Liberals' disappointment with Obama's abandonment of progressive policies has brought two responses: Put pressure on Obama in effort to push him to the left, or defend his rightward shift as a 'pragmatic' necessity. Both came into sharp relief this weekend as many in the liberal blogosphere sharply condemned Matt Taibbi's critique of Obama's Rubin-centered, liberal-excluding, Wall Street pleasing economic team.
Although the conversation started over the nitty-gritty of the piece (here and here, Taibbi's response here), Matt Yglesias asked this larger question about Obama's economic team: Does it matter how leftwing the President is?
The implicit theory of political change here, that pivotal members of congress undermine reform proposals because of "the White House's refusal to push for real reform" is just wrong. That's not how things work. The fact of the matter is that Matt Taibbi is more liberal than I am, and I am more liberal than Larry Summers is, but Larry Summers is more liberal than Ben Nelson is. Replacing Summers with me, or with Taibbi, doesn't change the fact that the only bills that pass the Senate are the bills that Ben Nelson votes for.
Under this narrative, "how things work" is dictated by Senate, not the presidency, and it is therefore irrelevant to ask the Whitehouse to push for "real reform" in face of congressional resistance. Yet, this new liberal narrative is not just wrong, but rather a symptom of a growing Obama apologism that ultimately serves to undermine liberals' hopes for a progressive presidency.
It is first and foremost a radical reversal in terms of how liberals have thus far perceived presidential authority: Having spent eight years blaming every possible political plight as the direct result of the sweeping, quasi-dictatorial, grossly expanded executive power of George W. Bush, now, all of a sudden, the presidency is diminished as a mere ineffectual, neutered lap dog of the Senate. This is also absurd because by any objective measure, Obama maintains far more institutional authority than Bush ever did: immediately inheriting and expanding the executive powers amassed under Bush-Cheney, commanding even bigger congressional super-majorities, a greater mandate with a greater share of the popular vote, and the post-election bonus that included the one of the largest grass-roots organizations in US history with tens of millions of dollars in the bank.
Are liberals apologizing for Obama also going to apologize that they were wrong about Bush as well? That really, the Senate is to blame?
If the political beliefs of the treasury team are only as significant as the sixtieth Senator will allow, then does it also follow that the responses to the Wall Street Crash of 2008 would have been no different if Paul Krugman was treasury secretary instead than Hank Paulson? If Kucinich, Clinton or Obama are all to the left of Sen. Ben Nelson, did it matter who won the primary, and should we even bother next time? Should we just take campaign promises - such as those to renegotiate NAFTA, to have public hearings on health care, and to end the revolving-door between government and lobbyists - as simply theatrical filler for cable news? In fact, if the Senate is all-powerful, does the presidency matter at all?
Even if we confine the discussion to the health care debate, where the four 'sixtieth' Senators' appear at their most powerful, the question still remains: Does the failure to deliver a progressive bill lie in the institutional arrangements of government, or rather a failure of Democratic leadership?
What the Obama apologists neglect is that at every step Obama has sought out the most centrist position possible. Not for any ideological reason concerning 'left' or 'right,' but his strategy to brand his presidency as "bipartisan" through winning the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), just so he can sing the line "Democrats and Republicans" in his campaign speeches, and ultimately win the independents of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in 2012. Not to mention the incompetence with which this strategy was executed: negotiating at first with himself all the liberal provisions out of the bill, publicly stating his desire for Republican votes which delivered them undeserved leverage, a failure to articulate the benefits of reform against disorganized youtube-driven teapartiers, and so forth. Not to mention the vast array of carrots and sticks that Obama has at his disposal to coax and cajole the 'sixtieth' Senators he has failed to use, and even worse, his proactive stance in empowering the Finance committee's half-Republican 'Gang of Six' that ended in disaster.
The depiction of the president as a captive of Congress by liberal writers is a function of the desire to defend Obama at all costs. This is the kind of rationalization you make when you eat a Krispy Kreme and a tell yourself you haven't broken your diet: that it's not that high calories, it has more "good" fats than "bad" fats, and chocolate is a natural ingredient, after all. The delusion comes from an all too human desire to impose how you wished the world was onto how the world actually is, however absurd that might be.
What is most alarming about this turn of events is that for many years liberals couldn't fathom how seemingly otherwise intelligent conservative writers could churn out the most transparently partisan, trite, and even deluded, defenses of Bush, are now embracing, after less than a year, precisely the same set of tricks. Trust the character, don't ask questions or seek accountability, shift his responsibility to others (advisors, congressmen, the media), rewrite the candidate's history to make it consistent with what they're doing now, and as a last resort, claim the policies don't matter anyway and are just needed to 'get votes.'
On the campaign, Obama asked us to hold him to a higher standard, and yet liberals are determined to hold him to a Rovian one. The embrace of Beltway thinking is in part, no doubt, a psychological reaction to watching Obama's cut deals with pharmacutical companies that props up drug prices and extend the executive branch's war on civil liberties beyond even what Bush attempted. Yet, liberal writers must not be another victim of a Democratic presidency gone awry nor become a mirror image of conservative pundits whose behavior we once abhorred.