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Liberals and Barack Obama

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Ross Douthat has an interesting column today limning the distance he sees between the dissatisfaction liberals have with Barack Obama and the amount Obama has done for liberalism. There are a couple of things to say here.

First, there are liberals and then there are "liberals." According to Gallup, Obama has a 77 percent approval rating among liberals. That's essentially unchanged from a month ago, when it was 79 percent. Liberals quite like the president. So far as the more elite liberals that Douthat is talking about go, I'm not sure the number would be that much lower: There are plenty of people who want Obama to be more aggressive on a carbon-pricing bill but recognize the difficulty of that project and so approve of Obama overall but are trying to push him on this issue.

Second, problems don't abate simply because they're difficult to solve, or difficult to get the votes to solve. Douthat writes that "technically, [liberals] could be right" that deficit spending would accelerate job growth, but it doesn't matter because the votes don't exist for it. I'm not exactly sure what this is supposed to prove, but I don't think it logically follows that the people who might have the right idea about how to solve the problem should stop pressuring politicians to support that idea. When it comes to something like, say, state and local budget deficits, it really is the case that the federal government could solve this problem, and persuasion and pressure could be the difference.

Third, Douthat identifies a cult of the presidency as part of the problem. And here, of course, we agree: The idea that Obama can simply tell Congress what to do, or tell the public what to think, has been proven false, again and again. But the flip side of the belief that the president can do anything is that everyone should fall into line when the president says he can do nothing. Douthat's column is about the inexplicable tendency of liberals to try to push the president into supporting their policy agenda. But liberals, as Douthat sort of admits, have been well served by this strategy: Health-care reform has moved, and we've seen a number of secondary stimulus bills, and the financial reform bill was strengthened, and there's action on Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, and so on. There's space between what the president can do and what he wants to do, and that's where advocates come in. Obama is not all-powerful, and he's not always right, either.

And that gets to the final issue here: Douthat's column is sort of an amused look at people who see problems and have identified steps that could possibly ameliorate those problems and are frustrated that progress has ground to a halt. But insofar as liberals focus too much on Obama, the appropriate criticism there is not that they're too interested in the president or too bullish on government's ability to plug state budget gaps, but that they're focusing on the president because it's easy and interesting to do, while the actual problem is a Republican Party that would prefer a grim economy and an undistinguished president going into the 2010 election and a commentariat that's more interested in talking about political problems than policy problems. In fact, the guy who best channeled liberal frustrations on this issue was, well, Barack Obama:

Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Ezra Klein  |  June 21, 2010; 12:53 PM ET
 
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Comments

The difference is also between people who see problems and want to see action on getting them solved, and people like Douthat who ultimately seem to see politics as a sort of spectator sport where people root for one team or the other and talk constantly about this or that team's or player's strategy and chances as though the real-world consequences were not real and in some cases pretty dire, especially for some people.

The DC punditocracy in general tend to be pretty cynical and think that people who care about policy or candidates are naive and silly and maybe even a little embarassing while they are oh-so-knowing about how it all works and much too sophisticated to really care about it all. Chuck Todd is a good example of this.

The problem is that of course whether the Redskins or the Giants win in football, or the Red Sox or the Yankees, really doesn't matter but whether we tackle the structural deficit or energy over-use and inefficiency or regulate corporate power is going the shape the lives people lead for the rest of the century, likely in some very unpleasant ways if the problems don't get addressed.

Posted by: Mimikatz | June 21, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

the scathing criticisms of barack obama are really upsetting, when you see the opposition he faces from those who are trying to thwart his progress, the corruption of the whole system, and the supporters who now feel he isnt able to accomplish everything they wanted.
i wonder if all of the people who criticize barack obama, are doing as much as they can to make the world a better place, in their personal lives.
i wonder if they spend as much time helping in ways that they are able to, as they do, in criticizing.
it is always easier to say no, then to pick up a mop, in the brutal, "realworld," and say yes.....

once again,
"be the change that you wish to see in the world."

we are lucky to have president obama in office.
and for all people,
"the road ahead lies within."

Posted by: jkaren | June 21, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

He writes -- "Nor do they acknowledge how much risk those same politicians have already taken on (with the first stimulus, the health care bill, and much else besides) in the name of theoretical propositions"

Oh c'mon, all policy is "theoretical" at some point. And, I'm not sure it's as theoretical as he makes it out to be. I mean,
http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4072/4668683929_77773d55ff_b.jpg

and

http://www.google.com/finance?chdnp=1&chdd=1&chds=1&chdv=1&chvs=maximized&chdeh=0&chfdeh=0&chdet=1277150400000&chddm=98141&chls=IntervalBasedLine&q=INDEXDJX:.DJI&ntsp=0

Things have been on the upswing, but it's slow-going. That's not too theoretical.

Posted by: Chris_ | June 21, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Gotta love Douthat. His criticism of liberals isn't that their policy solutions are wrong, or that they're ineffective, or that they have some kind of unsustainable collateral cost.

It's just "ha, ha, they're mad at the wrong guy because they don't understand how Washington works. But I do!"

It's no surprise we can't get any problems solved. This is what passes for "smart" conservatism.

Posted by: theorajones1 | June 21, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Argh -- has Douthat actually been reading what progressives are saying? The most spot-on and continuing criticisms of Obama are about executive power. Why is Guantanamo still open? Why are we escalating the conflict in Afghanistan? Why is the President reserving the power to assassinate Americans? Why no prosecution of admitted war crimes under Cheney/Bush? Why the prosecution of whistle-blowers? Why has the President not used recess appointments to fill crucial posts? Why is there still so much secrecy? THESE are the betrayals. These things are directly under the President's control; directly inside the scope of his authority. These are things we were promised would change that haven't.

Liberals are not dumb. We know that the political process is messy and that enacting good policy takes time. We see it as our role on that front to shout loudly so that policy is pushed in our direction. What makes us angry is not that we get weak policy, it's that the Constitution is still hanging in tatters. We want our democracy back, and we thought that Obama did too.

Posted by: MatthiasW | June 21, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Or to put it more succinctly, it is stuff like this that makes our blood boil at Obama:

http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/06/21/pundits

Posted by: MatthiasW | June 21, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Poor Barack Obama. If only he occupied a position of power and influence that might help him to achieve his undoubtedly liberal goals, instead of the meaningless and helpless position that we elected him to. Lucky for us that Douthat and Klein point this out so that we don't get unrealistic and unserious expectations about him. Thank you, noble pundit overlords!

Posted by: redscott | June 21, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Yes. Finally. The obstruction is the Republican party. This should be hammered at constantly. Maybe the Republicans with good ideas will break free and serve their country instead of McConnell et al. and their corporate overseers.
Obama no doubt deserves his knocks but he shouldn't be the sole focus of "pundidiotcy".
Obama vs. Republicans + Fox News +talk radio + media pundits.

Posted by: ostrogoth | June 21, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

The best part of Obama's Grab a Mop argument was at the end when he suggested that Republicans should "feel a little shame." Sadly, that seems thoroughly unpossible for so many.

As for the rest, I'll admit that my liberal dissatisfaction is not always directed toward the President but is often directed toward Democrats, in general. Mostly those in the Senate.

My expectations for Republicans are pretty much nonexistent by this point. Republicans have become a punchline, not a party. Incapable of shame or guilt or exhibiting any other respectable feelings about their behaviors - past or present.

Democrats I expect better from.

All of which means that I kind of disagree with the "cult of the presidency" meme you all have going.

Disappointment stems from having expectations. When you clearly have ability, people expect things from you. Our Democratic representatives have shown themselves to have ability; our Republican representatives have demonstrated the opposite. So, we expect Democrats to get the job done. And when they don't do it, we get frustrated and disappointed. It's really as simple as that.

And as for criticism directed toward Obama...well...he's shown that he has quite a lot of ability. More so than many other Democratic representatives. So, it's not entirely unreasonable for people to expect more from him, in particular.

That said, if I were asked in a poll about whether or not I approve of the job the President is doing, I would say yes. Same for the rest of my Democratic representatives. So, I don't know if that makes me a liberal or a "liberal".

Posted by: slag | June 21, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Obama has been an utter disaster with regard to rule of law, Constitutional restrictions on government power, and civil liberties. He has not only accepted the Bush position essentially in its entirety, but he has pushed further into unrestricted assassinations that Bush never contemplated. This means that now it is a bipartisan assault on the Constitution and no one has the high moral ground any longer.

The fact that he is a Constitutional law expert means he knows better.

That fact that this is the exact opposite of his campaign promises means he is, essentially, a liar.

He's done some good things, but in the most obtuse way possible. He's been entirely too trusting of Republicans' good will, and entirely too willing to stake out a compromise position prior to negotiating.

So no. I'm a liberal and I disapprove this president. He's better than the alternatives but not as good as he could be or should be.

Posted by: pj_camp | June 21, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Also, I'm with MatthiasW in this point:

"The most spot-on and continuing criticisms of Obama are about executive power."

I've been surprised since Jon Stewart's excoriation of the President over executive power at how many liberals have brought the issue up to me. Either they're all getting the same talking point from somewhere or it's something that's "been in the back of [their] mind[s]" for a while. People who I never ever would have thought of as civil libertarians have said the exact same thing to me. This is a "How do you behave when no one is looking?" issue that seems to be eroding trust from Obama. At least, that's my sense. Although that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

Posted by: slag | June 21, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Many self-identified liberals seem in denial about their supposed principles, if the overwhelming majority support Obama's policies. In his foreign and national security policies, there is far more continuity than change.

These liberals seem as fooled as most foreigners when Obama gives an occasionally inspirational speech in other countries. Yet his actual policies, timid deference to Israel, bullying the Chinese and Japanese, sounding as belligerent as Bush II and Cheney toward Iran, increasing the war in Afghanistan, which even Bush refused to do, increasing bombing raids in Pakistan, which inevitably kill many civilians, as well as militants, record spending for the military, basically the same preference for secrecy in national security issues, not closing the prison in Cuba, etc. are far closer to being compatible with neo-con ideology than what progressives supposedly believe in.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | June 21, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

we're beyond lucky to have the obama presidency at this moment in history

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | June 21, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"...a commentariat that's more interested in talking about political problems than policy problems..."

One only has to look at what happens when one ignores the 'politics' of 'swift boating'.

You forget talking about politics, how to 'sell' your solutions to public, consequences are no matter how good your policy is; it does not get passed and we all are looser.

There is a difference between Politics and best Policy.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 21, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I think what liberals really want is a magician as president, and second choice would be a stay at home Dad as president to bond with. There is so much of this back to the future c@#2... by way of seeking the very things thought to have been wrong in the recent past. Our national media shrinks are telling us Obama is not emoting enough, not tough enough, but what I hear in the den of all that shouting is they don't really think he is qualified to be president. Hell, he freightens Chris Mathews and to James Carville he is naive and lackadaisical..which in some circles means he is both lazy and dumb. I hear arguments he never had any executive experience...Hmmm, name me the presidents who has and their relationship to a successful presidency?
George Bush never got this kind of backseat driving and Obama's plate is more consequential than any president since Roosevelt. The pitfalls of his failure is as dire as Lincoln's, but the educated liberals are deliberately not acknowledging this fact, or are blindly unaware. Thus our American brethren. particularly the libs, should ask themselves, how did we get here and stop looking for short-cuts? There "ain't" any. It would help if we had a media that informed and educated the populace on the historical perspective of what is going on in our economic and geopolitical universe, instead of exploiting this disorder for ratings and Sunday talk show guest hosting. It's about the history.

Posted by: october30 | June 21, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I think what liberals really want is a magician as president, and second choice would be a stay at home Dad as president to bond with. There is so much of this back to the future c@#2... by way of seeking the very things thought to have been wrong in the recent past. Our national media shrinks are telling us Obama is not emoting enough, not tough enough, but what I hear in the den of all that shouting is they don't really think he is qualified to be president. Hell, he freightens Chris Mathews and to James Carville he is naive and lackadaisical..which in some circles means he is both lazy and dumb. I hear arguments he never had any executive experience...Hmmm, name me the presidents who has and their relationship to a successful presidency?
George Bush never got this kind of backseat driving and Obama's plate is more consequential than any president since Roosevelt. The pitfalls of his failure is as dire as Lincoln's, but the educated liberals are deliberately not acknowledging this fact, or are blindly unaware. Thus our American brethren. particularly the libs, should ask themselves, how did we get here and stop looking for short-cuts? There "ain't" any. It would help if we had a media that informed and educated the populace on the historical perspective of what is going on in our economic and geopolitical universe, instead of exploiting this disorder for ratings and Sunday talk show guest hosting. It's about the history.

Posted by: october30 | June 21, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

I think what liberals really want is a magician as president, and second choice would be a stay at home Dad as president to bond with. There is so much of this back to the future c@#2... by way of seeking the very things thought to have been wrong in the recent past. Our national media shrinks are telling us Obama is not emoting enough, not tough enough, but what I hear in the den of all that shouting is they don't really think he is qualified to be president. Hell, he freightens Chris Mathews and to James Carville he is naive and lackadaisical..which in some circles means he is both lazy and dumb. I hear arguments he never had any executive experience...Hmmm, name me the presidents who has and their relationship to a successful presidency?
George Bush never got this kind of backseat driving and Obama's plate is more consequential than any president since Roosevelt. The pitfalls of his failure is as dire as Lincoln's, but the educated liberals are deliberately not acknowledging this fact, or are blindly unaware. Thus our American brethren. particularly the libs, should ask themselves, how did we get here and stop looking for short-cuts? There "ain't" any. It would help if we had a media that informed and educated the populace on the historical perspective of what is going on in our economic and geopolitical universe, instead of exploiting this disorder for ratings and Sunday talk show guest hosting. It's about the history.

Posted by: october30 | June 21, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I lived through the 20 years of the last 28 where the republican party ruled. It will most likely take us another 20 years to recover from it. You can criticize Obama and liberals/"liberals", but at least the democrats realize that a strong middle class is the backbone of this country. They are working to move the country forward for the betterment of all, not just the wealthy. They may not move fast enough sometimes, but they're working on it. I don't see anything of value from the republicans, the middle class is shrinking, corporations are becoming stronger. That's no way to build a strong and prosperous country.

Posted by: JilliB | June 21, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Obama draws criticism from within liberal and Democratic ranks simply because there is no "epistemic closure" on the left, as there is on the right, and there is a full range of views by self-identified Democrats on virtually every policy topic. This is nothing new.

Obama, like Bill Clinton, governs as a "centrist," so unsurprisingly he draws the most fire from the base on the left, while humorously being made to be a "socialist" by the opposition party.

The liberal support for Obama remains solid. I still see little indication that there would be significant support for a serious 2012 primary challenge to Obama on the left, although it would not surprise me to see someone like Dennis Kucinich go through the symbolic motions.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 21, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The only federal money that should go to states should be strictly to support federally mandated programs, NOT to keep states from paring down bloated state employee rosters.

Aside from federally mandated programs, it is the responsibility of each state to live within it's means. State employees must make sacrifices just like everyone else, and states must exercise their own fiscal responsibility.

Posted by: samadams25 | June 21, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

'This really is just a slightly better version of what I would have expected a Republican White House to do if there was a disaster like this in the Gulf" said Greenpeace in reaction to the Obama admin floating the idea of an electric-generation-only cap and trade policy.

Uhuh. On what alternate planet is that true? Republicans oppose any regulation, any restriction on the operation of corporations.

This sort of attack from the left is utterly frustrating. These lefties think that what is unpassable but in theory correct is far superior to what is partial but achievable.

I work - for money - in the advocacy sector, on the moderate left, but this is what I find so fatiguing.

This notion that doing the middle-path is tantamount to joining Dick Cheney in hades. Bah!

Posted by: RalfW | June 21, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"Ross Douthat has an interesting column today..."

Uh...no.

Posted by: brucds | June 21, 2010 10:53 PM | Report abuse

If "liberals" aren't abandoning Obama, then I suggest they are more likely Democrats than liberals. (And no, they aren't the same thing.)

I was a loyal Dem for my entire adult life. But thanks to Obama and the Democratic control of both houses of congress, the scales have fallen from my eyes. I no longer self identify as a Dem. I am no longer a member of that delusional tribe. I am a liberal. The Democratic Party hates people like me. The feeling is now mutual.

Posted by: oxfordsystems | June 21, 2010 11:20 PM | Report abuse

The Health Bill is a straw man argument. It proved the power of pay for play politics in the US (congressmen, hospital systems, pharma, medical specialists, medical equipment made off like the pay for play bandits they are). Obama is just subsidizing the increasingly unaffordable US health care system on the backs of currently insured and future generations.
I suppose you call that liberalism, but it is a sorry lie.

Posted by: Donschott | June 22, 2010 6:45 AM | Report abuse

"while the actual problem is a Republican Party that would prefer a grim economy and an undistinguished president going into the 2010 election"

Yes that's the actual problem despite an overwhelming Dem majority the last 18 months.

Do you people ever listen to yourselves?

Posted by: areyouserious1 | June 22, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I like the comment where someone says 'we need to emphasize that the Republicans are the party of no." Please do. The majority of the American people are so unhappy with Obama's policies that they are glad to have the party of no and will soon vote them into power.

A few examples: Healthcare: 58% support repeal. Immigration: over 60% support Arizona's law. Cap and Trade? Very unpopular. Terror trials in NYC? Fuggedaboudit. Further stimulus in the face of unsustainable defict spending? Hell, no. Record unemployment with no new private sector jobs. No, thanks. Foreign policy that insults allies and kowtows to enemies? Nein danke.

And please...you can't keep saying that the Republicans caused all the problems we have, when things are steadily getting worse and worse, with Dems in charge.

Posted by: Josiahtx | June 22, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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