Just about everyone I know who voted for Obama is disappointed with him. He should have held out for a bigger stimulus package. He shouldn’t have bailed out the banks. He’s going too easy on Wall Street. He should have supported Simpson-Bowles. He hasn’t done enough for the environment. He should never have taken on health care reform. He should have been focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs from day one.
I hear these disappointments everywhere, and the more I hear it, the more “true” it seems to become. After all, “everyone” is saying it.
So I found Jonathan Chaitt’s recent article in The New Yorker “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” really interesting.
The subtitle of the article is “If every Democratic president disappoints, maybe there’s something wrong with our expectations. Tough love from a fellow traveler.”
Chaitt proposes that:
Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious — but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
To explore his hypothesis, Chaitt asks, “So, what if we compare Obama with a real alternative? Not to Republicans — that’s too easy — but to Democratic presidents as they lived and breathed?”
He then goes on to examine how liberals of the times were reacting to the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Harry Truman and FDR. And he concludes that they’ve never been satisfied:
For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace. (Except for Johnson, who was a bloodthirsty warmonger.)
And he pointedly asks:
Is it really likely that all these presidents have suffered from the same character flaws? Suppose you’re trying to find dates online, and everybody you meet turns out to be too ugly. Might it be possible that the problem isn’t the attractiveness of the single people in your town but rather your standards?
He then compares liberals to conservatives:
While they are certainly capable of expressing frustration with Republican presidents, conservative disappointment is neither as incessant nor as pervasively depressed as the liberal variety.... Why? Because conservatives are not like liberals. They think differently.
Some of my disappointed friends like Tom Friedman’s idea of a “a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention.” Chaitt scoffs:
What, by contrast, are we to make of third-party activists like Thomas L. Friedman or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? They have a president who supports virtually everything they want -- short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction through a mix of taxes and entitlement cuts, clean energy, education reform, and social liberalism. Yet they are agitating for a third party in order to carry out an agenda that is virtually identical to Obama’s. In a column touting the third-party Americans Elect, the closest Friedman comes to explaining why we should have a third party, rather than reelect the politician who already represents their values, is to say that such a party “would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago, not on the eve of a Treasury default.” He agrees with Obama’s plan, in other words, but proposes to form a new party because he disagrees with his legislative sequencing.
As political analysis, this is pure derangement. It’s the Judean People’s Front for the Aspen Institute crowd. But these sorts of anti-political fantasies arise whenever liberals are forced to confront the crushing ordinariness of governing.
(As one who loves the Aspen Institute, and who has actually seen Tom Friedman there several times, I really get that line!)
Is it understandable to believe that [Obama’s] administration has been a disappointment to date? Of course. On the other hand, maybe there is something to learn from the frequent (anguished) comparisons liberals make between Obama and FDR. Part of the reason Roosevelt’s record looms so large from a distance is because historians measure these things differently from political activists. Activists measure progress against the standard of perfection, or at least the most perfect possible choice. Historians gauge progress against what came before it.
By that standard, Obama’s first term would indeed seem to qualify as gangsta shit.
Chaitt then reviews Obama’s accomplishments:
His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals — providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation — that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.
Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.
Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes — expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime.
So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?
If you know someone who suffers from this “liberal malaise,” please share this post with them. Over the less-than-12-months to Election Day, we liberals need to get our enthusiasm back!