November 29, 2011

Writing in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait joins the chorus of Obama advocates decrying “self-loathing liberals” who criticize the president. Chait writes better than most, but he hews to the common theme that criticism of Obama isn’t justified by reality but instead reflects either political naivete or psychological imbalance. The argument gets it wrong, distorting the politics of the left and the realities of the country.

Chait admits that some “complaints [about Obama] are right,” but that isn’t why liberals are so depressed. Instead, liberals “are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president,” unlike conservatives, whose disappointment “is neither as incessant nor as pervasively depressed as the liberal variety.”

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.

If anything, Obama was hurt because progressives were too loyal rather than that they were too critical. Certainly that was the conclusion drawn by everyone from the AFL-CIO to Moveon.org to the activists of Occupy Wall Street. In a famous scene, the president told the 13 biggest bankers that he stood “between them and the pitchforks.” But there wasn’t sufficient evidence of an independent movement on the left – with or without pitchforks – to alarm the banksters. They scorned the president, took their bailouts, and continued to pay themselves obscene bonuses while returning to speculation as usual.

Chait’s contrast of conservatives to liberals is mythical. You’ll never see a scene within the Republican Party, Chait argues, like the 1968 Democratic convention. Perhaps. But Pat Buchanan’s insurgency and the Christian Right’s rhetoric and actions at the Republican Convention in 1992 contributed directly to the defeat of incumbent president George H.W. Bush. Conservatives have savaged Republican presidents from Eisenhower to Bush II. Even the now sainted Ronald Reagan was denounced for raising taxes and pushing disarmament, with leaders of the New Right openly writing about forming a third party. In fact, conservatives have been far more successful and brutal in punishing those they considered RINOS – Republicans In Name Only – as demonstrated by what conservative apostate David Frum accurately describes as the alternative reality the right now occupies.

Yes, liberals despaired at Clinton’s New Democrat retreats – from abandoning his investment agenda to deregulating banks to cutting the perverse trade deals with China and NAFTA. Yet when Clinton was facing impeachment, it was liberals who rallied to his defense. And even though progressives are justifiably disappointed with Obama’s centrist policies, there is little question that faced with the choice of Obama or Mitt Romney, they will stand with the president. And their choice may have greater weight with less-engaged voters because of their independent criticisms of the president.

Arguments like Chait’s are written as if it were 1992 and liberals were disappointed with a New Democratic president about to reap the benefits of the dot-com bubble. This is a very different time. Inequality has reached Gilded Age extremes. The middle class is sinking, and poverty is spreading. Catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger. President Obama was right.

We need a transformational presidency, able to smash the failed, entrenched and corrupt politics of the center. That standard isn’t some perfectionism perennially demanded by disappointed liberals. It is required by the times. And what this nation desperately needs isn’t partisan unity, but a fierce and growing movement that will challenge not just the wing nuts of the right, but an establishment in both parties that has failed the country.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Post.