Two weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed challenging liberals at the Claremont Colleges to justify another vote for Obama in 2012, given that his administration has retained and expanded many of the controversial Bush-era policies that he was elected to dismantle. I didn’t receive many responses, aside from some partisan Internet commentary. So I was happy to open last week’s issue to find an impassioned op-ed defending the president and his accomplishments. While I would like to thank the author for pointing out some of this presidency’s positive features (a consistent support of gay rights after some early waffling, the expansion of Pell grants), I think we can learn a lot about the weak argumentative position of liberals (like myself) by looking at the way the piece is structured.
It begins with the familiar claim that unrealistic expectations are to blame for the president’s perceived failures. With these expectations out of the way, we can presumably appreciate the president’s hard-fought accomplishments, which are detailed in the next paragraph. But those accomplishments still don’t look so impressive, so the next paragraph expounds the merits of incremental political progress and appeals to the future realization of the president’s “vision.” (We are not told what this vision is, just that it will take at least four more years.) In its final act, the article resorts to fear-mongering, projecting vague policy predictions about what the Republican candidates would do based on their admittedly frightening rhetoric.
This is a pattern that I’ve observed among the president’s defenders: an appeal to deflated expectations in light of the Serious Challenges We Face, a defense of incremental progress, and the last-ditch employment of scare tactics to push any remaining skeptics in line. My only surprise is that this article included no mention of the obstructionist Republican Congress.
I don’t blame the author’s rhetorical ability for this failure; she just has embarrassingly little to work with. While I think that most of the accomplishments that the author lists are indeed Good Things, I disagree that they are the result of any kind of strong liberal leadership, or that they represent any significant progressive moves for the United States. The Affordable Care Act ultimately strengthened the private insurance industry that has been the source of so many obstacles to health care access. (This might be a good time to note the law’s striking resemblance to the 1993 plan proposed by Senate Republicans and, of course, to the Massachusetts plan championed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.) And the bailout of the auto industry was no bold political move. It was a choice between a rock and a hard place. More importantly, both the healthcare bill and the auto bailout are symptomatic of a pervasive and troubling administration philosophy: the unceasing willingness—some might say eagerness—to reinforce and strengthen existing structures of power in the service of some vaguely-defined national interest.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this was the reigning philosophy during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. Candidate Obama promised to be an antidote to this philosophy. The fact that President Obama, as the author points out, “has appointed women, Hispanics, blacks, and other minorities to cabinet positions and to the Supreme Court” is not sufficient proof that this promise was kept. Presidents, conservative Republicans included, have been making “progressive” appointments for years. America’s structural inequality remains. Likewise, President Obama has discontinued torture, extraordinary rendition, and downsized Guantánamo Bay, but America’s imperial presence is as strong as ever.
The problem with President Obama is not that his vision has been thwarted. It’s that he doesn’t have one. So I don’t want to hear that the expectations were too high, that the obstacles have been too great, that the alternatives are too frightening. I want to hear the positive case for President Obama, not the negative case. But maybe that’s too much to ask.