A new conventional wisdom is emerging: more and more liberals seem to be disillusioned with President Obama when they should actually be grateful, presumably because of all the wonderful landmark legislation he's passed (stimulus, healthcare, etc.) Why, asks the New Republic's Jon Chait, are liberals angry at a president "who is, in fact, racking up historical achievements"? Ross Douthat of the New York Times is similarly confused: "The current bout of anguish over the Obama presidency seems bizarrely disproportionate." And I find myself nodding to almost anything I read by Matt Yglesias, except, well, when he accepts the constraints of presidential policymaking as a given. He refers to the "recurring fantasy that we'll have a Michael Douglas in The American President moment where the White House steps up, tells Congress where to shove it, and suddenly sweeping change is possible."
Let me try to answer Chait and Douthat's questions because I think it's a lot more obvious than it seems. First of all, the reason many liberals supported Obama was because he didn't seem afraid to be liberal. He had the courage of his convictions and was willing to speak to the American people honestly and directly about the country's challenges. His charisma would allow him to articulate liberal policies and principles in clear terms. In doing so, he would build popular support for progressive policies and move the American electorate to the left. He wouldn't accept Republican framing as a given and insist on presenting liberal policies in those terms. For once, we'd have Democrats who were proud of being liberals and didn't feel compelled to apologize for what they actually thought.
Speaking for myself, I am aware we have a legislative branch and that the President can't bend it to his will and that's a good thing in a democracy. But that assumes that liberals (or, really, anyone else) judge success by legislation passed. Well, I personally don't really care about the specifics of climate legislation. Like most Americans, I don't know anything about climate change. Sorry, but I don't lose sleep at night about it (although I'm willing to be convinced that I should). To the extent that the Left is, or was, anything, it probably has to do more with a clear demarcation of principle (alternatively known as "idealism" or perhaps "romanticism") than actual policies that can be objectively described as "liberal" or "leftist." I think this is what mainstream bloggers who write a lot about policy get wrong. While most Americans may in some abstract sense care about policy, they don't care - or know about - policy specifics or specific policies. Which goes a long toward answering why, despite the fact that all our preferred policies poll extremely well (and Republican policies poll pretty badly), people have an odd preference for voting Republican more than we might otherwise expect.
Put differently, I don't feel very strongly about the particular details of the healthcare bill. What bothered me wasn't the actual legislation, but the sense that Obama and his team weren't interested in fighting for what liberals wanted (i.e. the public option). It might not have worked, but it would have been nice to see arm-twisting of conservative democrats to consider the public option rather than of liberal democrats to give it up. Again, the tangible outcome of such arm-twisting is beside the point. The point is the actual arm-twisting - and that it be visible.
This is all to say nothing of national security. Matt Yglesias will be the first to point out that the President has considerably more authority in the foreign policy arena. So, here, even by Chait and Douthat's standards, disillusion seems rather easy to explain. Obama has been, by any number of measures, disappointing, or worse, on the national security and foreign policy front. For many of us, what frightened us most about the Bush era was the destructive foreign policy behavior and how that affected us at home, threatening our basic freedoms and civil liberties. But if we take even a cursory look at Obama's civil liberties record, it's almost shockingly dismal, and represents, as so many have written, a continuation and, in some cases, expansion of the worst aspects of Bush-Cheney policy.
So, anyway, I don't think Chait should be surprised. And I'm sort of surprised that he's surprised.