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The 'principled left' Obama needs

When Barack Obama embarked on what most political insiders saw as an audacious campaign for the presidency, the question was whether a newly-elected senator from Illinois could entice Democrats to consider a contender other than a former first lady who proposed to be the first woman president and a former nominee for vice president who was saying important things about the growing economic divide in America. What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left -- professional and amateur -- that the one leading candidate who had expressed blunt opposition to the war in Iraq before it began had shown better judgment than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

So it was that an exercise in political purism by the broad left put Obama on the path to the presidency. Now that Obama is president, however, his press secretary derides the "professional left" for being too pure in its demands on the White House. In point of fact, Robert Gibbs is wrong; at the most critical point in President Obama's tenure so far -- when Congress was deciding how to vote on a health-care bill that Republicans predicted would be his "Waterloo" -- the most left-wing members of Congress and their allies (professional and amateur) across America rallied to support a measure that was deeply disappointing to many of them.

But that is not enough for Gibbs.

It is staggeringly simplistic for Gibbs to blame the "professional left" for the slew of troubles this White House currently confronts as much as seems to have. The left isn't responsible for the administration’s insufficient response to the economic and social challenges the financial crisis has posed. The left isn't responsible for a dysfunctional system that allows the minority party to obstruct with impunity -- and special interests and big corporate money to dictate legislative policy. The left isn't responsible for the seepage of Fox-style conservatism into the rest of the media. Nor is the left responsible for the fact that a majority of Americans no longer believe the Afghanistan war is worth fighting.

As historian Michael Kazin likes to say, "If the left were not somewhat unhappy with Barack Obama, it would not be much of a left." Maybe Gibbs needs a history lesson on the relationship of the left to presidential administrations. Both FDR and LBJ, for example, had to respond to insurgencies on their left -- labor and civil-rights movements -- and in so doing were pushed to adopt bold progressive reforms.

Of course, these are different times, for America and its left. Ruth Marcus makes a credible point when she suggests that some on the left blame Obama for the failure to enact sweeping transformative reforms in less than two years. Blaming Obama is simplistic. After all, didn't the left -- old and new -- typically use a power structure analysis to explain the limits of democracy in the U.S.? How is it, then, that it hoped Obama would override all that, and do so in less than two years?

The left I know and am a part of is not some monolithic entity. There are debates and divisions. I am of the school that believes the system is rigged against progressive change, and that great periods of change -- the New Deal and the Great Society -- took place after years of effort and many setbacks. I also believe that we on the left need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he and his team are about us. Playing what I call the betrayal sweepstakes -- a ceaseless denunciation of the administration's failures and missteps -- doesn't get us very far. It promotes disappointment, disempowerment and despair, which is just what our adversaries on the right seek.

As someone who would like to see Obama's presidency succeed, I think he needs a left that engages in the same blending of principle and pragmatism that convinced progressive Democrats choose him over Clinton and Edwards. The history of progressive change in our country leads me to believe that the left would be wise to avoid falling into either of two extremes -- reflexively defensive or reflexively critical.

In the last 18 months, the left has learned the hard way that it needs to be more independent of the White House to realize the change we’re seeking. There's now more energy being devoted to organizing, less to complaining. There is savvy organizing underway around specific issues -- corporate power, filibuster reform, Medicare-for-all at the state level, stronger consumer protection -- and the development of active, broad-based coalitions around those reforms that, as our history teaches us, is pretty much the only way things change in our system.

Gibbs might want to consider what the left is griping about. Why didn't Obama use his presidential pulpit and brilliant speaking skills to change the debate and explain that what we need to fear is joblessness -- not deficits? Couldn't he have picked a cabinet with a real team of rivals? Gibbs should stop lashing out and start a more productive conversation with a constituency which was, after all, at the core of the coalition that brought his boss to the White House.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel  | August 13, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  vanden Heuvel  | Tags:  Katrina vanden Heuvel  
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Next: Friday's p-Op Quiz: "Mad as hell" edition


Obama is establishing a national security surveillance state. He's worse than bush.

Posted by: HilaryLo | August 13, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

What brilliant speaking skills? The speeches? How about a little communication instead? How about a little respect? I am not a Republican, but I find myself agreeing more and more with the Republicans' criticism of the President and his administration. Not so much the criticism of his policy initiatives (I have my own problems there), but definitely so far as concerns his reaction to those who criticise him and his treatment of those he perceives to be against him.

So now the left is as worthy of his derision as the right? Please. I'm done with the President and his pouty pity posse. It is clear they can't handle the heat; it's time for them to get out of the kitchen. We need to convince Secretary of State Clinton to run against President Obama in the Democratic primary for the 2012 election. The Republicans are unlikely to put up a winning candidate; let's make sure we aren't faced with another six years of this administration's endless foot-stamping, fist-waving toddler tantrums. Also, a few more jobs might be nice.

Posted by: seabelly1 | August 13, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

A "national security surveillance state?" um... well. I guess to keep things positive I could say that being a paranoid schizophrenic doesn't mean that their AREN'T aliens reading your thoughts from their orbital base. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But come on! If you think that the government is competent enough to set up a "national security surveillance state" then you really are wacko!

Posted by: anzobrist | August 13, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Obama and his radical left base strikes fear in my heart for America. He has admitted that his agenda is to "fundamentally transform our country".
I remember laying awake at night worrying about Russia during the cold war, and then what the terrorists would do next. Now I worry about the long term damage Obama and his supporters will do to the lives of future generations.
In my opinion he's not just the worst president ever, he's the most dangerous president ever.

Posted by: thehamptons1 | August 13, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

You have to establish democracy first. Limit the amount of money that Senators and congressmen can accept. Publishing their annual tax returns allows voters to make informed voting decisions. European majority party winners don't have to get more than 50% +1 votes to implement their program approved by the voters. The Senate votes can be overcome by the Congress overturning the Senate votes 3 times. Your Senate requirement for 60% majorities is undemocratic.

Posted by: graemegwarren | August 13, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Katrina is right -- much of the "left" got Obama to the altar in Denver partly because of the choice of the other candidates. And yes, in less than a year, a first year freshman Senator has managed to bypass most of the Constitutional controls that keep the President from grabbing the crown on his own head and immediately start issuing whims disquised as decrees. There is noone on the "big government, big spending" side of the aisle that should have anything but praise for the amazing speed with which deliberative bodies did not deliberate on country-changing laws.

To me, here's the lesson -- Don't elect anyone with an Agenda, even if it is your agenda. The results are going to be the disaster we have now and what the Constitution was designed to prevent. Understand that there are Agendas on the Conservative side as well, and with he bag of tricks the Democrats have opened up in this session, some real damage can be done in either direction.

Posted by: tommariner | August 13, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

@thehamptons1: that attitude is precisely why Obama will win again in 2012. Average Americans may not be happy with the job he's doing, but when they look at the alternative they see a party beholden to ideological extremism. New polls show that Americans STILL trust Democrats more than Republicans in general. I'd bet that it's for the same reason - not that Dems have done a bang-up job, or even a competent one, but the alternative is simply unthinkable to those who remember the last decade.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | August 13, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I think it would be a good thing to fundamentally transform our country. It's a painful process that has happened before to generally positive results. Declaring independence from Britain was a fundamental transformation that most of the conservatives were against. Ending slavery transformed the country by forcing conservatives to do the right thing. Too bad it had to be accomplished at the point of a bayonet.

The break up of the monopolies around the turn of the 20th century was a major transformation that ushered in 25 years of massive growth through competition (despite conservative opposition.) The New Deal was a fundamental transformation that saved the lives of millions of people on the edge of starvation, a transformation that (in spite of erosion by the forces of conservatism) still keeps the elderly and unemployed from starving to death, dying from lack of medicine, or turning to crime to feed their children.

The civil rights movement. The protest against the war in Vietnam. The list of the fundamental changes experienced by our country is long and distinguished. It's a heritage to be proud of.

This country needs fundamental transformation as much as it ever has. Generally you can tell something is a good idea by how strong the opposition is from conservatives.

Posted by: anzobrist | August 13, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm an independent that voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary and Barak Obama in the general election. This article is spot on about the administrations short memory concerning the voters that put him in office. In his short time in office he has proved himself to be one of those hated centrists. He tries to appease the right by not being progressive and in so doing he becomes the lightning rod for the disappointment of the left. It’s amazing to me that he hasn’t figured out how much the Republicans hate him personally. They will do anything to see him fail regardless of the cost to the nation and its citizens. He would be in a better position if he had pushed for bold proposals like a public option that served main street and honest financial reform that protected us from the greed of the rich. But he didn’t even try to do the right thing. Now the right wing still hates him, the left is fed up and the independents have no place to go.

Posted by: enaz | August 13, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Vanden, you are wrong when you say, "What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left". What won him the nomination and the election was that millions of (black, white and brown) extremely ignorant, uneducated people that have never voted before and who could still today not tell you who the current VP is, voted for Obama. The very kind that made statements like "Obama is goign to pay for my car". I'll bet you that there are a massive number of people that voted for Obama who checked out after they got him elected and have no idea what he has done or what he has passed since he got into office.


Posted by: washingtonpost62 | August 13, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Vanden, you are wrong when you say, "What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left". What won him the nomination and the election was that millions of (black, white and brown) extremely ignorant, uneducated people that have never voted before and who could still today not tell you who the current VP is, voted for Obama. The very kind that made statements like "Obama is goign to pay for my car". I'll bet you that there are a massive number of people that voted for Obama who checked out after they got him elected and have no idea what he has done or what he has passed since he got into office.


Posted by: washingtonpost62 | August 13, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

@washingtonpost62: As opposed to the right wing, whose corporate overlords have persuaded millions of uneducated working people to vote against their own economic interests, by appealing to their baser instincts and hatred/fear of anything that doesn't look and sound exactly like they do.



Posted by: bezoarsf | August 13, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

"What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left...that [he]... had shown better judgment than Hillary Clinton..."

Not a brilliant judgement by the principled left.

Posted by: janeb2 | August 13, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Washingtonpost62. It should've been Hillary. The last time this country worked the way it should was when a Clinton was in the Whitehouse. The progressive lunatics on the left sabotaged her and we are stuck with this disaster for two more years. Thanks a lot progressive movement. Turning this country from a land of oppurtunity to a broke welfare state isn't progress, it's pathetic.

Posted by: peterg73 | August 13, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

enaz, I'm Independent too & I hear you. There's no one that represents Independent voters who has any chance of winning. but you know what? vote third party! every election the third party votes grow significantly. The tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum parties will eventually disappoint one too many voters and THEN there will be a change.

Posted by: Constance_Goforth | August 13, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

There is no such thing as the "principled" Left; a better term would be the ideological Left. Or maybe even better...the knee jerk Left.

Posted by: JohnR22 | August 13, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

The so-called "progressives" (socialists) are destroying our country. And before you libs start screaming about me calling "progressives" Socialists, take a look at the list of 70 congressional Dems who are members of the Socialist Party of America.

This list is from 2009 - it's probably even longer now.

Posted by: samadams25 | August 14, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Gibbs comments are part of Obama's attempts to triangulate without really moving on any policy issue. The problem that Obama and the professional left face is that they are both significantly to the left of the political center of gravity. The big compromises that the professional left has made are with other Democrats and all took place way to the left of center. The public option, for example, was lost in a compromise with other Democrats. The country simply does not want what the left is offering. Obama has to deal with this fact and is attempting to reposition himself without moving. The professional left does not care.

Posted by: law0990 | August 15, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

WashingtonPost62 says: "What won him the nomination and the election was that millions of (black, white and brown) extremely ignorant, uneducated people that have never voted before and who could still today not tell you who the current VP is, voted for Obama."
Sounds like the "chicken in every pot and car in every garage" constituency that elected Hoover in 1928; or the women who elected Truman in 1948 because they did not like Dewey's mustache; or the voters in 1952 who elected Eisenhower because he looked more "presidential" than that egghead opponent; or the voters in 1960 who voted for Kennedy because they did not like Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow in one of the debates; or those who elected Reagan because he was good at reading speeches and looked fatherly (or grandfatherly).

I was six years old at the time of the 1944 election. The only thing I remember about that election was a neighbor who commanded me to "tell your mother to vote for Rosie."

We vote for condidates for lots of different reasons. The don't have to be good ones. That is our system.

Posted by: esch | August 15, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Gibbs does a poor job of getting the message out and for that he should be removed. But he is right about the professional left--and he wasn't talking about the mainstream left like Maddow, Krugman, etc. There are those on the way left that can never find anything good to say about the president and are constantly deriding everything he does. Doesn't he have enough enemies with Fox and the Republicans lying 24/7. Does he have to have the constant second-guessing of the people who are supposed to on his side? The extreme left gets so used to losing that they think they are losing when they are winning and the can't believe that anyone who likes them is any good after all.

Posted by: wd1214 | August 16, 2010 12:15 AM | Report abuse

to all,

it maters little what the LEFT wants/thinks/"cares so deeply about" because in a little over 4 months, the GOP will control BOTH houses of Congress & BHO & his claque of wierdos, union bosses, Chicago machine thugs, antisemites, lunatics, bigots, fools & common criminals will be irrelevant.

come JAN the new Congress will start disassembling the "obama agenda", starting with SHUTTING DOWN "obamacare" & every other portion of his nitwit DIMocRATS agenda.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | August 18, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

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