The Job Ahead

Thomas Frank, who is one of my favorite guys, slammed President Obama hard a couple of days ago in Right-wing obstruction could have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency’s legacy is failure. The whole article is pretty much in the title. But here’s a bit more —

….In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

At the other end of the Democratic scale, Kevin Drum writes,

I see this kind of thing all the time on the right. If only we had a candidate who refused to sell out conservative values! A candidate who could truly make the American public understand! Then we’d win in a landslide!

It’s easy to recognize this as delusional. Tea party types are always convinced that America is thirsting for true conservatism, and all that’s needed is a latter-day Ronald Reagan to be its salesman. Needless to say, this misses the point that Americans aren’t all reactionaries. In fact, as the embarrassing clown shows of the past two GOP primaries have shown, even most Republicans aren’t reactionaries. There’s been no shortage of honest-to-God right wingers to choose from, but they can’t even win the nomination, let alone a general election.

(Of course you never know. Maybe 2016 is the year!)

But if it’s so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn’t it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don’t be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

I think they both make good points. Yes, President Obama let some opportunities slip by him, especially those first couple of years. He could have done a much better job taking his arguments to the American public and making some leverage for himself.

On the other hand, it’s still the case that right-wing politics dominates our political culture as well as news media, and even for those two years the Dems had a majority in the Senate and House, a big chunk of those Dems were Blue Dogs who voted with Republicans as often as not. He never had a majority of progressives who supported him. So there have always been real and tangible limits to what he could accomplish, no matter what he did.

As for “demonizing the Right” — those people are demons, metaphorically speaking. There is no bottom to their nefariousness.

The public, having been fed a near-pure diet of right-wing propaganda since at least 1980, and I would argue longer than that, is leery of progressive policies. It’s less leery than it was ten years ago, as the financial crisis and subsequent economic hardships softened them up a lot. But progressives still have a lot of work to do to sell their agenda to the public.

I still run into lefties who honestly believe the country was ready to embrace single payer health care in 2009 and it was only President Obama who stood in the way. This is proof that it’s not just righties who live with their heads up their asses.

The truth is that there are big chunks of the country in which progressive voices are never heard except by those who go looking for them on the Internet. Public political news and discourse runs the gamut from Ross Douthat to Ted Cruz to Cliven Bundy. This is not to say that there aren’t folks in those places who might respond well to progressive ideas if they ever heard any. But until that happens, we don’t know.

I’ve been saying all along that it’s going to take a long game, several election cycles, and a lot of work to turn things around. That’s still true.

The priority right now is to be sure Dems keep the Senate, which is do-able. In this we should be following Elizabeth Warren:

Meanwhile Warren, the progressive elected the same time as Cruz, is touring the country campaigning for Democratic Senate candidates, even some who are more centrist than she is, like Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes and West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant. She’s focused on growing the Democratic Party, not cutting down colleagues who are less progressive.

While packing the Senate with less-progressive Dems in order to hold on to it is not ideal, letting the GOP have it would be much worse.

7 thoughts on “The Job Ahead

  1. Yes, it is a bit odd to see the guy who wrote What’s the Matter With Kansas? talk about demonizing the Right. I also agree that Obama could be more aggressive in a lot of ways, but if you look at all his failures and shortcomings, what do they come down to? Failure to overcome the policy of total obstruction that the Republicans adopted (openly!) in 2009.

    For instance, what combination of “nerve, imagination and foresight” is going to induce John Boehner to hold a vote on immigration reform? None. Obama might respond with more nerve, imagination and foresight to Boehner’s refusal to do his job, but it’s a bullshit situation.

  2. The story of Barack Obama, when it is written 50-100 years from now, will sound much more like the story of Jackie Robinson than we would want to believe. This isn’t a president who got an even chance, from his own party much less the opposition. He was also hamstrung by having just too many GD Wall Street guys in his administration when he was dealing with the crash. Guys like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. But he picked them, so….

    Like you point out, the conservatives claim that if only people heard the real conservative message, they would choose it. They have been hearing this ad nauseum for decades and only via propaganda and political chicanery have the republicans been able to hand onto any sense of political power. Are the republicans even politically viable without their hate/fear-mongering media. I don’t think so.

    Evidence seems to show that what the public never hears is the progressive message. When have they ever heard a reasoned argument for socialism? The public also largely agrees with many socialist tenants. If you can moor it away from the fear/hate mongering, and attack it by the issues, most americans come down on the side of the progressives, and not on the side of the conservatives. But, if you ask them if they are liberal or conservative, they overwhelmingly choose conservative.

    And that I do lay at the feet of BO, as the head of the party he should be out stumping for truly progressive ideals like Warren of Bernie Sanders. Unless he doesn’t believe in those ideals, which could also be the case. At which point he would simply be a darker shade of Bill Clinton.

  3. “What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?”

    And the fact is, that the American Presidency is not as powerful as people think.
    A President can sign or veto laws that Congress writes. The President can use his/her “Bully Pulpit” to push agenda’s. But he/she can’t create and manifest those changes – only Congress can.
    And, if there’s enough support, Congress can reverse that veto.
    And then there’s the SCOTUS – where Roberts basically did what he could to let PPACA pass, while at the same time gutting it by allowing states to decide whether they wanted to accept Federal Medicaid money.
    And SURPRISE! A lot of Red States didn’t!

    Frank knows this.
    Or, at least I thought he did…

  4. I agree, to me moderation in all things is the way to go. I don’t think we should be a mirror image of the tea-tards, I think there needs to be compromise from both sides. I saw Nancy Pelosi on Colbert last night and Frankly giving her cart-blanche scares almost as much as giving it to the Boner! What we need in this country is less extremism and more moderation. Right now the extremists seem to be mostly on the right, putting more on the left aint the answer in my opinion!

  5. Forgot to quote what I was responding too?

    “While packing the Senate with less-progressive Dems in order to hold on to it is not ideal, letting the GOP have it would be much worse”

  6. ” This is not to say that there aren’t folks in those places who might respond well to progressive ideas if they ever heard any. But until that happens, we don’t know.”

    While I generally agree with you and Kevin Drum, I would like to point out that the only way some people are going to hear progressive ideas is if they come from the president. People hear him even when they don’t hear anyone else.

  7. Waspuppet, I agree that people hear from the President. I sure wish I heard a lot harder talk from him, dealing frankly with why things don’t get done and pointing out some of the lies being sold by the right. He is far too conciliatory, with people who will never be reconciled to his existence.

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