THE BLOG
12/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Critics From the Left: As Wrong as His Critics From the Right

When President-elect Obama said he'd reach out to the Republicans and all Americans, he was telling the truth. Apparently some people on the left hoped he was lying. Obama's "sin" in their eyes is that he is keeping his promises.

Other than the perpetually aggrieved paranoid cranks on the far right -- FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, James Dobson etc., -- most Americans (no matter who they voted for) are just glad that someone brimming with confidence, intelligence and good will is in charge of our rescue, at last! (Watching President-elect Obama's recent press conferences, one could hear a collective sigh of relief from sea to shining sea.) Nevertheless, a few critics from the left are now demanding progressive purity from President-elect Obama that is not in keeping with his clearly stated campaign promise to bring all Americans together, and to put governance and competence ahead of ideology. In that sense they are working against the aims of his presidency.

A few progressive critics are bewailing the fact that President-elect Obama's cabinet is "too centrist," or made up of "too many former Clintonites," or that he's working with the Republicans, or that he is "too hawkish on Afghanistan." Turns out some Pharisaical progressives are into guilt by association; "Look at the bad company he's keeping!" they groan. General Jones?! Clinton?! Gates?! The sky is falling!

As someone who escaped the fever swamp of the Religious Right many years ago -- I know fundamentalism when I smell it, be it religious or secular. And the criticisms of President-elect from the left stink to high heaven of fundamentalist orthodoxy, albeit with a "progressive" twist.

Here are a few examples of the fundamentalists of the left trying to make Obama fit their political "theology:"

Chris Bowers writing in Open Left (Nov 21):

"I know everyone is obsessed with the 'team of rivals' idea right now, but I feel incredibly frustrated... Why isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left? It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely."

Cris Hayes writing in The Nation (Nov 21):

"Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one."

William Greider in the The Nation ( Nov 25)

" A year ago, when Barack Obama said it was time to turn the page, his campaign declaration seemed to promise a fresh start for Washington. I, for one, failed to foresee Obama would turn the page backward... Obama's [cabinet] selections seem designed to sustain the failing policies of George W. Bush."

And this from Noam Chomsky, the grand old man of the left himself, on Democracy Now!. (posted on Alternet Nov 28)

"Rhetoric we know, but what are [Obama's] actions?... The first choice was the Vice President, Joe Biden, one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq... The first post-election appointment was for Chief of Staff, which is a crucial appointment; determines a large part of the president's agenda. That was Rahm Emanuel... again, a longtime Washington insider. Also, one of the leading recipients in congress of funding from the financial institutions hedge funds... Obama's choices... [include] Robert Rubin and Larry Summers... among the people who are substantially responsible for the crisis. One leading economist, one of the few economists who has been right all along in predicting what's happening, Dean Baker, pointed out that selecting them is like selecting Osama Bin Laden to run the war on terror..."

What is the message from these cheerless Scrooges of the left? Joy? Celebration? The hard work of actual governance? Ba Humbug! We don't do winning! We don't do actual governance! We only do permanent opposition! Coal in everyone's stockings... again!

Before I continue please note: There is a line between opposition to say, a specific policy and undermining our new President-elect's overall efforts by casting doubt on every selection he makes (or doesn't make) for his team, let alone pitting his rhetoric against his actions in a manner that implies he is lying. This "line" matters, even if it's fluid and hard to pin down because this is a critical -- perhaps fatal -- moment in American history.

That said... There is a reason that the likes of Saints Kucinich (from the left) and Huckabee (from the right) are not the President-elect: most Americans don't want the Church Ladies of the right or the left running the country. Sunday school is one thing, the presidency another. Our country is not so much "center-right" or "center-left" as fundamentally anti-ideological. (Which, by the way, is one reason why the Sarah Palin nomination backfired so badly for McCain.)

There are two kinds of people, those that allow reality and experience to define and constantly modify their ideas and those who insist that their ideas define reality. The first kind make things work. The second type (be they right wing creationists, or progressive purists) stand on the sidelines wringing their hands and criticizing the doers for their "heresy," because doing anything in the real world always equals compromise, learning and change.

What they of the purist left want from Obama is an ideological orthodoxy of thought and action that does not actually exist, except in their imaginations. And where do they think they are living? This is America and that means that Obama will be trying to govern a country so diverse that Sarah Palin and Noam Chomsky both have a fan base here!

Moreover many of Obama's legion of young and energetic supporters have not heard of, nor do they care about, the Noam Chomskys or James Dobsons of this world. History is moving on. Obama is bigger than the pundits. He's bigger than the movements that have divided us. Believe it or not -- this is a new day.

As Thomas B. Edsall wisely noted in the Huffington Post (Nov 29) in Battle Royale: Center-Right Versus Center-Left In the Democratic Party:

"A close examination of the data suggests that the political and policy-making environment is more complex than either side [in the left/right debate within the Democratic Party] acknowledges, and that thinking in terms of a left-right dichotomy may distort policy options."

Under the surface gloss of the left wing criticism of Obama there is, I suspect, something else: the critic's psychological need to feel indispensable, not to mention superior to those of us who like, trust and will follow President-elect Obama because he strikes our gut as likable, trustworthy and deserving of loyalty based on the self-evident merits of his outstanding character. It's just not in their genes to ever be so "ordinary" as to become team players, even when their side has just won. They would rather be in permanent opposition than ever be accused of -- horrors! -- being mainstream.

Again; I know about this form of messianic mental illness all too well from my own delusional days as a leader in the fundamentalist evangelical world back in the 70s and early 80s. We were proud of being outsiders, yet resentful of not being included, and yet again weirdly and moralistically haughty because of our self-imposed outsider status.

For the fundamentalists of the left, it's no good just getting the job done, let alone doing it in a way that mirrors this diverse, complex and one-size-does-not-fit-all country we live in. From the point of view of the ideologically pure of heart, the only way to get the job done is an in-your-face crusade that humiliates former opponents. This is the don't-forgive-Lieberman "reeducation" theory of political change: it's not enough to just win then change things, you need to do so in a way that leaves anyone who ever disagreed with you punished and out in the cold, furious and plotting your downfall.

Here's the right wing ideologue's nightmare:
What if President-elect Obama keeps being truthful and doing what he said he'd do? What happened to all those on the right who have been proven wrong about things they said during the campaign, for instance the right-wing Jews who said Obama would be surrounded by anti-Semites, and then the first thing he does is make Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff? And what are the right-wing evangelicals, who said he'd be a socialist appeaser and friend to terrorists, to do now that President-elect Obama has appointed a pragmatic economic team, and persuaded Gates to stay on for a year at Defense and General Jones to advise him? And what will the anti-abortion community do when Obama does what he said he'd do and initiates programs that actually reduce abortions by lifting women, families, teens and children out of poverty?

Here's the left wing ideologue's nightmare:
President-elect Obama does not bring the emotional and psychological baggage of my boomer generation's schoolyard fights with him. He meant it when he said he doesn't see a "red" or "blue" state America but the United States of America. He's of the left but without the I-told-you-so smarminess of we boomer culture warriors. He's progressive but without the need to punish former opponents. He won handily but is not interested in putting his political foes in their "place." He actually seems to want to serve all Americans, even the "wrong" kind, even the "other."

President-elect Obama is smarter than his critics and a better and more strategic politician than his rivals. As my friend (blogger and commentator) Frank Gruber wrote to me;

"Every move he makes is confident. He is in charge and thinking ten moves ahead. If I was a rival politician, left or right, I'd feel overwhelmed -- what's he going to do next? It's even more baffling because Obama tells you in advance not only what he's going to do, but what you're going to do. Think about that debate when he told Senator Clinton he was looking forward to getting advice from her after he became president. At the time I'll bet she dismissed that as mere rhetoric. Wrong! Who is going to be Secretary of State? Or what about when he gave that speech at the beginning of the summer of 08 outlining every tactic the McCain campaign would use against him?"

As for we self-proclaimed commentators, we have a President-elect who has more intellectual firepower than all the punditry put together. How confusing! That's good for America. But that's something a whole class of professional carpers will never forgive. And so expect mirror image left/right attacks from the class of talkers to whom the glass is always half empty, because they insist that any water that might be in the glass is inferior if they didn't personally invent it!

One reason that President Obama is going to be a very successful President is precisely because his understanding of the cosmos is that his ideas (political, philosophical or theological) do not define it. That's called wisdom. That's called humility. And that is the very wisdom lacking in Obama's ideologically driven left wing critics, who never seem able to complete a paragraph with the words, "But I could be wrong." That is why their posture is already a crouch of disappointed expectation, even before President-elect Obama has been sworn in!

When President-elect Obama said that he will try to do what works, regardless of the ideological label or where a good idea comes from, he was telling the truth. Most Americans know how lucky we are to have this remarkable, pragmatic, subtle, thoughtful man for our President-elect. Most of us also know how lucky we are that our next president -- unlike our current White House occupant -- is more interested in being a good president than in proving his "side" right about everything. And most of us also know that the stakes are sky high and that now is a time to stand with our new President-elect, come hell or high water or, perhaps, because of the hell and high water we're already neck deep in.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.