.

On the streets of Uptown the mood was bleak. "The entire political culture has just stopped working. It feels like it is broken," said local IT worker Christian Lindemer, 30, as he strolled by the now empty Aragon.

His critics might say the same of the Obama White House. It has certainly become a place under siege. On the right it faces implacable foes in the shape of an ultra-conservative Republican party that has danced nimbly around Obama's efforts to work with it. Tea Party defenders shrug off the idea that its extremism helped to cause Standard & Poor's action and put the blame for the downgrade firmly on Obama's shoulders. "President Obama is destroying the foundations of our economy one beam at a time," said Tea Party-backed presidential candidate Michele Bachmann as the news broke.

On the left, meanwhile, Obama faces a liberal base depressed by what it sees as the president's continual concessions to Republicans. It blames the Tea Party's intransigence over the debt ceiling for the political deadlock that led to the downgrade. Republicans were "antediluvian" wrote online Slate magazine columnist Jacob Weisberg. Even vice-president Joe Biden, in private meetings with Democrat leaders, has reportedly said they "acted like terrorists" .

But now Obama's biggest enemy of all lies outside politics: it is the economy itself. The historic Standard & Poor's downgrade came after a week of terrifying market swings and amid the promise of vicious cuts to America's already shaky welfare state. It is now clear that the US economy is terribly sick. It is failing to create jobs and might double-dip back into recession. The stock market is tumbling. No wonder that Obama's birthday celebrations were so brief. He flew in and out of Chicago on the same day. Yet perhaps he got a little lift from being in a town where sympathy for its favourite political son remains relatively strong. "He's trying his best. Or at least I think he is," said Lindemer.

But in the wider landscape of American politics there is no denying the anger among some leading lights of the left at Obama, which the debt downgrade will only sharpen. After all, last week's debt deal – so hated by liberals – was meant to avoid precisely such a fiasco.

After having initially promised tax rises for the rich to go alongside deep spending cuts, Obama ended up signing a debt agreement with Republicans that contained no new revenues. Not a single cent would come from America's wealthiest people while a burden of hundreds of billions of dollars of cuts would be borne by some of the poorest.

It was billed as tough but necessary medicine in order to raise the debt ceiling and stave off disaster. But, having swallowed the pill, America got downgraded anyway and the markets still fell. It seemed Obama had given away everything for nothing. For people such as documentary-maker and activist Robert Greenwald there were only a few apt words to describe Obama's deal.

"I'm disgusted," he said "I think the day it was signed was a sad day: economically, morally and politically."

Yet the debt deal is now just one liberal complaint among many. Leftist Democrats decry the influence of the banking sector among Obama's economic staffers. They bemoan the toothlessness of his financial reforms. His promise to shut Guantánamo Bay remains unfulfilled. He preserved huge tax breaks for the wealthy. He has upped the war in Afghanistan and not delivered on climate change and immigration reform.

Obama looks like a somewhat downgraded president. He has become the butt of late-night comedians on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, where he is portrayed as naïve and weak.

Even some of Obama's once staunchest supporters have pulled no punches. Princeton professor Cornell West, a leading black intellectual, recently described Obama as "... a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs". He did not shy away from that incendiary opinion last week, telling a black media conference in Philadelphia: "I'm an angry brother. Barack Obama is not angry ... He's a different kind of brother."

There is huge envy among some progressives about the role of the Tea Party on the right. Even as they decry its aims they look longingly at its ability to influence politics. One progressive organisation, the Campaign for America's Future, is organising a conference in Washington in October aimed at founding such a movement on the left. "We have to be an ideological force that is as energetic as the Tea Party and pushes the Democrats to be more bold," co-director Roger Hickey told the Observer. Neither is CAF waiting until October to start action. This week , along with, another liberal activist group, it will hold rallies outside scores of politicians' offices.

But in some quarters, support for Obama remains strong. Bronzeville is a small neighbourhood on Chicago's South Side. It has a rich history and in the earlier half of the last century was known as "the black metropolis". It was the epitome of black pride in Chicago, thriving with black-owned businesses, homes and a rich cultural life. Those days have gone, replaced with the tough times of the modern urban black American experience. But support for Obama is high here. "I believe he has done a magnificent job. People forget what was left after [George W] Bush. They forget the state he found the country in," said plumber Terry Jones, 49. "I wish him a happy birthday and congratulate him on a job well done."

The same is true in nearby Hyde Park, a wealthy liberal enclave where the Obamas have their family home. On these leafy streets, lined by mansions and expensively maintained lawns, many people believe Obama still epitomises what is right about American politics. They see him as the "adult in the room", standing above the fights between Democrats and Republicans. "He's trying to do a good job. I like that he wants to negotiate with people on the other side," said graduate student Anne Rebull, 29.

That sentiment chimes with Obama's own aides' ideas about how best to win the election of 2012. They believe that fight will take place in the centre ground of American politics and staking out that territory is worth the sacrifices around protecting social security and benefits for the elderly and the ill. It assumes the extremism of the Republican party will put off independents, while progressives will have no choice but Obama.

"Liberals are unhappy, but the Republicans will scare them into coming out for Obama," said Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide in the Clinton White House. Even Hickey admits there are no plans to run a liberal primary challenge to Obama: "Nobody is talking about a challenger. We are all terrified of an ultra-conservative Republican taking over government."

But the downgrade is a rude wake-up call. When Obama took office he won much praise for staving off a second Depression by huge stimulus spending in the first months of his presidency. Standard & Poor's has single-handedly made that look a little less impressive. Though the White House and Treasury have pushed back against the agency, pointing out a major maths error in its initial sums, the downgrade made clear what millions of Americans already understood: the state of the economy seems to be worsening again. The jobless rate is still above 9% and that headline fails to account for millions unemployed for so long they have stopped looking for work and dropped out of the official count.

Obama is set to embark on a bus tour of America's heartland, where he will attempt to put jobs at the centre of his political message. But it might not be enough. Even on the streets of Bronzeville there was an understanding that economic times were now very hard, no matter how much one supported the current occupant of the White House. Jones admitted that the collapse of the housing market meant plumbing jobs were few and far between: "Nobody needs a plumber these days. It's slow. I have had to cut back, tighten my belt."

What is true for Jones is true for wider America. As the nation tightens its belt and faces more stock market falls, a second round of recession and massive spending cuts, the chances of an Obama second term also begin to narrow.

• This article was amended on 9 August 2011 to remove a quote from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

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