Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The U.S. left and Obama

It's no secret that large numbers of progressives or left-liberals (or whatever label one prefers) are unhappy with Pres. Obama's performance. Although there are some grounds for that unhappiness, I think part of its source may be the high expectations generated by the 2008 campaign. But presidents, especially in recent years (and with the possible exception of G.W. Bush), never behave in office exactly the way their campaigning suggests that they might; they move to the center, for lack of a better phrase, and when the center itself has shifted, or is perceived to have shifted, that will produce disappointments (e.g., in Obama's case, the insufficiently large stimulus package, compromise on Bush tax cut extensions, certain questionable foreign policy decisions, etc.). The disappointments, however, should not obscure the real, if measured, achievements of the Obama admin (e.g., health care reform, saving the domestic auto industry, fulfillment of pledge to end U.S. combat ops in Iraq, two pretty good Supreme Court appointments, etc.). Obama has not changed the underlying structure of the U.S.'s 'winner-take-all' politics (Hacker/Pierson's phrase), but changes to this kind of entrenched system are difficult, to say the least.

Disenchantment with Obama on the left can produce some unhinged judgments, as in this comment from a recent CT thread:

Obama should just do an LBJ. He won’t, of course, but that’s because he’s not as honorable as LBJ.

That is absurd. LBJ decided not to run for re-election in 1968 in the face of widespread discontent among Democrats and others, confirmed by Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, about his Vietnam policy. LBJ began an escalation of the Vietnam war under deceitful pretenses (the Tonkin Gulf resolution) and persisted in a policy that was misguided and morally dubious (to say the least). One can parcel out blame among his advisors and adduce all kinds of sophisticated and probably correct explanations about why LBJ's Vietnam policymaking took the course that it did, but ultimately it was a failed policy for which LBJ, as president, could not escape responsibility. Obama has made no mistakes of anything like a comparable magnitude. LBJ was in many respects a tragic figure; indeed, Eric Goldman wrote a book called The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. No serious person will ever write a book called The Tragedy of Barack Obama. The comparison is groundless.
Historical footnote: On March 25, 1968, roughly a week before he announced he would not seek re-election, LBJ was advised by the so-called Wise Men (elders of the foreign policy establishment including Acheson, Lovett, McCloy) to change tack and start de-escalating (and negotiating). For ultra-hawk Walt Rostow, Johnson's national security advisor, this represented the 'death' of the U.S. foreign policy establishment (see D. Milne, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War [2008], p.222). It was more like the establishment finally coming to its senses.


El Jefe Maximo said...

For once, we are in general agreement. I cannot imagine that serious people on the Left could find reasons to be dissatisfied with President Obama, at least in any meaningful way that would interfere with supporting him next year. For a variety of reasons, I think Obama is as good as it gets for the Left, barring some catastrophic (from my point of view) Black Swan event.

I would disagree with you on the question of whether Obama has made LBJ-scale mistakes, but that is, for the moment, more a function of my different political orientation. If the health-care law proves to be as big an albatross as I think it is going to be, once it begans to take effect and have impact on persons who are satisfied with their private insurance, Obama may indeed be seen as an LBJ-like figure.

Finally, twenty years hence, I would not be at all shocked to see a book entitled The Tragedy of Barack Obama. LBJ and Obama will never be exactly comparable; the vectors of their respective tragedies will be too different, and I suspect Obama will always be viewed more sympathetically. But I believe they will both be viewed as ultimately tragic figures.

LFC said...

Thank you for the comment.

I wouldn't say Obama is necessarily "as good as it gets for the Left," I just think he is not as bad or disappointing as some on the Left believe. (For evidence of that disenchantment w/ Obama on the Left, see e.g. some of the comments in the Crooked Timber thread that I linked.)

hank_F_M said...


At least among those who realize one needs to make compromises to win, they should be very happy. He has always been as far left the situation permitted, even pushing the limit, but those who expect him to commit political suicide to in the name of ideological purity will be disappointed.

While he has not accomplished as much as his supporters hoped, he has accomplished much more than could be expected from some one who was a genuine dreamy idealist but also a party hack in one of the most corrupt political machines in the country , who never won an election against serious opposition until he became President and has people scratching their heads trying to remember just what he accomplished in Illinois.

I think maybe a good analogy, though he would hate it, is George W Bush, who basically expended his last political capital getting reelected. He has problly expended any capital to implement new large prgrams but is the best person to hold what has been done. The next two years (or six) years will be holding what has been accomplished.

The book will probably be The Enigma of Barrack Obama.

LFC said...

I know you live in Illinois but I think most people who don't live there do not think of Obama as having been a party hack in the Dem. machine. On the question of whether he was in fact a party hack, I'll yield to those (including yourself) who know more about Illinois politics than I do.

On the 2nd term (assuming he is re-elected): maybe you're right; on the other hand, 2nd terms can be liberating for presidents since they no longer have to worry about another election (at least in personal terms). A lot will depend on whether the House remains Republican, the balance in the Senate, etc.

(Thanks for link. Will look at it.)