You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Left Behind

Do progressives have any power over the Obama administration?

Only six months into the Obama presidency, the new administration has already experienced an unusually robust assortment of criticism from fellow Democrats, at least at the elite opinion-leading and activist level. The extended progressive "honeymoon" that John Judis warned against in these pages back in February has largely faded.

Only six months into the Obama presidency, the new administration has already experienced an unusually robust assortment of criticism from fellow Democrats, at least at the elite opinion-leading and activist level. The extended progressive "honeymoon" that John Judis warned against in these pages back in February has largely faded.

Obama has been faulted in large swaths of the blogosphere and op-ed pages for a wide array of missteps, if not downright heresies. Here are just a few:

     *Undertaking expensive and questionably effective "bailouts" of the financial sector instead of simply regulating and/or nationalizing it.

     Using vast political capital to promote a fiscal stimulus package that was too small to work, and allowing Senate "centrists" to water it down even further.

     *Refusing to reverse major elements of the Bush program for surveillance, detention, and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and obstructing efforts to hold Bush officials accountable for violations of civil liberties.

     *Moving too slowly to end American military involvement in Iraq, and moving too fast to make new commitments for military action in Afghanistan.

     *Deferring to "centrists" and even Republicans in Congress on crucial climate change and health reform legislation at the palpable risk of destroying the progressive nature of these initiatives.

     *Failing to honor commitments for immediate action to promote GLBT equality, particularly with respect to the military.

Aside from these specific issues, there's been a pervasive feeling in many progressive circles that Obama is too cautious, too "pragmatic," too subservient to Democratic "centrists," too worried about bipartisanship, too interested in outreach to people who will never support him, and too unwilling to utilize the bully pulpit to articulate and defend progressive principles.

But lefty unhappiness with Obama has another, and very poignant, dimension: a recognition that, despite helping to elect one of the most liberal presidents in recent memory, self-conscious progressives have less leverage with the administration than their "centrist" Democratic counterparts, and maybe no more than Republicans (or at least those few Republicans in the Senate willing to even consider cooperation with Obama's agenda).

The reason is that efforts to create a "loyal opposition" to Obama from the left tend to be more "loyal" than "oppositional." In a characteristically acerbic column about the Campaign for America's Future annual meeting last month, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank made these observations about the gap between progressive criticism of Obama and the willingness to take him on in meaningful (i.e., threatening) ways:

     [S]peakers at the closing session exhorted the liberals to take back
     America--from Obama. "The president of the most powerful country
     in the world is doing all right, but there are a lot of people in this country
     who are not doing all right," writer Naomi Klein told the crowd. "Obama
     is making us stupid," she added. "Love can make you stupid."

     ... But many in the audience had warmer feelings toward the Obama
     administration. A straw poll taken by pollster Stan Greenberg found that
     90 percent of those in attendance approve of the job the president is doing,
     and that they have no consensus about whether to help Obama or fight him.

More interesting than Milbank's mockery was the fact that influential progressive blogger Jane Hamsher agreed with it, saying that leading progressive groups are "little more than arms of the White House now playing a zero sum game with Republicans who really don't matter."

The same dynamic is evident with grassroots elements of the "Democratic base." Even as Obama's job approval rating has bounced around, with Republicans hardening their opposition and (according to a few polls) independents becoming skeptical, self-identified Democrats have remained solidly in his corner. And then there's this stunning detail: According to Gallup's weekly tracking poll, Obama's job approval rating among self-identified "liberal Democrats" has risen from 90 percent on the week of his inauguration to 96 percent in the latest (the week ending July 12) survey. So while progressive criticism of Obama is hitting a fever pitch, it doesn't seem to have affected their love affair with him.

The frustration of the progressive left was perfectly expressed last week by Chris Bowers, co-founder of OpenLeft, a web site specifically created to push the progressive blogosphere from a purely partisan to a more explicitly ideological posture. The post is a pretty remarkable admission of futility, arguing that progressives can't credibly threaten to derail Obama's agenda, since an Obama failure will be seen as their failure as well:

     Whether or not the Democratic trifecta actually passes progressive
     legislation, the legislation that is passed and the policies that are
     followed will still be perceived as progressive. We simply can't avoid that.

     For example, right now the stimulus package pretty much equals left-wing
     economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people. If it doesn't
     produce results, we are all going to see our ideas become discredited in
     the eyes of the American public, even if we thought policies of the
     Democratic trifecta did not go nearly far enough. The country is never
     going to say "well, that idea didn't work, so let's try a more extreme
     version of it." People just don't think that way in America.

     Many conservatives felt the same way under the Republican trifecta,
     and are now roundly mocked for arguing that conservatism can't fail, but
     people can fail conservatism. I imagine that if the economy doesn't turn
     around, many progressives will sound quite similar in their critiques of the
     Obama administration. Problem is, we will sound just as silly as they will.
     Whether we like it or not, progressivism is on the hook for the success
     or failure of the policies passed under the Obama administration and
     the Democratic trifecta.

With this realization comes the equally frustrated feeling that Blue Dogs and other Democratic "centrists" have superior leverage over the administration and the Democratic congressional leadership, precisely because they (or at least those in their ranks from districts and states either carried by John McCain or narrowly carried by Obama) don't view their political viability as inseparable from the president and the party. Thus they can make credible threats to take a dive on key elements of the Democratic agenda if their demands are not met.

Some liberal groups have been tentatively moving towards a more aggressive posture, most notably in the context of a campaign to push back against "centrist" Democratic and Republican demands for abandonment or significant modification of a strong "public option" in a competitive universal health care system. After being targeted by MoveOn for her opposition to the public option, Senator Kay Hagan came around promptly. And progressives are reasonably optimistic about similar efforts aimed at Dianne Feinstein, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln. Moreover, broader threats from Democratic senators to defect from support for the administration were credited by some with causing Harry Reid's recent instruction to Max Baucus to stop screwing around with the public option in health care reform in order to pursue Republican support.

Still, it's not clear how far any progressive Democrats will go in bucking the White House. Despite significant pressure to vote against the final House version of the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation, which had been significantly modified to gain the votes of rural (and often Blue Dog) members, a revolt from the left on the floor fizzled out (with Al Gore reportedly whipping the Progressive Caucus). A similar revolt on the vote to appropriate funds for Iraq and Afghanistan also failed to strike paydirt.

The left's leverage with the White House and the congressional Democratic leadership is thus limited both by loyalty and by the possibility of being held accountable for the failure of Obama's agenda. This "loyal opposition" to Obama is being forced to watch more-or-less helplessly as the game of chicken between Obama and the "centrists" plays out.

The abiding reality for all Democrats is that the power of the President of the United States to define his own party in this day and age may well be nearly limitless. This doesn't mean intra-party criticism ought to end. But it does mean that this president's success will largely define the success of the Democratic Party for years to come.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.