The discussions of Obama’s Presidency that have popped up here on BMG have generated a lot of passion recently. I was originally going to post this as a comment to Charley’s recent excellent post, but I figured I’d put on the table in a full-blown post what I see as problematic aspects of the progressive attacks on Obama here on BMG.
(1) Some of the attacks are simply unfair. Obama is not a Prime Minister. To get anything done, he has to deal with a bicameral legislature that has not been particularly friendly to progressive or even center-left policy — even when the Democrats had strong majorities in both the House and Senate in the 111th Congress. Many of the procedures currently in place in the legislature — particularly in the Senate — have helped to create a broken system, and one tilted heavily towards the status quo. Much of the criticism aimed at Obama should be instead aimed at these broken procedures. (A major piece of evidence supporting this view is the fact that so many progressive bills died in the Senate — not on the President’s desk.)
(2) The other major thing that bothers me are the false equivalencies that sometimes enter the debate. You may believe Obama is not progressive enough, or even that he is a “conservative.” But he is in no way, shape, or manner equivalent to the crazy wing that has driven the Republican Party over the past few years. Even if Obama deserves criticism, which he does on some issues, these radical right-wingers deserve far more. Yet so much of this criticism makes it seem like Obama is singly responsible, when the modern-day Republicans Party deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the problems this country now faces.
(3) Blaming political leaders such as Obama shifts focus from broader rhetorical/strategic problems that have plagued the progressive movement since the 1980s. While of course the job is not done, progressives have done a solid job gradually convincing the American public of our position on “social” issues, such as gay rights, issues dealing with race, and so forth. There has been a major cultural shift over the past three decades, and much of it has been favorable to the progressive position. But on economic issues, progressives have been much less successful. There are a host of reasons why this is, but poor/incompetent political leadership is only one of the many factors, and probably a relatively minor one at that. The bigger problem is that conservatives have shifted the terms of the debate in the past few decades on economic issues, much as progressives have done on social/cultural issues. Figuring out better ways to convince the American public of our position on these issues works from the ground-up, not the top-down. Again, this grassroots action has shifted the debate on cultural issues but not on economic issues. That’s the real problem here, not Obama or any other individual.
Note that I am emphatically not saying that there should be no criticism of Obama. While the Republicans’ Eleventh Commandment does encourage greater cohesion, it also comes at the price of accountability. I’m not saying we should adopt that approach. What I am saying is that the fairest and most accurate criticism is made with the larger picture in mind: the broken nature of our political system, the craziness of the Republican caucus, and the reality that grassroots progressives need to shift gears on rhetoric and strategy in regards to economic issues. There’s certainly room for criticism left when grading Obama against these factors, but much of what I’ve heard so far too often elides these factors.