Obama and the Left

Liberal objections to Obama frequently comes down to a combination of ignorance of his accomplishments, failure to understand the limits of the presidency, failure to understand the difficulties created by the dominance of the right wing noise machine over the news media, and failure to understand the dynamics of a two-party system. In recent elections we have been given a choice between two distinctly different world views, but among adherents of each worldview there is a variety of views and it is unlikely that the candidate of either party will entirely represent the views of those on either the left or the right. I could easily make long lists of areas where I disagree with Obama, both on policy and political approach, but with regards to electoral politics these objections are trivial compared to my objections to candidates who support the type of theocracy, plutocracy, and opposition to science seen in the opposing party.

Despite claims of a weak president who has offered little to liberals, there have been countless posts outlining the number of liberal measures which Obama has successfully passed, including here and here. In light of the considerable length of any lists of Obama’s liberal successes, I will refer to these links as opposed to duplicating them here.

Jonathan Chait has an article in The New York Times Magazine which addresses some of the structural issues. He pointed out the limitations a president must deal with in passing measures through Congress, as well as debunking the myth that George Bush was able to pass whatever he desired:

The most common hallmark of the left’s magical thinking is a failure to recognize that Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president’s. Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda, on the correct assumption that this would make it less popular and help the party win the 2010 elections. Only for roughly four months during Obama’s term did Democrats have the 60 Senate votes they needed to overcome a filibuster. Moreover, Republican opposition has proved immune even to persistent and successful attempts by Obama to mobilize public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly favor deficit reduction that includes both spending and taxes and favor higher taxes on the rich in particular. Obama even made a series of crusading speeches on this theme. The result? Nada.

That kind of analysis, however, just feels wrong to liberals, who remember Bush steamrolling his agenda through Congress with no such complaints about obstructionism. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently invoked “the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term.”

Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts — by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues. On No Child Left Behind and Medicare, he cut deals expanding government, which the right-wing equivalents of Greenwald denounced as a massive sellout. Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.

Chait responded to the liberals who have a distorted memory from when the stimulus was proposed and passed:

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders — that is to say, just about everybody who mattered — as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

Compounding the problem, Obama proposed his stimulus shortly after the Congressional Budget Office predicted deficits topping a trillion dollars. Even before Obama took office, and for months afterward, “everybody who mattered” insisted that the crisis required Obama to scale back the domestic initiatives he campaigned on, especially health care reform, but also cap-and-trade, financial regulation and so on. Colin Powell, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, warned in July of 2009: “I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the president — and I’ve talked to some of his people about this — is that you can’t have so many things on the table that you can’t absorb it all. And we can’t pay for it all.”

Rather than deploy every ounce of his leverage to force moderate Republicans, whose votes he needed, to swallow a larger stimulus than they wanted, Obama clearly husbanded some of his political capital. Why? Because in the position of choosing between the agenda he came into office hoping to enact and the short-term imperative of economic rescue, he picked the former. At the time, this was the course liberals wanted and centrists opposed.

Chait’s overall description is far more consistent with reality than that promoted by segments of the left, even if it is true that some on the left did want a larger stimulus.

Chait also explained Obama’s decision on two subsequent events which are controversial on the left. On the extension of the Bush tax cuts:

Last December, he could have refused to extend any of the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000. Republicans vowed to let all the tax cuts expire if he did so. If Obama let this happen, it would have almost fully solved the long-term deficit problem, while at the same time setting back the recovery by raising taxes on middle-class and low-income workers. Obama decided to make a deal, extending all the Bush tax cuts and also securing a progressive payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits, both forms of stimulus that Republicans would never have allowed without an extension of upper-bracket tax cuts in return.

And on the debt ceiling negotiations:

And then, this summer, Obama let the G.O.P. hold the debt-ceiling vote hostage to extract spending cuts. I think he should have called the Republicans’ bluff and let them accept the risk of a financial meltdown. But the reason Obama chose to cut a deal is that calling their bluff might have resulted in catastrophe. And Obama made a point of back-loading the G.O.P.’s budget cuts so as not to contract the economy. He may have chosen wrongly, but he chose exactly the priorities liberals now insist he ignored — favoring economic recovery over long-term goals.

Update: More on Blue Texan’s erroneous account of the stimulus here: Response To The Political Fantasy World Of The Extremes


  1. 1
    jazzguyal says:

    I don’t know where you got what you think the “liberals’ wanted, but no one I know that calls themselves “liberal” ever called for fiscal responsibility over the goals professed by myself and others. I never ever ever said anything about the privatization of SS. I have always been completely against that concept. So as far aas I’m concerned you are completely wrong about everything you’ve just written. Making up lies to promote your so-called wisdom. Obama has one thing and one thing only going for him and that is, he’s not a Republican. The difference between you and me: I am a liberal and you only think you are.

  2. 2
    Blue Texan says:

    “Chait’s overall description is far more consistent with reality than that promoted by segments of the left, even if it is true that some on the left did want a larger stimulus.”

    I’m not sure how you maintain that when a boatload of prominent, highly-respected economists said at the time it was too small. That’s a little more than “segments of the left” isn’t it?
    Chait claimed “everyone that mattered”  agreed it was sufficient. So those cited (Krugman, DeLong and company) don’t matter?

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    I agree that Chait did understate the liberal push for a larger stimulus, which is why I linked to an opposing view on this point, but that does not change the factors which made this difficult to accomplish.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    You might actually read the post, read the linked articles, and, most importantly, look at what Obama is supporting and opposing. The comments on privatization of Social Security refer to blocking Bush’s plan, not anything which either I or Obama have been promoting. Fiscal responsibility is just common sense if we want to have the funds to pay for progressive goals. Haven’t you noticed the problems created by the lack of fiscal responsibility among conservatives? That is why we must reverse the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and reverse the transfer of wealth to the wealthy in order for programs like Social Security to remain financially viable long term.

    Considering you lack of any understanding of what is being said here, I am not surprised that you say that I am “completely wrong.” While there are certainly legitimate grounds on which to criticize Obama from the left, your comment is typical of many in lacking any understanding of the facts and lacking any ability to process information. In other words, there’s really no significant difference between you and the teabaggers. I am a liberal. You are a fool and ideology doesn’t really matter.

  5. 5
    Blue Texan says:

    I agree that Chait did understate the liberal push for a larger stimulus, which is why I linked to an opposing view on this point, but that does not change the factors which made this difficult to accomplish.

    How do you get “understate” from what Chait wrote? He totally misrepresented the facts. “Understate” would be to write something like “segments of the left” — as you did.

    (By the way, I still want to know how all those formidable economists are merely “segments of the left.”)

    What Chait did is completely misrepresent the facts wrong. There’s no “understatement” — it’s misstatement.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    Blue Texan, you are misunderstanding what Chait said. He said “Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders — that is to say, just about everybody who mattered — as mind-bogglingly large.” He was not talking about liberal economists, although I do agree that he is understating public opinion when he left them out. That does not change the underlying dynamics of the issue. Obama was going against public opinion (which pays little, if any, attention, to liberal economists) with the stimulus which he did support.

    It is a valid objection to point out that liberal economists were arguing otherwise (which is why I linked to their statements) but that dos not change the underlying political dynamics.

  7. 7
    Blue Texan says:

    He includes “pundits” — so he’s clearly wrong. I’m not misunderstanding at all. Those were all pundits and respected economists.
    He could make the argument you describe perfectly well without distorting the truth, and you know that.

  8. 8
    Jamie says:

    I frequently wonder if Glenn Greenwald or Jane Hamsher have ever voted for a candidate that actually won a national office before Obama?   

  9. 9
    Ron Chusid says:

    Blue Texan, he did not distort the truth as he did not say what you are twisting his words to claim he said. The consensus view of pundits was in opposition to greater government spending, even if some pundits disagreed.

    You have a valid point to bring up the liberal economists who wanted a larger stimulus, and I thought it was worth having this point added, but this in no way means that Chait was lying or fundamentally wrong in his account of the politics of the situation.

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:


    Either they never voted for a winning candidate, or they became disappointed when their candidate won, considering that nobody since FDR has a record for passing liberal programs which come close to Obama’s. Perhaps LBJ might get ranked higher for Medicare, but he also had Viet Nam.

    If I could magically pick someone to be the winner, I can’t think of any politician who I agree with on everything. Even if there was such a politician, the limitations on the presidency would still prevent them from accomplishing everything desired.

  11. 11
    Reality Based says:

    I think jazzguyall isn’t the only one with difficulties in reading comprehensioin. Did he also come from FDL? It looks like a universal problems among their bloggers and fans.

  12. 12
    Ron Chusid says:

    I think it is a case of not looking past their biases to consider what others are really saying. It is a common problem on both the far right and left.

  13. 13
    Thingumbobesquire says:

    Keynesians, Neocons, Libertarians…Oh my!

    All this palaver over nothing…The problem is that monetarists where they be neo-liberal Keynesians or libertarian followers of Ayn Rand have no inkling whatsoever that there is a science of physical economy. 
    The fact is that there must be a reckoning with the literally quadrillions of worthless debt that was created by financial houses like Goldman Sachs. The return to the FDR era’s Glass-Steagall regulation would allow this nightmare to be reined in. We must pull the plug on the too big to fail financial houses. Without this, all this sound and fury is just a tragicomic farce…

  14. 14
    John Sonntag says:

    RT @ronchusid: Obama and the Left #p2 #p21 #topprog http://t.co/HnQ2ZlK

  15. 15
    Jim Z. says:

    Now that liberals have been put in their places, we can all get on board the train to fascism.  I feel better already.  Which way to the dining car?

  16. 16
    Ron Chusid says:

    Right, so you think Obama is taking us on the train to fascism. And you wonder why liberals don’t take the teabaggers of the left any more seriously than the teabaggers of the right.

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