It isn’t hard to find discontent with Barack Obama on the left, so long as you know where to look. The list of particulars is both specific (National Security Agency spying, drone assassinations, toothless Wall Street reforms, flirtations with a “grand bargain” to reduce entitlements, huge numbers of deportations) and general (not enough fighting spirit). The promise of 2008 was left behind long ago on a trail of compromises and policy reversals. Adolph Reed Jr. wrote a cover story for Harper’s earlier this year excoriating the president and the milquetoasts who still support him, arguing that Obama’s election was “fundamentally an expression of the limits of the left in the United States—its decline, demoralization, and collapse.”
Given the political roller coaster of the last decade and a half, liberals would be forgiven for feeling worn-out, even cynical. The 2000 Florida debacle was followed by the aftermath of 9/11, when liberals who questioned George W. Bush’s policies were bludgeoned for alleged lack of patriotism. Then came the madness of the Bush administration’s campaign for the Iraq War, the war itself, and Bush’s re-election, with yet another awkward Democratic nominee steamrolled by the Republican machine.
During those years, liberals felt beaten down and sidelined. “We’re history’s actors,” a senior Bush aide (widely believed to be Karl Rove) told journalist Ron Suskind in 2004. “And you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’’ The idea that a Democratic candidate could lead a liberal renaissance seemed absurd. “There are those who say that John Kerry isn’t liberal enough,” firebrand Jim Hightower said at the 2004 Take Back America Conference. “I don’t care if John Kerry is a sack of cement, we’re going to carry him to victory!” It was not a stirring endorsement.
At the same time, signs of a renaissance could be seen. In Washington, wealthy liberals began funding enterprises to rebuild progressive infrastructure, with organizations like the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America growing rapidly. Outside the Beltway, the “netroots” took hold while Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hinted at the potential of digital organizing. It seemed like a rebirth, spurred on not just by loathing for Bush but by a common desire to create a new left. In 2006, Democrats took back both houses of Congress. Then came 2008, the most extraordinary election anyone could remember.
Millions of liberals were enraptured by a candidate who embodied the way they wanted to see themselves. Here was a liberal for a new century: young, multiracial, urban and urbane, cosmopolitan and erudite and cool. He made liberals feel things they hadn’t felt in a long time, and perhaps most important, convinced them that they were no longer the victims of American politics. They could be actors, steering the country into a new age.
The idea of liberals shaping history through a common enterprise did not just run through Obama’s rhetoric; it was woven into his campaign and drew unprecedented numbers of volunteers. For a while, it seemed like that liberal promise would be fulfilled in his presidency. Obama had a spectacular string of legislative successes, starting with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the first bill he signed) and continuing through the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But then came the disastrous 2010 election, the rise of the Tea Party, the transformation of the GOP into a machine of obstruction heretofore unseen in American history, and a descent into a particularly nasty kind of gridlock.
This period in the history of American liberalism—covering the Bush and Obama presidencies—looks like one of extended misery, followed by an explosion of hope, followed by disappointment and dismay. As for Obama, we now understand that he was never quite the liberal many believed him to be. He kept his promise to get the U.S. out of Iraq and set a schedule for leaving Afghanistan, but he also expanded the use of drones for targeted assassinations. Had Edward Snowden not revealed the shocking extent of National Security Agency spying, there is little reason to believe Obama would have reined it in. While he has advocated comprehensive immigration reform and allowed young “dreamers” to stay in the U.S., his administration has also deported many more immigrants than George W. Bush’s did. He has spoken pointedly about economic inequality but has done little about it. While he has taken potentially significant regulatory actions on climate change, they are not likely to catch up with the increasing urgency of the problem.
If Obama is a transformative figure, it isn’t in the ideological way he seemed after his election, when Time put him on its cover, photo-shopped to look like Franklin D. Roosevelt, over the headline “The New New Deal.” Again and again, liberal hopes have run up against Obama’s pragmatism, his tendency to fight when victory seemed a better-than-even proposition but to retreat—abandoning the public option in the Affordable Care Act, keeping the prison at Guantánamo in business—when the costs seemed too high. “There’s a realization,” says Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization that works to promote and assist progressive candidates, “that this is not a bold, progressive president. He’s ultimately not going to be a game-changer when it comes to taking on the powers that be.”
Green doesn’t deny the reality of unprecedented Republican obstructionism, but he doesn’t see it as an excuse, either. “Some traditional Democrats, low-information people, are willing to give him a pass and say, ‘Oh, the Tea Party got in the way,’” he says. “But those who are more of the progressive movement and look at this through a more sophisticated lens see that there was a fundamental lack of willingness to fight in the beginning of his presidency that had ripple effects throughout.” The White House has from time to time made it clear that it dislikes liberal activists as much as the activists dislike it. As former press secretary Robert Gibbs put it, the “professional left … wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
But that mutual suspicion (and even contempt), intensely though it may be felt in some quarters, is largely invisible to the broader Democratic electorate. Obama’s approval ratings among Democrats haven’t moved much over the entire course of his presidency, from the highs of the “honeymoon” to the lows of the last couple of years. Obama’s overall decline in approval, from the 60s in early 2009 to the mid-40s now, has occurred almost entirely among Republicans and independents. Gallup, which tests presidential approval constantly, showed Obama with an average approval of 88 percent among Democrats in 2009, his best year. In his worst year, 2011, he was at 80 percent, hardly a dramatic plunge. As a point of comparison, Bill Clinton’s average yearly approval among Democrats ranged from 75 percent in 1993 to 88 percent in the impeachment year of 1998, when partisan wagon-circling was at its height.
Liberals and Democrats are not the same thing, of course, though the former is largely a subset of the latter. Obama’s approval among self-identified liberals has always trailed his approval among Democrats by a few points, but that figure hasn’t fallen precipitously either. In 2009, it averaged 85 percent; in 2013, it averaged 75 percent.
There are many reasons someone might answer that poll question in the positive or negative, but in general, the number of people on the left side of the spectrum who express dissatisfaction with Obama has always been relatively small, and it still is. But what about those eager volunteers swept away by the poetry and promise of the 2008 campaign? Are they bitter and disillusioned by what’s happened since? Hahrie Han, a political scientist at Wellesley who has a forthcoming book about the organizing efforts of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for which she and a colleague interviewed dozens of Obama volunteers, says that even in 2008, the 2.2 million people drawn in to volunteer didn’t necessarily have stars in their eyes. “A lot of what we find is that even if people may have initially come to the campaign because they were attracted by Obama and his policy positions or his biography or some aspect of him, they stayed because of the commitments that they built to other people within the campaign,” Han says. The up-and-down of the Obama experience—a magical campaign followed by a hard slog of governing—hasn’t necessarily produced dismay.
Han says the most committed 2008 volunteers, the 30,000 who devoted serious time and attained some kind of leadership role, are anything but disillusioned now. That’s true even though turning the Obama campaign into a permanent organization able to mobilize volunteers on policy issues proved more difficult than motivating people for an election campaign. Obama for America became Organizing for Action, and despite periodically touting its supposed organizing achievements, the group announced in May 2014 that it was cutting its 200-person staff in half. Nevertheless, Han says, the campaign volunteers “have a different perspective on how to deal with setbacks in the policy goals they wanted. ... Because they were able to develop a newfound sense of their own agency, their response when politics doesn’t go the way they want or when Obama doesn’t do what they want isn’t necessarily to step back and say, ‘Gee, that stinks,’ but instead to say, ‘Hey, what can I do about it?’” Nor does she think future Democrats will have trouble organizing those volunteers. “If another candidate comes along that gets them engaged along a variety of social and relational dimensions, I think these people are probably just as likely to get involved as they were before.”
Part of the reason may be that both liberals and Democrats see compromise as an unavoidable part of governing. The Pew Research Center regularly asks respondents whether they prefer politicians who make compromises or who stick to their positions; at the start of Obama’s second term, 59 percent of Democrats said they preferred the compromisers, compared to only 36 percent of Republicans. They’ve asked the question in various forms going back to 1987, and the numbers change little over time. Not only do Democrats rate compromise higher than Republicans, they were nearly as likely to do so when George W. Bush was president as they are now. Perhaps most important, conservative Republicans are more likely than moderate Republicans to prefer position-stickers, while liberal Democrats are more likely than moderates to prefer compromisers.
The more committed Democrats are precisely the ones willing to accept compromise. Which is why, though there is majority support for most items on the liberal agenda, even reliable Democratic voters don’t view their policy positions as composing a tight ideological system with borders that must not be crossed.
When liberals look at the problems in Congress and the shortcomings of the Obama administration, they don’t necessarily see an ideological failure, let alone a betrayal. They’re more likely to attribute the problem to Republican obstructionism, the power of moneyed interests, or a failure of competence. Leftist writers may see Barack Obama as someone who fooled supporters into thinking he was more liberal than he actually was, then showed his nature immediately by appointing a team of Wall Street stalwarts to steer his economic policy; in contrast, ordinary liberals’ disappointment stems more from the anemic economic recovery and from all the problems not yet solved.
Why the difference? Consider what regular people hear from the people they trust to explain the political world to them. When Republican leaders in Congress make an ideological compromise or accept half a loaf to get a bill passed, they come in for heavy criticism from the ideological border guards of the right. Those border guards have huge audiences, and thus power. Rush Limbaugh, who regularly criticizes Republicans for being insufficiently ideological, has an estimated total audience of 14 million (though the number listening to his show at any one time is probably closer to 2 million), and there are a half-dozen other conservative radio hosts with a similar perspective whose audiences number in the millions. Republican fecklessness will come in for criticism on Fox News, and members of the conservative political elite with the ability to command media attention, like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, will also have their complaints heard.
But when a Democratic president makes a similar ideological compromise, where will the backlash come from? Some lefty bloggers and writers, certainly, and radio hosts with dramatically smaller audiences than their right-wing peers. The members of Congress who will be critical are those usually ignored by the media.
In these two parallel situations, when their party’s leaders stray off the reservation, Republican voters hear a chorus of condemnation from sources they trust. Democratic voters hear mostly defenses of their president when he fails to hold the ideological line.
“I don’t know that [Democrats] have an in-depth understanding of where the party is on their ideological concerns and whether they’re being let down,” says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. The Democratic voters she talks to are certainly unhappy with Washington, but it isn’t because they feel Obama hasn’t been true to liberal ideals; it’s because of continued economic difficulty. Among them, she says, “there also is a disappointment around government effectiveness. So you have all this money that was spent, starting with TARP, the stimulus, and cash for clunkers, and then health-care reform, and it just doesn’t feel to a lot of people that it made a huge difference in their lives. And they’re the ones who believe in this stuff.”
That’s why the biggest blow Obama delivered to the liberal project may have been the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, which did more than cause delays and headaches for people trying to get their health coverage arranged. Months of terrible news showed the public a Democratic administration failing at governing, the thing it was supposed to be good at. The fact that the problems were eventually worked out only slightly mitigates the effect of a Democratic administration plainly incompetent in implementing a decades-old liberal goal. Of course, Republicans can freely sabotage the law, then use the fruits of their sabotage as proof that it never should have passed in the first place. The same is true of their obstructionism: When government grinds to a halt, it’s only the party that believes in government whose goals go unfulfilled.
Without a doubt, Republicans have made governing somewhere between difficult and impossible. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of effective liberal activism going on, particularly when you look beyond the national level to focus on states and cities. There are drives to raise the minimum wage all over the country, and protests aimed at fast-food companies. Grassroots efforts are cropping up in unusually challenging circumstances, like the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina that formed to take on the blizzard of retrograde actions by a GOP that took total control of the state’s government in 2012.
Candidates will tell you that Capitol Hill gridlock has shifted the focus down to the state and local levels. Liberal Democrat Shenna Bellows, who is challenging Senator Susan Collins in Maine this year, says that as frustrated as people may be with the federal government, state initiatives on issues like same-day voter registration and marriage equality have brought liberals into political activism in ways that can be sustained. “Progressives in Maine have built an amazing infrastructure which has really endured,” Bellows says. She does allow that the spirit of the 2008 Obama campaign was exceptional. “I think the grassroots are still very much engaged,” she says. “What people are more wary of is trusting that one person can effect positive social change alone.”
The states are really where the hot progressive action is,” says Heather Mizeur, the most liberal of the Democratic contenders for Maryland governor this year. In just the last few years, Maryland has seen marriage equality, marijuana decriminalization, an increased minimum wage, a state version of the DREAM Act, and new gun-safety measures signed into law. The death penalty has been eliminated. As Mizeur and I talked about voters’ perceptions of Obama, she rattled off a list of his accomplishments. But when I asked whether Democratic voters found that litany persuasive, she replied, “I haven’t actually had this conversation much other than with you. … It just doesn’t even come up on the campaign trail.”
Every now and then, President Obama will give a speech offering an eloquent defense of liberalism and the power of government to secure liberty and prosperity. Many on the left hear the oratory and ask, “Why can’t he do that more often?” But though it might stir some hearts if he did, it doesn’t result in much political benefit. Researchers have known for decades that a majority of the public are “operational liberals” but “symbolic conservatives.” In other words, they dislike the idea of “big government” in the abstract but love all the things government does. Which is why Democrats talk about programs while Republicans talk about principles—both playing to their strengths.
What’s most surprising about the state of American liberals today, whether or not they’re getting the speeches they want, is how little dissension there is. It wasn’t long ago that people like me were writing books telling liberals to learn from conservatives’ pragmatism and unity. Without a powerful enemy on whom to focus our discontent, fissures within the notoriously fractious liberal coalition should by all rights be exploding into full-fledged civil war. Yet today, it’s not the left but the right that is in upheaval. Obama’s presidency, instead of providing a focus for conservative energies, has driven his opponents mad. As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, trailing the madness, its demands have grown increasingly difficult to satisfy. If your goal is not just to slow government growth but to dramatically scale it back—and you inevitably fail—the guns begin to turn on your compatriots. A movement where ideology always mattered more than politics has become almost obsessed with purity.
This may go some way toward explaining why no serious challenge from the left has emerged to Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential candidacy. While Republicans are sharpening their weapons in preparation for a blood-soaked ideological thunderdome in 2016, only a few Democrats are seriously considering running against Clinton. The most obvious choice for a populist challenge, Elizabeth Warren, has said repeatedly that she won’t be running. Given who Clinton is—as establishment a figure as can be, and no less a pragmatist than the president she served as secretary of state—one might expect liberals to be rising up to find a standard-bearer to oppose her. But they seem to be resigned to her nomination. No anti-Clinton Democratic organizations have formed (though there are already a number of Republican ones), and only Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has suggested the possibility of a run to Clinton’s left (though former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, who is to Clinton’s left in some ways and to her right in other ways, is also considering a run). Polls taken this early may not tell you who will win the nomination, but they don’t demonstrate much anti-Clinton feeling; a recent CNN poll found only 13 percent of Democrats saying they would prefer a candidate more liberal than Clinton, and a Bloomberg poll showed 78 percent of Democrats wanted her to run.
Clinton’s appeal isn’t that she’ll be the most reliably liberal president (her husband certainly wasn’t, and she has yet to detail any differences the two have on policy issues). Instead, she’ll be offering primary voters an updated version of what she presented them in 2008. Back then, she argued that she was smart, informed, experienced, and hardheaded enough to power through Republican opposition to liberal goals. It wasn’t so much that Democrats didn’t believe that she was those things; rather, a majority of them were attracted to the newer, more compelling candidate who promised something romantic and transformative.
Democratic voters (and volunteers) whose idealism has been tempered by reality may be just what Clinton needs. If one effect of the last five years has been to diminish liberals’ expectations of what the president can accomplish, then the rest of what Clinton has to offer may look like more than enough. After witnessing the ferocity of the Obama-haters, no one can argue any longer, as some did in 2008, that a Clinton presidency would generate a unique amount of Republican opposition. Perhaps Clinton’s seemingly unassailable position atop the 2016 field (granting that it could change; she looked just as formidable eight years ago) points to a sobered Democratic electorate.
This may also help explain the striking lack of intraparty infighting on the left at this moment in history. If progressive activism on the state and local level isn’t focused on internal Democratic battles, that’s a good thing. Progress on the issues that touch citizens’ lives becomes more likely as infrastructure is built and grassroots activists are pulled into effecting change in their communities—an urgent task, given the decline of labor unions. If Republicans want to tear themselves apart in internecine war, they should have at it. Liberal intellectuals, for whom slights are long remembered and compromises loom large, will continue to debate the ideological character of Barack Obama’s presidency for years to come. That debate is worth having for any number of reasons. But the millions of liberal Americans who put Obama into office and returned him there think they have more important things to worry about.
This article is from the July/August 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.
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