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The Obama Year One Retrospectives, And The Progressive Choice

We’ve seen a run on “what it all means” stories even before the results of the Massachusetts Senate election tomorrow. Aside from the all-too-typical Adam Nagourney “Democrats in disarray!” story, helped along by convenient “we have to tack back to the center” quotes from Evan Bayh, some of the others are worth reading. Paul Krugman, who may be wrong about Jonathan Gruber’s sins, is nonetheless on target with his assessment of what the Obama Administration read wrong early in their term:

The Obama administration’s troubles are the result not of excessive ambition, but of policy and political misjudgments. The stimulus was too small; policy toward the banks wasn’t tough enough; and Mr. Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations.

E.J. Dionne picks up on that last point really well, I think.

It’s also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited […]

Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.

The President seemed to understand in the campaign that he needed to make the rhetorical argument, to fill the space of frustration and anger with the failures of the Bush Administration with a coherent narrative for what happened then and what needed to happen in the future. For all the talk of bumper stickers like change, the Obama campaign really only surged in the general election when they got specific about this critique – laying the blame at those who built the bubble economy, who shifted risk onto the most vulnerable in society, who allowed Wall Street to become an unregulated casino. Obama has neglected to continue to tell that story – or at least the story has become muddled – and he is suffering for it with the economic woes shifting to him faster than they honestly should. In addition, the actions of a too-small stimulus, a protection of bank profits until very recently, and a health care bill torn through with compromises and concessions to stakeholders has undercut the narrative even if it were still being told.

Robert Kuttner adds:

How could the health care issue have turned from a reform that was going to make Barack Obama ten feet tall into a poison pill for Democratic senators? Whether or not Martha Coakley squeaks through in Massachusetts on Tuesday, the health bill has already done incalculable political damage and will likely do more […]

So, how did Democrats get saddled with this bill? Begin with Rahm Emanuel. The White House chief of staff, who was once Bill Clinton’s political director, drew three lessons from the defeat of Clinton-care. All three were wrong. First, get it done early (Clinton’s task force had dithered.) Second, leave the details to Congress (Clinton had presented Congress with a fully-baked cake.) Third, don’t get on the wrong side of the insurance and drug industries (The insurers’ fictitious couple, Harry and Louise, had cleaned Clinton’s clock.) […]

Either way, the Massachusetts surprise should be a wake-up call of the most fundamental kind. Obama needs to stop playing inside games with bankers and insurance lobbyists, and start being a fighter for regular Americans. Otherwise, he can kiss it all goodbye.

Some would say that the proper response to this all is to burn the President, hope for the derailing of his agenda, and move on. History has not been entirely kind to such a stance, from the perspective of moving the country forward. It’s not necessarily a “pre-buttal,” but Chris Hayes’ piece in The Nation is pretty important in this regard. He explains pretty perfectly the corporatism that has disappointed many on the left about the health care bill. He combines the broken government with the outsized influence of the corporate sector to produce a dispiriting picture of the political landscape. He recognizes the trap of pragmatism that has left Obama at the brink of progressive abandonment. This is precisely the locus of all the frustration, in my view – Obama promised a bottom-up movement for change and has acted top-down, mediating debates between stakeholders and only winding up with the limited success of the “politically possible.” He worked within the existing structures and made little effort to alter them after massively over-promising a transformative opportunity to use mass action to realize a progressive agenda.

But then Hayes makes an important turn, reminding readers that, for the most part, it was ever thus, and working within the system for an agenda that doesn’t align with moneyed interests is bound to produce heartache and disappointment.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties […] Michels recognized the challenge his work presented to his comrades on the left and viewed the task of democratic socialists as a kind of noble, endless, Sisyphean endeavor, which he described by invoking a German fable. In it, a dying peasant tells his sons that he has buried a treasure in their fields. “After the old man’s death the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative well-being.”

“The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy,” Michels wrote. “Democracy is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense.” […]

What the country needs more than higher growth and lower unemployment, greater income equality, a new energy economy and drastically reduced carbon emissions is a redistribution of power, a society-wide epidemic of re-democratization. The crucial moments of American reform and progress have achieved this: from the direct election of senators to the National Labor Relations Act, from the breakup of the trusts to the end of Jim Crow.

So in this new year, while the White House focuses on playing within the existing rules, it’s our job as citizens and activists to press constantly for changes to those rules: public financing, an end to the filibuster, the breakup of the banks, legalization for undocumented workers and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, to name just a few of the measures that would alter the balance of power and expand the frontiers of the possible.

If I had to bet, I’d say that not of one of these will be won this year. The White House won’t be of much help, and on some issues, like breaking up the banks, it will represent the opposition. Always searching and never quite finding is grueling and often dispiriting work. But there is simply no alternative other than to give in and let the field turn hard and barren.

Frustration is truly the enemy of progress. And disengagement is only a trip into a cul-de-sac.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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