Huffington Post

Progressives and Evaluating the President

[My latest for the Huffington Post.]

I am no one's disciple. However, any attempt at an objective view of both the progressive and broader accomplishments of the Obama administration has been histrionically, unfairly and chronically mislabeled as the blind allegiance of an "Obamabot" or "Obama apologist." Therefore, because I've been attempting to observe the successes and failures of President Obama and peg them according to both historical precedent and modern political reality, I've been accordingly mislabeled.

That said, the goal of this essay isn't to antagonize or kneejerk in reaction to the most caustic anti-Obama attackers, or to acquiesce to their misguided view of the president and his achievements. In fact, I've been struggling recently to come up with a line of reasoning that will facilitate a sort of Progressive Détente. This post is meant to continue and expand that process -- perhaps in futility, perhaps not.

Like Melissa Harris Perry and others before him, Andrew Sullivan is this week's target of anti-Obama attacks from both flanks of the political debate regarding his cover story for Newsweek in which he makes a case for the successes of the Obama presidency and how critics are missing the big picture -- the "long-view." Far-right fire eaters, in particular Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly and Sarah Palin, have been dismissing Sullivan's post offhandedly because of Sullivan's so-called "Trig Truther" questions about whether Palin actually gave birth to Trig (I hasten to note that the Trig issue is Sullivan's fight and not mine). On the other end of the continuum, anti-Obama progressives have been critical of Sullivan's omission of things like "secret kill lists" and drone attacks.

Much like my view of President Obama's record, I don't agree with everything Sullivan wrote. Specifically, I disagree with the general point that, according to Sullivan, President Obama is a moderate, centrist president. At the risk of begging an "I knew it!" reaction from conservatives, I firmly believe the president has chiefly governed with the same worldview outlined in his second book, The Audacity of Hope: a center-left agenda pursued with a measured, pragmatic strategy. On a finer point, I also disagree with Sullivan's assertion that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) codified the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. It most certainly did not. The NDAA simply didn't ban it. There's a difference. Because a procedure isn't banned doesn't make it suddenly codified.

I hate to have to preface anything with qualifiers like this, but, likewise, I disagree with the president on a number of things despite firmly believing that his record has been successful within the frame of progressivism as well as within the frame of the average American voter. Since it's mandatory to do so in order to be taken seriously these days in certain progressive circles, I vocally spoke out against the debt deal and cautioned that spending cuts would harm economic growth. I argued against anti-gay preacher Rick Warren delivering the invocation at the inauguration. At every mention, I've opposed the continuation of the war on terror and, with it, indefinite detention. I opposed the president signing the four-year renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act. The expansion of TSA body scanners is an on-going source of disgust. I can't get beyond the fact that Joe Biden supported the Bush-era bankruptcy bill. I have repeatedly spoken out against the president repeating the meme that tax cuts create jobs. I wasn't happy with the signing of the NDAA, though not for all of the reasons anti-Obama critics have (often erroneously) enumerated. Oh, and I once wrote a piece here comparing the president to George McFly, for crying out loud. The fits-nicely-into-140-characters reaction that I'm an Obamabot is, at best, inaccurate.

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, though, I've been beating the drum for "smart accountability" in the progressive movement -- a path for the movement to maintain its credibility and a means of consistently holding leadership accountable for its actions, while also not shooting the broader movement in the foot by ostracizing and undermining the most progressive-friendly administration in generations with screechy white noise and perpetually dissatisfied griping.

Petitioning a politically friendlier administration should carry with it a vastly different tone than petitioning an unfriendly administration (obviously, President Obama is the former and Bush the latter). In finer terms, it's easier to convince a center-left president to take on a far-left cause than it would be to convince a center-right or far-right president. Therefore progressives should make a case for their position to the friendlier leader without seeming irrational or unreasonable. And if dissatisfaction isn't modulated and tempered, and, instead, progressives lapse into apoplexy at every headline, their views get lost in a cacophonous blast of nothing. To the people tasked with actually moving ideas through the sausage factory of government every day, it's very easy for the constant loud noises to be met with, There goes the left -- they're screeching again. Ignore. For similar reasons, the administration will never really listen to the ceaseless and dissonant cannonade from far-right talk radio, which is so consistently off the rails and hysterical, there's no foothold for discussion or understanding. So why bother?

The better approach with this president, instead, is to simply make an effective case for a position, point by wonky point, without the nonsense (i.e. "worse than Bush," and the like). For example, during the health care reform debate, Steve Benen wrote a memorandum and delivered it to the Democratic leadership, and, as I recall, the White House used some of Benen's suggestions. Additionally, the White House has created an online petition system and, as we witnessed with this week's administration decision to opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), they actually pay attention to the results.

As I've written numerous times here and elsewhere: this president's biography indicates that he responds to reasoned, rational discussion, and there is nothing in his biography indicating he reacts to shouting. Nothing.

In a larger sense, the most effective means of influencing policy is to go door-to-door and convince voters on the ground that progressive government is better for America. Do the hard work and make it easier for conservative Democrats to vote for liberal legislation by changing voter opinions in those districts. Screaming at the president on your Facebook might feel good and it will certainly generate comments, but it might also be the least effective means of creating a more progressive government. The only thing it achieves is to foment half-informed group-think rage and, ultimately, apathy if not outright contrarianism.

I fail to understand why it's somehow robotic or mindless to applaud as well as to jeer. Rachel Maddow, for her part, has been highly critical of the president when criticism is deserved, and she's also never shy about pointing out his successes. I don't think any sane progressive would suggest that Maddow is an Obamabot. In fact, I can't think of a more effective reporter, journalist and, yes, storyteller on television. But more than anything else, Maddow has shown an aptitude for fairness and reality in a cablecast parade of cheap shots and ratings stunts. Her balancing of applause with constructive criticism is something to be admired and replicated throughout the rest of the progressive movement.

Indeed, there are many things about the Obama administration's record to applaud. Significant things. In response to Sullivan's essay, his former colleague at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, wrote a scathing rebuttal in which he listed 14 foreign policy items that he assumes Sullivan and others would vocally oppose if they came from a Republican candidate for president. By the way, Friedersdorf inexplicably assumes a Republican candidate would promise to do all of President Obama's liberal achievements. I'm not quite sure I followed that analogy.

Friedersdorf's list, including the aforementioned indefinite detention, drone strikes and the hyperbolically worded "secret kill list," is very similar to lists of grievances composed by Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uygur and others including, shockingly, me (see above). 14 things. Taken at face value, they're all pretty heinous. In these areas, it appears as if the president has intermittently succumbed to the dark side of the Force. But how are these items to be squared against an objectively longer list of achievements? In terms of composing a basic numerical list and in terms of substance, should the roster of achievements be discarded in an evaluation of the president and, subsequently, his worthiness for a second term, in lieu of 14 trespasses?

I don't believe they do.

By my accounting, and conservatively speaking (small "c" conservative), there are more than 100 achievements of varying importance ranging from the rescue of the economy from the brink of another Great Depression to the rescue of the American auto industry to the largest middle class tax cut in American history to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. At the very least, and not insignificantly, President Obama's ideas and political savvy paved the way for African-Americans to finally reach the highest political office in the world. The last segregated office is now multi-racial. This can't be understated or ignored. Furthermore, the president just wrapped his third year in office and, much to the chagrin of the far-right, he has at least another year in which to tackle more items on the to-do list.

These items and dozens more are legitimate and undeniable successes, some of them are historically important and many of them are distinctly liberal. Some of them are compromised successes for the sake of passage through a deeply divided Congress and some of them are exacting and untouched. (Various critics note the president had a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic vote supermajority in the Senate for his first two years. This is a fallacy as the Democrats have never been a lockstep caucus. There were at least 10 conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson who vigorously opposed legislation like cap-and-trade and the public option and who often voted or threatened to vote with the Republicans to filibuster such items.)

Historically speaking, no president in American history boasts a flawless record of achievement without dark stains on his record. The chief executive lauded as being the liberal hero of the previous century, Franklin Roosevelt, committed some of the most egregious crimes against humanity in the name of prosecuting World War II, not to mention other, lesser shortcomings. He authorized total war against the Axis powers, giving the military complete latitude to annihilate civilian populations in Europe and Japan using the most deadly weapons of that era. In a modern sense, the firebombing of Tokyo alone would earn Roosevelt an hourly shaming from the progressive blogosphere, if not an outright call for impeachment. Add to it the indefinite detention of the entire Japanese-American civilian population and the authorization/funding of the Manhattan Project ushering in the Cold War nuclear era and progressive heads would be exploding all over the Roosevelt administration's record. But historians, both liberal and unaffiliated, regard Roosevelt in a very different light. The New Deal achievements, Social Security and his posthumous victory in World War II outweigh the questionable deeds along the way.

So despite differences on the progressive side, can't we agree that, in numerical terms if not ideological terms, the victories outweigh the failures by a notable ratio, even if the failures seem, on the surface, considerably disturbing? Therefore, shouldn't a positive evaluation be in order? As a movement that regards itself as being reality-based, a measured analysis is crucial to realistically evaluating the president so far. Admitting to a larger number of successes than failures won't make you less vigilant and it won't make you less capable of holding the president accountable.

On that note, I'd like to suggest that progressives calm down and attempt to have a rational discussion about the areas where we differ, areas where we agree and how to proceed regarding the president. But any sane discussion has to revolve around objective facts and observation. The central question is this: should we undermine the most progressive-minded president in at least a generation and will his failure to attain a second term help or hurt the progressive cause? Will his failure pave the way for a more progressive president or a less progressive president? At the gate of an election year this is the debate on the left. I hold out hope that it will be a unifying one.

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