BUYER’S REMORSE: How Obama and the Democrats Let Progressives Down
By Bill Press. Threshold Editions. 311 pp. $27.
LISTEN, LIBERAL: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank. Metropolitan Books. 305 pp. $27.
The race for the Democratic nomination is a battle over the legacy of the Obama presidency. Hillary Clinton, completing her transition from rival to heir, lathers herself in that legacy whenever possible. Bernie Sanders offers a skeptical wag of the finger, his every call for revolution suggesting that so much hope has led to little change. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president, I expect from Republicans,” Clinton admonished in a recent debate. “I do not expect [it] from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Until historians render their verdict on him, we have the partisans. Right-wing writers offer tales of illegitimacy, conspiracy and overreach in their effort to define Obama. Okay, fine. But now book-length judgments are being handed down by the left, too — and so far, it’s advantage Sanders.
Bill Press, a liberal radio and television host, has authored “Buyer’s Remorse,” a distillation of the Obama years that comes down to “yes, but.” Yes, Obama got the stimulus bill through Congress, but it was too small. Yes, he passed the Affordable Care Act, but he punted on the public option. Yes, he signed the Dodd-Frank Act, but he left Wall Street’s power largely intact. Yes, Obama ended torture as a tool of U.S. national security, but he didn’t prosecute any high-ranking officials responsible for it. Yes, he made history as the first black president, but he spoke out only reluctantly on racial injustice. Yes, he ended the war in Iraq, but he’s getting sucked into a new conflict there. Yes, he raised crazy money for Democratic candidates, but the House and the Senate went Republican on his watch. “The transformative new era of leadership Obama promised never happened,” Press laments. “His presidency looms as a huge opportunity wasted.”
While Press details everything Obama has done to disappoint him, political historian Thomas Frank is more interested in why the president disappoints. It’s not that Obama has abandoned liberalism; it’s that liberalism has abandoned the working class. Over the past four decades, Frank argues in his new book “Listen, Liberal,” the Democrats have embraced a new favorite constituency: the professional class — the doctors, lawyers, engineers, programmers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, financiers and other so-called creatives whose fetish for academic credentials and technological innovation has infected the party of the working class. Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, is a member in excellent standing of this class and a natural protector of it. “When the left party in a system severs its bonds to working people — when it dedicates itself to the concerns of a particular slice of high-achieving affluent people — issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns,” Frank concludes.
Together, the authors offer an early postmortem on the Obama presidency and a bleak, bitter vision of where liberal elites are taking the Democratic Party. In the 2016 campaign, anger and disappointment are not the sole province of the right.
Some of this disappointment is inevitable. “Let’s be honest: Liberals, as a group, are never satisfied,” Press admits. “In our heart of hearts we let the great become the enemy of the good, and get too easily dismayed by half-measures.” Still, he says, he’ll accept not getting 100 percent of what he wants, “as long as you fight like hell for that 100 percent before you compromise for much, much less.”
The problem with Obama, Press contends, is that the president didn’t fight hard enough before settling; consensus-seeking and the endless pursuit of compromise were Obama’s default setting, particularly on economic policy. “Determined to be the nation’s first ‘postpartisan president,’ he dove into deficit-cutting full bore, and spent much of the next two years in countless, pointless meetings with Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders, trying to negotiate a ‘balanced’ budget deal consisting of both new spending cuts and new revenue,” Press writes. It never happened, and Press says the energy wasted there could have furthered other liberal objectives.
Press goes after Obama for not doing more — and doing it right away — on climate change, immigration reform, labor rights and Guantanamo Bay. Of course, when everything is a priority, nothing is, and Obama had to deal with the small matter of preventing another Great Depression. Press’s criticisms can come off a bit muddled, particularly on foreign policy, where he attacks the president for not using force in Syria, for using it in Libya, for not using enough of it against the Islamic State. Press doesn’t offer a coherent, progressive vision on foreign policy. Maybe he doesn’t have one. Maybe there just isn’t one.
Both authors dismiss the standard arguments excusing the pace of change under Obama. Yes, the president has endured racially motivated opposition, writes Press, but if Obama fails to use the force of his office to further progressive goals, “the fault lies with him, not his racist critics.” Frank acknowledges the power of intransigent congressional Republicans, but insists Obama could have better used the executive branch to “do big and consequential things about inequality.” While other liberal journalists, such as Politico’s Michael Grunwald, portray Obama as the second coming of FDR, Press and Frank linger on a June 2015 interview revealing Obama’s limited view of his own powers.
“Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements, or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south, so that 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were,” Obama explained. “But at the time, at the moment, people may feel like, we need a 50-degree turn, we don’t need a two-degree turn. . . . And you can’t turn 50 degrees.”
Or, to update the 2008 mantra: Yes, we can, but only a bit at a time and it’s hard so back off.
There are electoral coalitions, and then there are governing ones. In their campaigns, Obama and the Democrats may reach out to unions, minority groups, millennials and other members of that “coalition of the ascendant” that is supposed to deliver Democratic presidents in perpetuity. But when it’s time for action, Frank writes, Democrats are in thrall to the elite, professional class. And though he says this all began with George McGovern’s campaign in 1972, the primary culprit is not Obama but William Jefferson Clinton.
“Bill Clinton was often described as the leader of his generation,” Frank writes, “but it’s more accurate to say he was the leader of a particular privileged swath of his age group — the leader of a class.” He ran as a populist alternative to George H.W. Bush, but once in office, Frank complains, he bowed to financial markets, globalization, and the professional class and self-serving meritocracy that this Arkansas boy had joined at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale.
For that class, Frank argues, income and wealth inequality is not a problem but an inevitable condition. Those who reach the top ranks of academia or Wall Street — or even Democratic Party politics — fully believe that they’ve earned their perch. “For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status, because they are smarter than other people,” Frank writes. “. . . For those who have just lost their home, for example, or who are having trouble surviving on the minimum wage, the implications of meritocracy are equally unambiguous. To them this ideology says, forget it. You have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.”
This belief system underlies Clinton’s obsession with education and job training as the only ways to engage with global competition. “The world we face today is the world where what you earn depends on what you can learn,” the president-elect said in a December 1992 speech. For the professional class, academic credentialism is everything — the ticket to upper-class income brackets. It is less a strategy for mitigating inequality, Frank charges, than one for rationalizing it.
That philosophy is why Clinton deregulated derivatives and “put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave,” Frank writes. “He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society.”
The fuses Clinton lit detonated during the George W. Bush years, propelling Obama into the Oval Office. Even so, Frank writes, the Obama administration has been “Clintonism on monster-truck tires.” The president’s star-studded economic team — with its links to Wall Street, to the Clinton era, to market-driven orthodoxies — made it almost impossible for the new president to tackle Wall Street malfeasance more aggressively. “For the kind of achievement-conscious people who filled the administration,” Frank writes, “investment bankers were more than friends — they were fellow professionals. . . the ‘creative class’ that Democrats revere.”
By Obama’s second term, Silicon Valley had replaced Wall Street in the liberal imagination, campaign events and the revolving door of Washington. Now it’s all Google and Uber rather than Goldman and Citi, but the Democrats’ worship of disruptive innovation is just as detrimental to working-class interests as their respect for financial engineering, Frank cautions. “Many of our most vaunted innovations are simply methods — electronic or otherwise — of pulling off some age-old profit-maximizing managerial maneuver by new and unregulated means.”
So for those like Press who wonder why Obama and his team didn’t push harder for liberal causes, Frank offers a simple, damning possibility. “They didn’t believe in doing those things. . . . they didn’t want to do those things.”
In hindsight, of course, both authors think they should’ve seen all this coming.
“It’s also possible — and fact, it’s altogether likely — that we fundamentally misread Barack Obama,” Press admits. Perhaps the candidate simply seemed liberal because Republicans had traveled so far right. “At best, he’s a bona fide centrist, or centrist-left,” he concludes. And Frank blames himself for not realizing that Obama was more about consensus than confrontation. “After all, the magical healing properties of consensus had been one of the great themes of Obama’s pre-presidential career,” Frank notes, both in his famed 2004 Democratic National Convention speech and in “The Audacity of Hope,” his 2006 bestseller.
So, if it’s caveat emptor when evaluating presidential candidates, how should the left consider Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Press, bless his heart, is ready to love again. He clearly believes in the junior senator from Vermont — “Be yourself, Bernie,” Press encourages in a concluding letter he writes to each candidate — and Sanders even wrote a nice, if vague, book jacket blurb for “Buyer’s Remorse.” But Press could go all in for the former secretary of state, too. “You may have a reputation for being a moderate, but we know you’re a real progressive at heart,” he writes to Clinton. “Don’t do what too many Democrats do, once elected, and rush to the middle.” (Implicit: too many Democrats like your husband.)
Frank, for his part, admires Sanders — “He’s a New Dealer,” he said recently, the highest praise possible — and the anti-trade-agreement rhetoric that helped Sanders win the Michigan primary finds a ready audience with Frank. But the author is skeptical that Sanders can prevail in the primaries, and he writes that “trying to figure out exactly where Hillary Clinton actually stands on political issues can be crazy-making.” Judging from her tenure as secretary of state, Frank identifies what he derisively calls a “microclimate of virtue” surrounding Clinton. “The mystic bond between high-achieving professionals and the planet’s most victimized people . . . is a recurring theme in her life and work.” Her crusades for Internet freedom and for microcredit loans for women in developing countries are a “perfect expression of Clintonism, bringing together wealthy financial interests with rhetoric that sounds outrageously idealistic.”
The critique that Press and Frank offer is somewhat self-fulfilling. If you dare suggest that the Democratic Party must adapt to a changing global economy, or that the power of the presidency has been curtailed regardless of who inhabits the White House, you become part of the very mind-set the authors vilify. Even so, while we hyperventilate over the fracturing of the Republican Party, these books make a persuasive case that the other side has remade itself already, away from the causes that once defined it. “Every two years, they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard,” Frank concludes. “This cannot go on.”
It can. Unless Sanders pulls off a miraculous resuscitation, the old Democratic Party is dead. Depending on where you stand in the 2016 campaign and the 2016 economy, it was either a noble death or a suicide.
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