Every presidency has its ups and downs. But this is one seriously rough period not only for the current inhabitant of the Oval Office but for the people who put him there. The economy continues to struggle along, with millions unemployed. There seems no way out of the mire of Afghanistan. The Gulf of Mexico is befouled and will be for years to come. Republican senators -- with the cooperation of a couple of Democrats who know no pleasure greater than screwing up their party's agenda -- have taken advantage of the chamber's legislative rules to make action all but impossible. And it looks like they will take back the House. Conservative interest groups like the National Rifle Association seem more powerful than ever; the lords of finance who nearly destroyed the global economy are raking in record profits after being saved by the taxpayers; and the Supreme Court's activist conservatives are on a tear, doing all they can to smooth the way for greater corporate influence. It is not a happy time.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Remember when Barack Obama's presidency was going to wash over the capital like a cleansing tide, renewing both the government's ability to accomplish great things and restoring the people's faith in that ability? It seems so much longer than a year and a half ago.
All over the country, progressives are gripped by gloom. It's partly directed at Obama (if only he had done this or that, everything would be different) and partly about the fact that the GOP seems to grow dumber and more ideologically radical by the day. But the broader frustration is with a system whose dysfunction and corruption seem worse than ever -- one that seems like it's designed to stop progressive change.
You can see it in influential voices on the left. The blogger Digby described her "slow growing sense of despair over the fact it looks more and more as if the party of Michelle Bachman and Darrell Issa are going to have subpoena power starting next January. ... That outcome is probably what the Democrats deserve. Maybe it's even what all adult Americans deserve." Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote: "Here's the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here's the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick." Eric Alterman began a much-discussed 17,000-word essay on the state of American democracy by writing, "Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment."
Even if you see that cup as half full, it's emptier than we believed it would be. Part of the problem is that progressives thought that they had finally found the president they'd love the way conservatives love Ronald Reagan. After a string of unsuccessful candidates and compromised presidencies, Obama seemed to have it all -- the intelligence, the oratorical skills (no small thing after the previous two nominees), the political savvy, the nerve not to fear Republicans. Progressives liked that the rest of the world was smitten with him, a relief after eight years of a president who seemed to embody everything anti-Americans want people to believe about Americans. And yes, voting for him made them feel good about themselves and about "how far our country had come." It's no wonder that when Obama was battling with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, the prevailing opinion was that he was much more of a "real" progressive than she was, despite thin evidence to support the assertion.
Progressives have concluded that Obama is not exactly the man they fell in love with. We need not go into the entire list of reasons why. There have been some necessary compromises (perhaps inevitable but still painful), some unnecessary compromises, some genuine reversals, and a growing sense that the White House doesn't have much affection for the Democratic Party's base of liberal supporters. Republicans have always been better at the care and feeding of the base; when they are in charge, they work hard to convince the foot soldiers of the right that they're with them. These days, certain White House staff barely bother to conceal their contempt for the left -- and they find reporters happy to pile on the stupid hippies and their naive ideas about how serious people govern.
Was this disillusionment inevitable? "Inevitable" might be a strong word, but the answer is: pretty much, yes. That isn't an excuse for Obama's failures. Just as to be fair we have to give him credit for what he has achieved -- especially health-care reform, which seemed impossible for so long -- we have to hold him responsible for what he's done wrong, from the embrace of so much of the Bush administration's policies on civil liberties to his alarmingly tepid commitment to reproductive rights. But as Alterman writes, "The system is rigged, and it's rigged against us." The constituencies with the most money are always going to have louder voices than those who need the most help. The legislative system, particularly the Senate, gives the recalcitrant minority the ability to stop almost anything from happening if they so choose. Using government to address complex problems and improve people's lives will always be harder than stopping government from doing the same; the forces of the status quo enjoy copious institutional advantages over those who seek change. The net result is that an agenda that pleases conservatives is easier to achieve than an agenda that pleases progressives. A Republican president can pass some tax cuts (never a hard sell), increase defense spending (ditto), stop bothering to enforce regulations on things like environmental protection and workplace safety, and he'll win the love of his supporters. A Democratic president with any ambition, on the other hand, will find his path strewn with one obstacle after another.
We always understood that, but we shoved the understanding to the back of our minds. And now, the unfortunate result of Obama's missteps, trials, and victories too ambiguous for the taste of many could be that progressives end up where they were with Bill Clinton in 1998: only willing to defend the president by pointing to the extremism of the opposition. This tactic is particularly tempting because the GOP has grown so twisted, from the cynicism of its leaders to the ugly, hateful face of so much of its rank and file. And we certainly can have no more illusions about them; a party whose base considers it a good idea that Sarah Palin one day become the most powerful human being on planet Earth is not a group of people from whom one should expect much responsible behavior.
For progressives, the glass of the Obama presidency looks half empty (or maybe three-quarters empty). Just when they thought they'd finally found a president they could love with a full heart, they wind up as conflicted as they'd felt about every other Democratic politician. Though there's a case to be made for looking on the bright side, it's hard to see much cheeriness in progressives' future. Barack Obama's future victories will be greeted on the left with relief, but we won't again see the joy that surged through the land in November 2008.