Narrowing Obama’s Progressive Agenda

We are one year into Barack Obama’s presidency, and the knives are out. There was never a moment of serious doubt on the right: Obama’s election equaled the triumph of socialism, which meant America’s imminent doom. But now the left is in revolt, leveling increasingly vocal—and occasionally vicious—attacks on their standard-bearer for failing to live up to his promises of serious change. From Bob Herbert of the New York Times: “Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted.” Roger Hodge, editor of Harper’s Magazine: “A year and more has passed, yet we have not been delivered.” Facebook friends who under “Political Views” used to be “Obamacrats” now identify as “Progressives.” On the night the left lost a crucial senate seat to truck-driving Republican Scott Brown, a liberal friend’s fitting status update read, “Can’t decide if the Democrats have sucked quite enough to deserve this.” These rumblings from the base are serious. Committed progressives judge their leaders by their commitment to progressive ideals. If they end up deciding that Barack Obama does not a true progressive make—and you can see their minds whirring with growing doubt—then things will get nasty.

More serious still is the news from the electoral front. The President appears to be failing to connect with the broad swath of moderate Americans who aren’t too concerned about ideology but would value tangible results such as economic growth, more jobs, and a smaller deficit. Massachusetts’ senate seat—held by the Kennedys for 50 years—is now in Republican hands. In all fairness, Scott Brown’s Democratic opponent Martha Coakley was not the ideal candidate. This is, after all, a woman who took a jab at Brown for “standing outside Fenway Park in the cold…shaking hands,” which some might consider pretty much par for the course if you want to get elected to high office. Still, the loss was symbolically disastrous. Now the President’s old Senate seat in Illinois is at risk. Moderate voters are registering overwhelming concern about the neglect of job creation and the rising budget deficit in favor of what increasingly seems to be a showpiece health care bill.

So now the question remains: How will the President react? His response is increasingly looking like an odd variation on his predecessor’s “stay the course” mantra. Unlike George Bush, Barack Obama doesn’t characterize himself as “The Decider,” but his State of the Union address two weeks ago was decisive to the extent that he refused to pivot to the center. He admitted failures, which is refreshing in any presidential address, but he didn’t really take ownership of them; just like last year, he implied that the problem lies with Washington, D.C. gridlock. And while he may not have laid out a definite path to pass health care reform, he hasn’t yet given up: “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed.” This is not Bill Clinton who, with his presidency in dire straits in 1994 after another war over health care, declared that “the era of big government is over.” This is Barack Obama, who, as a Republican congressman noted admiringly but anonymously in a column by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal last week, is more “intellectually honest” than Clinton. “He’s not a pragmatist, he’s an ideologue,” the congressman added, which is an interesting comment considering the left’s concern over whether Obama is a progressive or a sellout.

What the President seems to be is a selective progressive, passionate about certain issues like health care and the environment and less concerned with others, most notably the economy and foreign policy (the issues about which both his base and the country are actually most concerned). His priorities are insuring the uninsured and slowing climate change; he leaves Wall Street to the guys who’ve been there, like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. And just because the President’s priorities are to the left of most Americans doesn’t mean that they’re the wrong ones to have. However, what it does mean is that to make them palatable to the public, he needs to broaden the range of his reforms while narrowing their focus.

Obama should hone in on the finance industry and focus on regulation. To an admirable extent, Obama is already doing this, moving away from the Geithner-Summers team line of “we’re fine” and closer to the tougher stance backed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. The day after the Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat (and I’m guessing the timing wasn’t a coincidence), the President proposed regulations that would prohibit investment banks which receive government loans from investing their clients’ money in hedge funds or private equity funds. The key issue, according to economist Austan Goolsbee, is that banks getting a “backstop” from the taxpayer shouldn’t be able to make a profit investing in risky ventures.

Obama should also narrow his health care reforms to specific changes the broad electorate will support. Easy winners include legislation prohibiting insurance companies from refusing coverage based on pre-existing conditions and an extension of the time period during which workers who have lost their jobs can receive group health coverage. Scrapping the current bill will irk Obama’s supporters on the left, to say the least, but they’re already disillusioned with it. Howard Dean, of all people, says the bill is so watered down that Congress should scratch it and start over. And the rest of the country, burdened with two wars, economic anxieties, and a pervasive lack of faith in their governing institutions, might appreciate it if reform came in nibbles rather than bites.

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