Worried on the Left
Oh, my: Barack Obama is still more than a month away from assuming the presidency, and already there are reports about "the left" being dispirited about change they no longer believe in.
These fears -- in this case expressed by a rather small number of bloggers and writers -- are aggravated by praise for Obama's transition choices from conservatives who seem relieved that the president-elect is neither Lenin nor Robespierre.
There is nothing new about anxiety among progressives that the candidate they just elected is destined to break their ideological hearts. In his journals, no less a loyalist to John F. Kennedy than the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. expressed dismay during the 1960 transition period over Kennedy's apparent attraction to "a collection of rather respectable and conservative names for the Cabinet."
In a Dec. 1 journal entry, Schlesinger described a meeting in which he told Kennedy "that the liberals were concerned about having a spokesman in the Cabinet." Kennedy replied: "Yes, I know, the liberals want visual reassurance just like everybody else. But they shouldn't worry. What matters is the program. We are going down the line on the program."
Schlesinger concluded that Kennedy was seeking "an administration of conservative men and liberal measures," an intriguing notion to apply to Obama.
As it happens, Obama's team is by most reasonable tests somewhere to the left of the one Kennedy assembled. That's because reality has moved left, particularly over the past six months. When a Republican administration presides over -- let's call it what it is -- the partial nationalization of the finance industry, and when even conservatives are calling for large-scale deficit spending, the very definition of the political center needs to be revised.
But there's another problem with the "disillusioned left" story line. If those looking for a split consulted with the most progressive members of Congress, they would discover a certain serenity about the direction the next president will take.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who proudly describes himself as a democratic socialist, has as much of a claim as anyone to speak for the left. He says those who see Obama as drifting right are overlooking the importance of the president-elect's past as a community organizer and also his "sense of history."
"I believe he understands that he is coming into office at a time when the country faces more problems than at any time since 1933," Sanders told me. "The American people are prepared to support strong action."
Sanders acknowledges "concerns" that key Obama appointees supported financial deregulation in the past. He called them "some of the people responsible for getting us into where we are right now."
But Democrats, Sanders says, realize the burden they bear with full control of the government's elected branches: "If they don't begin to really deliver for the middle class in this country, they've got nobody to blame but themselves." Obama's pledge yesterday to push hard for health-care reform suggests that he shares Sanders's view.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, another hero to economic populists, argues that even Obama's appointees among the middle-of-the-road veterans of Bill Clinton's administration "have all moved from where they were" because economic circumstances have changed so much since the early 1990s.
"I think they pay much more attention to middle-class needs right now -- the shrinking middle class and the gap between rich and poor," the Ohio Democrat said. "I think they understand their mistakes on deregulation." Like Sanders, Brown stresses Obama's past as an organizer. "I think his sentiments are progressive," Brown says.
Like most successful politicians, Obama is a protean figure. His progressive views and cautious instincts send different messages to different people -- which is one reason his approval rating hit 73 percent in a Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey released yesterday.
It's also plain that Obama is no left-winger. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, John Edwards was the candidate of the economic left, Rep. Dennis Kucinich the standard-bearer of the staunchly antiwar left. Obama's campaign advisers were moderately progressive, not radical.
This means that parts of the political left will have some differences with Obama over the next four years, but it doesn't mean that most on the left are already disillusioned with him.
Take it from Arthur Schlesinger. In his 1960 diary entry, he ascribed to Kennedy the view that "especially with a liberal Congress, conservative-appearing men can win more support for liberal measures than all-outers." Schlesinger added: "Of course there is something to this argument."