Chait then trips through liberal disappointment with every Democratic president from Roosevelt to Obama, admitting that although the aggravations were often justified, they demonstrate that liberals are congenitally depressed.
Proof positive comes from Obama’s first term, which Chait believes qualifies — riffing off a Chris Rock line — as “gangsta [expletive].” He ticks off the accomplishments: the Recovery Act, health care reform, financial reform, Race to the Top (which he bizarrely depicts as arguably the most significant reform of public education in U.S. history), college loans, renewable energy initiatives, all the way to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to which the president’s contribution was to refrain from vetoing it. “Of all the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record,” he concludes.
That depends on what you measure. Obama became president in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. He had a majority mandate for change, large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the most progressive speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the history of the country. Conservatism was in disarray, discredited by its evident failures at home and abroad. Obama put forward reforms in areas that the country must address, offering what can generously be considered pre-compromised proposals.
The biggest liberal groups in the country lined up to help pass his agenda. They stayed loyal even as his aides cut deals they found deplorable (sustaining the ban on Medicare negotiating bulk discounts on prescription drugs; abandoning the public option; buying off big oil, King Coal and virtually every energy lobby; opposing restructuring of the big banks). He faced unified Republican obstruction, not liberal opposition. Powerful corporate lobbies were able to purchase sufficient conservative Democrats – Blue Dogs, New Dems – to dilute, delay and sometimes defeat reform. Progressives in Congress criticized the limitations, but produced votes when it was time to get something passed.
Accomplishment can’t be measured by the passage of legislation but by whether it meets the challenge of the time. And here, it is inescapable that the combination of Republican obstruction and entrenched corporate lobbies blocked the reforms that we need. Some 26 million people remain in need of full-time work, and one-third of the country is in — or verges on — poverty. Some 50 million are uninsured, and millions more live one illness from bankruptcy. Big banks are more concentrated than ever, while nothing has been done for the one in four homes with mortgages that remain under water. College grows more unaffordable. The biggest reform in education is the funding carnage that is wiping out pre-school and after school programs, stuffing kids into classes of 35 or 45 students and laying off tens of thousands of skilled teachers.