Liberal Response To The Attacks On Obama From The Left

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.

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  1. 1
    Leslie Parsley says:

    This was brought up in a comment on my blog and this was my response. A bit lengthy.


    First of all, I rank Westen right up, or down, there with Greenwald and Hamsher. I’m not enamored with his writings on AlterNet, a site – along with – that doesn’t impress me. They constitute nothing but a long list of Obama-bashing type negativity. Never ever do any of these critics say anything at all remotely positive about Obama nor do they ever give him an ounce of credit for doing anything right. Therefore, they have zilch credibility as far as I’m concerned. And let’s don’t overlook the slanted articles, omissions and “misinterpretation” of facts or the conspiracies that lurk behind every door. 

    But to turn to the article under question. Bunk. Storytelling? What the hell is this guy talking about? What does storytelling have to do with being an effective president? I know I’m simplifying this but it’s a silly argument no matter how you approach it. 

    To me, either Westen can’t see, or won’t see, all the subtleties of Obama. In fact he, and the aforementioned, don’t know or understand him and never have. Maybe they were expecting an angry black man, which he isn’t and never has been. The headline on this article was changed in some places to “What happened to Obama’s passion?” Well, you know, I don’t want passion. I want cool, calm, smart, deliberate long-range decision making, reasoning and strategy. If I want the best surgeon in town, I don’t give a damn whether or not he has good bedside manners. That’s irrelevant.

    I also think both sides/extremes of the equation can’t comprehend that the great majority of people are in fact centrist to conservative, with some tilting to the left of center. Strategically it would be political suicide to bend to either extreme, which should be evident after watching the havoc that the Tea Party has created. While we might agree with many of the goals of the far left, it should be obvious that a minority of “extremists” makes folks uncomfortable. Besides, nothing at all can get accomplished. Whether we like it or not, politics and governing are kind of like a team sport.

    Here are some articles that are very critical of Westen’s “reasoning.”

    One of the best is by Andrew Sprung at Xpostfactoid.

    This one by Jonathon Chait at The New Republic is absolutely brilliant. Pay close attention to his remarks re Westen’s use of FDR as an example of “a president successfully employing his desired combination of ‘storytelling’ and ideological purity.”

    And this one from Oratorical Animal. I particularly like his take on “experts” who stray outside their areas of expertise.

    The American Prospect:

    Andrew Sullivan:

    Another by Sullivan that is indirectly related.

    These articles don’t exactly overlap in their criticism. Each has something different to offer. 

  2. 2
    JUDI says:

    Liberal Response To The Attacks On Obama,

  3. 3
    Portia A. Boulger says:

    Liberal Response To The Attacks On Obama,

  4. 4
    Deb Peveler says:

    Liberal Response To The Attacks On Obama,

  5. 5
    Captin Sarcastic says:

    Frankly, although I consider the couple of years indicative of a failure of our political system, I see it primarily not as a failure of Obama, or the fault of people like the Tea Party who I believe espouse terribles ideas. Having your ideas put into policy by exerting political will is the right of every American, even if those ideas are terrible.

    I believe that this countries political failure falls squarely on the shoulders of those who showed enough faith in the ideas Obama espoused to elect him, but almost immediately afterward became politically invisible, refusing to stand up in support of these ideals. Americans seem now to only have the capacity to stand against something, and little capacity to stand for anything. the current vitriol and political solidarity from the right isn’t about standing for small government or lower taxes or any planks on the GOP platform, it is a coalition with one commonality, the stand against Barack Obama and preventing any success or possibility of re-election he may have, even without having the slightest clue about the policy direction of an eventual challenger.

    Does anyone doubt that Obama would like to act on the promises he made as a candidate? Does anyone doubt that if the majority who elected him stood behind him and made their support widely known, he would not have lost the House and seats in Senate?

    I suspect that people who ostensibly support the ideas of Barack Obama won’t become suitably active until they have something to oppose, perhaps the Republican House, but more likely a Republican President. Thus insuring that our political future is not marked by progress in any direction, but the constant activation of whoever is out of power at the moment.

  6. 6
    Jim Z. says:

    When Obama signs the legislation taking Social Security down the road to extinctiion, then let’s revisit whether “There might be room for improvement in the manner by which Obama gets his message out….”

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    I note that most of the criticism of Obama is not for things he has done but for things people say he will do. He has not signed any legislation taking Social Security down the road to extinction, and I don’t think he will do this.

  8. 8
    adbridgeforth says:


  9. 9
    Libertarian Conservative says:

    Is Obama increasing the national security state’s powers part of his compromise-and-conquer plan? How about the corporate welfare? Is the GOP twisting his arm on all this?

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    While he has been doing far less on this front than I’d want, Obama has moved away from the increase in the national security state’s powers as compared to the Bush years. It is the GOP which is largely responsible for Obama’s gradualism on this. For example, it was Republicans which spread scare stories about everyone having a terrorist in their backyard if Gitmo was closed and detainees were moved to US prisons. It is the Republicans who claim that any deviation from Bush’s policies will lead to the next terrorist attack, and are ready to blame Obama on these grounds. Given these realities, I think that almost any president would be moving as slowly as Obama here (excluding politicians who had no chance of winning such as Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul).

    The economic crisis which Obama inherited from Bush also necessitated more government involvement in business than either I or Obama would normally want. It is also an unfortunate fact of life that as long as large amounts of money are needed in political campaigns, big corporations are going to receive favors. That said, Obama has moved away from the extreme levels of corporate welfare seen in the Bush years. For example, he is working to eliminate the vast amounts of payoffs to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in Bush’s Medicare plan.

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