10/28/2010 05:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Left, Part 2098

It is the week before Christmas -- oh, wait, sorry, I'm getting punchy, wrong season. It is the week before election night, and the creatures are definitely stirring. And I'm not just talking about Republicans, either.

The president is doing what a president should do right before an election, and reaching to those of us in his base. The base is stirring in return, simultaneously challenging him and also getting more pumped up about this election. And the DC establishment version of Democratic moderates are stirring around too, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.

Let me address the last point first. Third Way has a new memo out arguing that us lefties need moderate Democrats to succeed, and I actually agree in part. The point they make about there not being enough progressives in the House, let alone in the Senate with their dysfunctional and thoroughly outdated filibuster rules, to get bills passed is true enough and probably will be for a while. And as I have been arguing for many years with my fellow progressives for many years, even though the demographics get steadily better for us progressives year after year, and even though voters actually agree with us progressives on most important issues, we still do need independent and swing voters to win elections.

There are multiple places where their argument breaks down, though. For one thing, their argument re data is always based on self-identified liberals vs self-identified moderates, but the liberal brand has become so poisoned that very few people use it to describe themselves. Most people associate the term "liberal" with east and west coast social issue liberals, and some of the most loyal Democratic and progressive issue voters -- including a majority of African-Americans, Hispanics, unmarried working class women, union members, or young people -- don't use the term about themselves. Secondly, the proposition that more ideological cohesion would make it easier to get things done in Congress is pretty hard to argue with, even though folks like the Third Way keep trying, and I think party leaders would be far better served to keep that in mind when recruiting and prioritizing which kinds of candidates to help: if it's a close call in terms of winning the election, the DCCC should help Mary Jo Kilroy before they help Bobby Bright, helping the loyalist who will vote with the Democratic caucus on almost all of the tough votes makes a lot of sense.

The biggest problem with the Third Way argument, though, connects to the fascinating back and forth between Obama and progressive interviewers in recent weeks: the palpable frustration expressed by, say, Jon Stewart in his interview is far less about having to make compromises to get things done, and far more with the insider-y ways deals were cut and decisions were made re what to compromise on. This is what Third Way and other pundits who argue for moderation never seem to understand: their version of centrism and the rest of the country's are very different. As I wrote a while back:

In Washington, being a moderate means being for raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for Social Security. In the rest of America, fighting to preserve Social Security is a huge plus for voters. In Washington, being a moderate means being for "free trade" deals. In the rest of America, working class swing voters hate the trade deals that they know are shipping their jobs overseas. In Washington, being a moderate means being for extending all of the Bush tax cuts even those for millionaires. In the rest of America, it is those working class swing voters who don't like those kinds of tax cuts.

Most of all, being a moderate in Washington means getting along nicely with all those corporate lobbyists who keep coming to see you (and dropping off checks). In the rest of America, swing voters and base voters are completely united that Washington is too controlled by wealthy and powerful special interests, and that their power needs to be rolled back. The polling numbers on strict new lobby reforms, on rolling back the Citizens United decision, on public financing so that candidates aren't dependent on special interests for campaign cash are incredibly strong. Voters are disgusted by the kind of business as usual described in this article from Roll Call. If Democratic candidates spent their time attacking that kind of special interest funding and the attack ads being generated by corporate cash, they would have swing as well as Democratic base vote standing up and cheering.

Now I'm not going to pretend that part of progressive frustration hasn't been about Obama compromising on really important issues to us: clearly most of us have argued passionately in favor of things like a public option and breaking up the big banks, and against the choice language on the health care bill and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But a great deal of the frustration has been about the sense, fair or not, that the administration is accepting the standard way of doing business in Washington: cutting deals with corporate lobbyists early rather than boldly challenging them. My sense is that the essential argument between Obama and Stewart was that Obama was arguing that he is doing the best he can given the system he is dealing with, and Stewart is arguing that he should push harder to change the system itself.

The Obama-Stewart interview, the Rolling Stone interview, the session with bloggers yesterday are actually thrilling to me in that they represent a healthy, honest give and take between a Democratic President in the modern era and progressive media. While I wish Obama would answer some things differently, and wish certain questions or follow-ups would have been asked that weren't, both sides are doing their jobs in the thrust and parry. Obama is doing the interviews in the first place, encouraging people to ask him tough questions and not shying away when they do, defending himself and making his case that he cares about the same things the base cares about. The questioners are asking pointed questions about why is he isn't doing better, or why his policy decisions haven't been different. That honest give and take is exactly what needs to be happening, except there needs to be more of it. The President needs to directly engage his base, be willing to take more and tougher questions and criticism from those of us in progressive politics. And the base should push the President, and the entire administration, aggressively and specifically on the crucial issues of the day. I appreciated the President mentioning Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", where King made his brilliant and timeless "why we can't wait" argument.

Progressives should always push for more, we should always organize and agitate and complain. That is our job. Center-left Presidents need a left flank, and they should do what President Obama has been doing lately: engage that left flank directly and openly. That is the only way progress is made. So, Mr. President, I hope you will keep doing these interviews, and I hope the questions keep being tough and get even tougher. I hope you and your inner circle build and strengthen your relationships with those of us who keep pushing from your left, because you need us politically and you need us to actually make progress. The abolitionists in the 1860s kept challenging Lincoln, the populists and progressives around the turn of the 20th century kept challenging Teddy Roosevelt, the labor movement kept making FDR "do it", and the civil rights movement kept challenging Jack and Bobby Kennedy and LBJ. And in each era, both the Presidents and the progressive movements of the time worked constructively together to make big changes. If Obama wants to be a successful President, he needs to keep engaging with us, and progressives need to keep engaging with him.

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