Barack Obama hasn't even taken office yet, and progressives have been debating his presidency with such energy it almost feels like it's time to start arguing about his legacy. Let it never be said that we're not forward-looking.
Last week, Steve Hildebrand, one of Obama's key campaign aides, took to the Huffington Post to tell the left wing of the party to ease up on criticisms of Obama for not appointing a more explicitly progressive Cabinet; predictable fury, of the "who are you telling to shut up?" variety, ensued. The press was only too excited to rewrite the "Democrats divided!" story they've been penning over and over for the last few decades.
But the truth is that while some have taken exception to some of Obama's appointments, on the whole, progressives are quite pleased with him so far. As former Prospect editor Michael Tomasky wrote, "I'm not nervous or flat-out angry or even concerned. I'm excited. And by the way, the vast majority of the people I know are excited, too." A Pew poll released last week asked whether people thought Obama's appointments were too liberal, too conservative, or about right. A grand total of 1 percent of Democrats said they were too conservative.
So this is a debate taking place within an extremely narrow group of Democratic activists and progressive writers. It reminds me of all the discussion Obama's supporters had among themselves (both privately and publicly) during the primaries and general election that just concluded. He should do this! He should do that! Why isn't he doing the other thing!? What all those secretly wishing they could be whispering into Obama's ear found out was that Obama had a plan, and he was sticking to it, no matter what they thought. Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner spoke for many when he said on ABC's "This Week" soon after the election, "Every time I second-guessed Obama in the campaign, he was right, and I was wrong."
It may not be too pleasant to accept, but while progressive activists may be able to influence the Obama administration on specific decisions, his basic approach to governing is already set. As his campaign made clear, Obama will be pursing an agenda that is as progressive as any particular moment will allow (and the current moment is allowing for some extremely progressive moves, like massive infrastructure spending). But he will be arguing for that agenda in language that may not please his most ardent supporters on the left. He'll be calling it things like "neither conservative nor liberal" and "just common sense." He won't be ridiculing conservatism by name. That is his strategy, and it will not change.
But after being on the outside for so long and working so hard over the last few years, progressives want some love from the White House. They want a president who will appoint strong progressives and pursue progressive policies aggressively. They also want a president who will do it in the name of progressivism, who will stand up and say, "We have to do this, because conservatives are wrong, and progressives are right." But for better or worse, they're not going to get that in Barack Obama.
So which is it, for better or for worse? The goals this administration pursues might or might not be different from those it would pursue if President Obama were speaking in explicitly ideological terms. But we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a more centrist, post-partisan rhetoric, along with some symbolic bridge-building, raises the likelihood that Obama's big legislative goals will be achieved. Calling a fundamentally progressive goal something other than "progressive" gives conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans more room to support it. A spoonful of bipartisan sugar may be all that's needed to make the progressive medicine go down. And with the Democrats holding 58 votes in the Senate (two short of what's required to overcome Republican filibusters), a few votes here or there will be all they need.
In the long term, are results all that matter? Once you do something big -- like a national health-care plan -- it's almost impossible to undo. Republicans are still shaking their fists at Social Security 73 years after its passage, their every attempt to undermine the program beaten back by public opinion. The success of Social Security helped make the passage of Medicare more likely, and the Democratic Party still benefits from being the party that brought Americans both programs.
The flip side of this equation is that failure is punished. While conservatives like to believe that their 1994 takeover of Congress was a result of Bill Clinton's attempt to pass a terrifying government takeover of the health-care system, the truth is that voters were reacting not to the content of Clinton's plan but to his failure to reform health care. The result was a truly dark turn in the country's politics.
So yes, results matter more than anything else. And if Obama can achieve his big goals -- infrastructure spending, a departure from Iraq, health-care reform, and an energy plan built on renewables -- then his picture will be hanging on the walls of Democrats' homes for decades to come, regardless of whether he presented these goals as the soul of pragmatic centrism. If he does all that, he will not only win re-election, he will enhance the future prospects of Democrats at all levels.
But what is the cost to progressivism of a Democratic president who speaks in nonideological terms? These costs are real. Even if the perception of "the center" shifts to encompass progressive goals, progressives will still have a rhetorical mountain to climb. Republicans continue to benefit from the fact that "conservatism" carries a brand identity superior to "liberalism," despite the far greater popularity of liberal policies. Any Republican candidate anywhere can and does say proudly, "I'm a conservative." You don't have to teach people what it means, because they know (small government, low taxes, strong defense, traditional values -- repeated endlessly). Ask Democratic candidates about their ideology, on the other hand, and the most common answer is, "I don't like labels." It makes them look weak and defensive.
And the positive associations with the conservative brand mean that progressives can't use "conservative" as a bludgeon the way conservatives use "liberal." This affects every election and policy debate, where Democrats are constantly laboring to convince the public that they and the things they're trying to do aren't too liberal. Republicans have no such problems. An Obama presidency with policy successes will go part way to solving this problem but not as far as a presidency in which those successes become associated in the public's mind with what it means to be a progressive (or a liberal, if you prefer).
For those of us who believe rhetoric has consequences, this raises the eternal question of political compromise: What are you willing to give up, in order to get some or most of what you want? Though I've written hundreds of thousands of words about the importance of political rhetoric, I'm beginning to think that in some instances, I'm willing to give up rhetoric in favor of results. One example: For me, the most important part of the health-care plan Obama presented during the election -- and the part I'm most worried Democrats will bargain away -- is the public option, giving anyone the choice to buy into a government insurance plan modeled on Medicare. If the public option becomes a reality, you could call it the Strom Thurmond Memorial Health Plan and I wouldn't mind.
That doesn't mean the ideological contours of our political rhetoric aren't still important. For years, I've been writing and saying that it is critical for national Democrats to laud progressivism and vilify conservatism, the mirror image of the rhetorical technique conservatives have used so effectively for 40 years. Few things frustrate me more than hearing a Democratic politician claim to be a "fiscal conservative," with the implication that conservatives are responsible and trustworthy (you won't catch a Republican saying, "I'm a social liberal," even if he is).
But now, for the first time in what seems like forever, we are faced with the possibility of real progressive policy change, in ways that could dramatically affect all our lives. If those policy changes can be achieved, and they do what they're supposed to do, then progressivism will undoubtedly benefit. Some on the left aren't sure they can trust Barack Obama, worrying that his inclusive rhetoric might lead to compromise on fundamental principles. But the proof of his progressivism will be in the policies -- no matter what we call them.