A Hard-Earned Lesson: What Progressives Can Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

To call these past few months Barack Obama’s “winter of discontent” is an insult to the concept of discontent. An indicator of the depth of his trouble: Last week, Anthony Weiner’s old district in New York City went for a Republican contender in the special election for the first time since the 1920s. A bird’s-eye view from the New York Times: “President Obama’s support is eroding among elements of his base, and a yearlong effort to recapture the political center has failed to attract independent voters.” Anecdotally, in the words of a liberal friend who wrote me a wry e-mail after the first Republican debate: “I’m predicting that we will be welcoming President Perry in January 2013.” This isn’t discontent; this is disaster.

There are, speaking reductively, two main strands of thought among Democrats about the president’s plight. One: His first two years were filled with crucial missteps that he could have avoided. Two: He’s a reasonable person who is being blocked at every turn by an anti-intellectual party that mixes irrationality and selfishness in equal measure. Whatever one’s feelings regarding the Republican Party, the Democrats’ first point of view—the fault is not in their stars but in themselves—is probably both the most accurate and the most productive if they want to plan a liberal resurgence.

Politics aside, here are the facts: In January 2009, demoralized by eight years of ideological division and foreign war and reeling from a financial crisis, the majority of Americans expressed a strong desire for unified, pragmatic leadership. Eight years of George Bush had delegitimized his party; a number of prominent members broke ranks and tentatively supported Obama. Today the Republican Party remains unpopular, but it has made massive electoral gains, and the Tea Party movement has succeeded in shifting the conversation away from Republican missteps to a variation of: “Is the government currently corrupt and therefore must be shrunk by 30 percent, or is it hopelessly corrupt and therefore must be gutted altogether?” The president had a moment in 2009, wasted it, and today is so besieged at the ballot box that the conversation is no longer on his terms.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Obama’s crucial, avoidable error was pushing for health-care reform. Polls indicated that Americans weren’t focused on health care; they were focused on Wall Street. Obama had the opportunity to unify the country around opposition to big-moneyed interests by prioritizing serious regulation for Wall Street. Besides the actual beneficial effects of such legislation, the publicity that such a push would have generated might have shifted the national discourse to some interesting new questions, such as: Why has income inequality spiraled these last 30 years? Why do we Americans no longer talk about class, when one percent of the country is effectively governing the rest with their wealth? Why do we assume government is the enemy, rather than unregulated corporations which offer people incentives to conspicuously consume while making enormously risky bets on their expenditures? Ironically, such questions would have likely led to a serious discussion about health care on terms beneficial to the left (i.e., why are we letting these financiers not only affect our economy but ruin our health-care system?). By holding off on his party’s dream of universal health care and refraining from grabbing the obvious glory, Obama might have laid the groundwork for others to accomplish it later.

Instead, the president wasn’t intellectually supple, and he applied an old-fashioned, progressive view: First step Social Security, second step Medicare, third step universal health care. His focus on health-care reform had two immediate effects. First, it shifted the public’s focus away from the workings of business and onto the workings of government, and the sight people saw—labyrinthine negotiations, special exceptions for unions and for Senator Nelson’s Nebraska—was not inspiring. Second, the president lost credibility as a reasonable unifier because his program was manifestly ideological: The fulfillment, as he noted often and proudly, of a hundred-year-old liberal dream. It’s one thing to urge rational debate and bipartisan support when you are being actually bipartisan and sacrificing your wish to the country’s perceived needs; that looks heroic. It’s quite another to say all those things while pushing a contentious program favored by your base; that’s just preaching. The president placed government corruption in the spotlight and lost his common appeal in one move. Into the vacuum stepped a righteous, revitalized right.

There’s currently an understandable obsession over the president’s re-election prospects, but taking a long view, Barack Obama’s second term is somewhat irrelevant. He lost the opportunity to meaningfully shift the national dialogue, and he will be hemmed in by a rambunctious legislature and an unfriendly judiciary. Conservative economics have won the day: Successful liberal leaders like Rahm Emanual and Andrew Cuomo have embraced fiscal restraint while urging social progressivism. As a result, the country continues its long drift toward libertarianism, with a focus on “empowering” the individual through freedom from constraints.

Liberals, especially economic progressives planning for the future, should reflect long and hard on the president’s fall from grace. There was a window of opportunity—and there will be again—to shift the conversation to one where the enemy is not big government and the focus is not simply on “individual freedom.” In order to grasp it, however, progressives will have to think with a flexibility Obama failed to demonstrate.

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