I don’t agree with Obama on everything and there is certainly plenty of room to criticize Barack Obama from the left, but I frequently wonder whether some of his critics from the left are paying any attention to what he is actually saying or dong. There was a lot of excitement from some segments of the left over the weekend from this op-ed by Drew Weston. Weston’s op-ed had two critical flaws. First, he concentrated on Obama’s rhetoric rather than his actual actions. Second, while his criticism was based upon things he argues Obama should have said, quite frequently Obama has actually said very similar things. Andrew Spung pointed out numerous examples. In seeing that Weston was unaware of so many of Obama’s public statements, Steve Benen speculates that “Maybe the professor missed those speeches; maybe he didn’t check.”
There might be room for improvement in the manner by which Obama gets his message out, but we must also keep in mind the obstacles he faces from Fox, right wing talk radio, and conservative dominance over much of the mainstream media. Obama’s position as president and his strategy of pushing to move beyond partisan gridlock limits his ability to engage in harsher rhetoric which some on the left expect. This role is better filled by supporters on the left who do not have the constraints which Obama has. It would be far more effective if leftists such as Weston and Paul Krugman used their energy to make the liberal case for Obama’s policies, and point out those liberal statements which Weston ignored, rather than making specious attacks. Instead they sometimes even utilize remarkable mental gymnastics to argue that Obama is as conservative as George Bush.
Weston, and many Obama critics from the left, fail to recognize the difference between the president and other political leaders. The president, who must govern within the realities of what is politically achievable, cannot be as dogmatic about principle as a Senator on one of the extremes of his party. Liberals with buyer’s remorse fail to recognize that any other president would be limited by similar constraints as Obama.As Jonathan Chait wrote:
Westen’s op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen’s telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama’s failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.
Westen locates Obama’s inexplicable failure to properly use his storytelling power in some deep-rooted aversion to conflict. He fails to explain why every president of the postwar era has compromised, reversed, or endured the total failure of his domestic agenda. Yes, even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan infuriated their supporters by routinely watering down their agenda or supporting legislation utterly betraying them, and making rhetorical concessions to the opposition. (Ronald Reagan boasted of increasing agriculture subsidies and called for making the rich pay “their fair share” as part of a tax reform that did in fact increase the tax burden on the rich; Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over” and ended welfare as an entitlement; etc., etc.)
Chait proceeded to note multiple factual errors in Weston’s attack. Others disagreeing with Weston, such as Kevin Drum, point out that Obama does have a compelling story–even if not the exact story which they want told:
The problem isn’t that Obama didn’t have a story. He did, and he told it pretty well. His story was one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it. You might not like that story, but it was there. And while it obviously didn’t succeed in moving the needle on partisanship, it did allow Obama to produce a pretty decent set of legislative achievements. As much as two years of anti-conservative stemwinders would have thrilled me, I doubt they would have produced anywhere near as much.
Andrew Sullivan further described the differences between Obama’s approach and those who desire a more confrontational approach:
What Westen seems to have wanted was the Democratic version of George W. Bush, contemptuous of his opponents, ruthless in his often unconstitutional determination to get his agenda through, divisive and polarizing. But Obama would not have won election on those grounds and did not have a mandate for that. He was elected as a moderate Democrat, prepared to engage any pragmatic solution to obvious problems, while not splitting an already polarized country even further.
That he has tried to do, against an opposition party that decided to double down on polarization, on politics as warfare, on politics as a game, and bereft of any ideas except taking us back to before the New Deal. What has to be defeated is not just their agenda, but their modus operandi. Only by patiently out-lasting and out-arguing them will Obama be able to do this. And it says a lot about the utopian left that they do not see the wisdom and responsibility of this strategy.
It is unprovable whether a more confrontational approach would have achieved more, but I doubt it. Some on the left think that Obama would be more effective if he utilized the same strategies which we protested when used by George Bush. Perhaps, but the cessation of such conduct is an important reason why I voted for Barack Obama.