Publisher's Note — December 19, 2012, 4:42 pm

Liberals Back to Giving Obama a Pass

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal.

If I were to describe a president who escalated a cruelly pointless war, raised more than twice as much campaign money from large individual donors as from small ones (including more than $27 million from lawyers and lobbyists), engaged in widespread violations of civil liberties and the Constitution, and whose most vaunted legislative achievements were to protect banks and pave the way for transfers of large amounts of money from the public treasury to private insurance companies, you would probably assume I was talking about a right-wing Republican.

But I’m talking about President Obama, a Democrat, and more than a month after he defeated Mitt Romney for re-election, I remain mystified by the hysteria that took hold of liberals when it appeared, briefly, that he might lose. Liberal guilt over the president’s numerous broken pledges and his early passivity in dealing with a discredited Republican minority can partly explain the outraged tone of the American “left” whenever it got the chance to blast Romney.

At the same time, attacks on Obama from the far right provoked reflexive defenses from people disgusted by such idiotic paranoids as the “Birthers.” However, this doesn’t entirely account for the cravenly soft treatment accorded the incumbent over the past four years. And now that Obama appears poised to push substantial parts of Social Security and Medicare over the “fiscal cliff” — in exchange for a paltry, largely symbolic, increase in the top marginal income-tax rate — we might ask whether liberals will once again rise to Obama’s defense, no matter how indefensible his actions.

For a time I subscribed to the idealistic notion that the half-black Obama offered, above all, redemption for liberals — redemption from the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and other expressions of racism. Yoked to Obama’s polite opposition to the invasion of Iraq and mild criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the promise of collective absolution made him a somewhat more attractive candidate than Hillary Clinton. It hardly mattered to his followers that his relationship with the civil-rights struggle was distant, at best; the young Obama did work as a community organizer in a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side.

But once Obama embarked on his openly antiliberal first term as president, I began to wonder if my “redemption” analysis really explained such obsessive fealty from his militant backers. The insults directed at liberals by Obama and his inner circle — for example, the Cabinet appointments of the free-market deregulators Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s characterization of liberals as “retarded” — were so blatantly provocative that I asked myself what it is that liberals have been getting in exchange for their stalwart support. Does Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage make up for the drone strikes that have killed so many women and children in Afghanistan? Are American liberals in fact not liberal. Are they masochists? Or, as Chris Hedges has written, is the “liberal class” quite simply dead?

I don’t know the answer, but two recent cover stories in The Nation magazine serve as conversation starters. The first, headlined “The Grand Betrayal?”, by Robert Borosage, respectfully suggests that the second Obama Administration could well sell out much of what remains of the American welfare state — already badly damaged by Bill Clinton — in an unnecessary rush to prevent the country from falling over the fiscal cliff, which Borosage rightly calls an “ersatz crisis.” As Borosage puts it, for Obama and the Democrats “to turn to deficit reduction now would be a great betrayal.”

But why does Borosage use the conditional tense when this is precisely what Obama said he intended to do in his victory speech on November 6? Rather than rally the joyous troops assembled in Chicago with calls to restrain and regulate America’s grotesquely engorged claque of super-rich financiers, the president said he looked “forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together — reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” Well, I’m all for deficit reduction. But if this speech was inspiration for liberals then I’m a member of the Tea Party.

Obviously, Obama isn’t anything like what liberals have fantasized; his alliance with the reactionary, pro-corporate Daley machine should have made this obvious from the start. And some on the left appear to know it, even as they beg their hero to behave more like the “progressive” they imagined him to be. The current issue of The Nation recycles Borosage’s oddly innocent tone with a cover story titled “How to Save the Democratic Party” in which L. R. Runner correctly states the obvious: “Progressives and principled liberals need to face an essential truth: the Democratic Party, as now constituted, is no longer an agency for realizing their ideals.”

But then Runner lets Obama and certain important Democrats off the hook: “The problem is not President Obama or any other individual leader, but the Democratic Party itself.” What does this mean? That Obama has no capacity to act? That the corrupt and malevolent Max Baucus (D.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, doesn’t influence tax and trade policy and didn’t write “Obamacare” to favor insurance companies? That New York senator Charles Schumer (D.) doesn’t represent Wall Street’s interests on Capitol Hill? These days liberals seem to flee confrontation with anyone who calls himself a Democrat. Thus we see virtually no primary challenges from the left, no threats to bolt the party, hardly any public protests, and no boycotts of the Democratic Party’s fundraising apparatus.

As Robert Caro’s latest installment of his Lyndon Johnson biography relates, a very regular, organization Democrat like Lyndon Johnson can makes good things happen if he puts his mind to it. When in the wake of the Kennedy assassination “wise” advisers told the new president to go slow on civil-rights reform — “that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be” — Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Today, we might ask what the hell are liberals for? Apparently, not a hell of a lot.

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  • sad.bull

    You answered your own question. The LIberal Class is dead dead dead. All that’s left is Clintonian pragmatists who, as far as I can tell, only exist to reinforce the validity of the Republican party’s moronic policy decisions/ideals for the last two decades. Read Chris Hedges’ eulogy in Death of the Liberal Class. It is not a totally convincing argument, but persuasive to say the least. We liberals are all complicit in our failure to combat this two party oligarchy, and your article does little to assist us in that endeavour. Go back to the writing board and call me when you gotta plan better than Occupy.

  • Joel Reinstein

    Gee, maybe it’s time to leave liberalism behind and join the radical left? Or at least acknowledge that we exist? SYRIZA in Greece got 27% of the vote in a parliamentary democracy, and are currently the second-largest party in that country. Though silenced and ignored, their counterparts here in the US are growing in number as liberals realize the hypocrisy of their blindly humanist, capitalist position.

    Take another look at socialism and anarchism. Take another look at racial identity politics, at feminism, at queer theory. Read some Marx, read some Freire, read some Arundhati Roy. Or keep being unable to call a spade a spade with your neoliberal, Imperialist President, even when you criticize him. The President and his party are VERY liberal, for the same reasons you call him “antiliberal.”

    • Christopher Hartly Holte

      Yeah, you guys can go and be the teabaggers of the left. Go for it. Want to Marginalize the democrats and end democracy. Keep with the stupid tactics and worse strategy.

      • Christopher Hartly Holte

        And how are you going to unify? Wealthy gay folks don’t care about labor, and labor is majority conservative on social issues. If you can’t agree to disagree and insist on the fantasies you are as loco as the right.

        • willibro

          Good question. Maybe we can just get by on the Obama technique: “Look at those evil nutjobs over there. What choice do you have except me?”

        • jonabark

          Obama Democrats are the ones living in a fantasy. In this world there is no global warming, no growing police state spying on citizens, no targeted killings and war crimes covered up, no administration working for the too big to fail bank fraudsters, no war spending decimating social security. The essence of this philosophy is passivity, perhaps the least admirable of all human qualities.

        • jonabark

          As far as how to unify. How did FDR do it. Most poll show the majority want single pay healthcare for all, 80% opposed the bank bailouts, a strong majority want out of the wars and reduced military spending. There is plenty of majority grounds to build a popular progressive politics. The problem is not a lack of unity on progressive issues but lack of a political party interested in those goals. It is easier take the corporate money and lie like cool cat Obama while the planet burns with a high fever.

      • willibro

        Why shouldn’t we marginalize the Dems? It’s not like they’re doing anything but marginalizing the left. As for ending democracy: Tell it to the president who murders American citizens without due process.

      • H.P. Loathecraft

        Better there should only be center-right, right and far-right in the world? Good luck surviving on that planet.
        If there were no radical left there never would have been an FDR or a middle class or a labor movement or a women’s movement. Aristocracy and indentured servitude.

    • Kommu

      Arundhati roy seriously? In the same sentence with marx? I’m amazed to know that some american thinks she should be read. She is one of the worst things the indian phony left intelligentia ever produced.

  • Vic Ashley

    “Thus we see virtually no primary challenges from the left, no threats to bolt the party, hardly any public protests, and no boycotts of the Democratic Party

    • Rabbit

      Democrats know their guy is protecting Bush and droning kids. They know. They voted for him anyway. Democrats support war crimes. They just can’t admit it. To themselves or anyone else.

  • Jacqueline S. Homan

    All of the problems with the liberal class that Christopher Hedges mentions are the natural result of patriarchy. End of.

    • michiganwoman

      And Nancy Pelosi selling out ideals.

      • Jacqueline S. Homan

        Just because there are a token few women who were granted SOME privileges up the patriarchal ladder does not mean that such sell-outs are not being pressured to bow to the dictates of the phallocracy.

        • michiganwoman

          But when they do have such a position, as does Leader Pelosi, then one (particularly a woman) would expect that after such a spectacularly vicious victimization of women in American history- that you so achingly and aptly portray- she would not front for a take-down of Social Security in any form. My heroines STAND. Otherwise, I quite agree with you and women need to pay attention to such discrimination. It abounds.

      • Jacqueline S. Homan

        And more to the point, poverty and all the injustices now being visited upon working class white males were a fraction of what POOR WOMEN have been suffering all along, even during the “better days.”

        White working class union men with middle class paychecks and health and dental benefits and retirement plans never wanted POOR women to have anything. They begrudged poor women the same jobs that they felt entitled to while also begrudging us paltry, inadequate welfare checks on

  • Christopher Hartly Holte

    This is stupid. We are in the middle of a fight. Naturally most of us (but not all!) are not with Obama 100% on all things, but if we aren’t with him 100% then we are really with the teabaggers because we are engaging in unfriendly fire to show how macho (and stupid) we are. I’m tired of people doing the macho thing and forgetting that not even all of us agree on everything; and that everything is not equally important — and that the conversation has been moving the wrong way. Change the issue from budgets to jobs and we get a balanced budget and jobs. But right now the Republicans have setup and chosen the battlefield. Runner isn’t doing the analysis, but neither are you. Obama is trying to get half a loaf, when the sequestration defenestres the entire loaf. No Wonder the Repugs are going home! They know that we’re spending too much on DoD anyway so the cuts there don’t matter. But the other cuts get them what they want.

    • bucklarson

      Why does it have to be “all or nothing”? If we are not with Obama 100% then we’re with the TeaBaggers? This is Bush logic. (You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” And when it comes to these “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations and throwing his mandate under the bus to prove some post partisan nonsense, Obama sure is working on a loaf. A big loaf. I’m being scatological.

  • Rabbit

    I agree with everything you say.

    In ’08 any Democrat could have won. If Bozo the Clown ran Democratic he could have won. I had money on Kucinich. Figured Hillary would screw us just like her old man did. I didn’t like OB. I predicted he would betray voters and have sadly been proved more correct than I wanted.

    It was apparent at the time that OB wasn’t the man for the job. Even Al
    Sharpton called him out. I asked Al if the color of the beast made any
    difference when it was the same kind of beast. I like Al and I don’t blame him
    for not answering.

    Democrats are in denial. I mentioned to an intelligent, thoughtful, Democrat I know that when their guy is guilty of the same war crimes as Bush they support him. Well he nearly lost it. He knows I’m right.

    Their leadership is thoroughly corrupt. That’s ignored like so much else.

    If Democrats have to take Grandmaw and Grandpaw into their houses because a Democrat President cut their SSI then they deserve it for reelecting a war criminal.

    Democrats ain’t Democrats anymore. They think allowing a gay person equal opportunity to drone weddings is human rights and congratulate themselves.
    If a white President can order weddings droned then it’s only right that OB should too..

    It’s a shame really. How far they’ve fallen.

  • Mark A. Siefert

    It’s simple: Liberals backed Obama despite his obvious flaws because he wasn’t a crazy Republican, a situation that suits the Dems just fine. The Democrats have found that Clintonesque centrism the safest way to win elections and stay in office. So Obama will campaign to the Left-leaning base, but governs to the right to keep the undecideds, moderates, and few remaining conservatives in his own party happy. I mean, what are American liberals going to do when the Democrats don’t deliver on their promises to them? Vote Green? Yeah, that worked so well back in 2000.

    Of course, that means that the environment will continue to becoming inimical to human life, women and gays will lose rights at the state level, the religious right will sneak Creationism into our public schools, and the 1% will continue to suck up more and more wealth at the expense of the rest of us because the Democrats will refuse to do anything about it lest it threatens their next election bid. Buy hey! Romney would have been worse!

  • Doyle

    Conservatives are just caveman whores. They can’t think, so they express what people tell them to think. Middle-class and poor Republicans will hold a telethon to raise money for the richest Americans while they become poorer because they’re idiotlogues A sucker is born every minute while those same suckers go down the drain, hoping something trickles down to them.

  • Tim Kr

    I think there may be a lesson here…somewhere…

    Nothing changes because at election time Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians, etc. all fall for the same logical fallacy: “I need to vote for *my* guy, despite his obvious flaws, because *their* guy would only be worse…”

    I think that in order to change the current paradigm of leviathan government we, as an electorate, need to stop two things: identity politics (both internal and projected) and political issue grouping. This first (identity politics) goes to the point above. Why identify as a republican or democrat in the first place? Why let a potential candidate’s party affiliation cloud your interpretation of how their views on issues that matter to you align with your views. Why not simply be beholden to issues that you care about and vote for the candidate in-line with those views whether democrat, republican or third party? By allowing them to group us into neat little camps…and by returning the favor and projecting alignment, perhaps unfairly, unto candidates merely based upon their party affiliation, we allow the government to grow in all areas unchecked. This is because, at their core, nearly all politicians are playing the same game–the only difference being which constituencies receive the goodies.

    The second point, i think, is more important. I read some of these comments bashing conservatives, etc. and i cannot help but laugh at the absurdity. Sure, there are deep, defining differences between liberals and conservatives; however, there are also many, many similarities–similarities which tend to get overlooked in the din of cheap political talking points and group bashing. If only it were tried, I would bet that liberals could find common cause with some conservatives and definitely with libertarians on certain issues that most Americans find abhorrent but continue nonetheless. Take for instance the war on drugs. It is a completely misguided approach to the drug problem…America’s government declaring ‘war’ against its own citizenry. However, there’s enough red meat to attack for all political persuasions to group together on the issue: liberals (decriminalization of certain drugs, effect on impoverished communities, etc), conservatives (cost to benefit ratio, cheaper and more successful to treat than to incarcerate), and libertarian (militarization of police force, infringement of private property rights through forfeiture, etc.). Unfortunately, because we as a citizenry continue to allow the demagogues in both the press and politics to debase the issues into merely a zero sum right vs. left (dem v. repub) political calculation, nothing gets resolved at the federal level. And how do we punish such demagoguery? By continuing to group ourselves for their manipulation and control.

  • signalfire1

    Both candidates sucked. The real story, not exactly well known, is the fact that there were numerous wonderful third party candidates who were restricted by the two party fascist system from competing on even ground. It’s not about what’s good for the country, or even giving people a chance to see who else is nuts enough to want to be president, it’s about picking the lesser of two evils.

    That said, Mitt Romney of the ‘he didn’t really want to be president anyways’ campaign, would have been an unmitigated disaster. Enough with the political dynasties presuming they have a fast track to power and the history books. The only thing Romney wanted was his portrait up somewhere in a hall next to Washington’s. Wasn’t one stupid prez in the century already enough? Someone told him he was gonna be president cuz by golly gosh gee whiz, it’s in the Mormon doctrine here somewhere. Can we please have mental health evaluations of these morons before they run? Please???

  • sosus

    Thank you for the truthful piece, Mr. MacArthur. Unfortunately, the ersatz Democrats in consort with the ersatz Republicans are in fact oligarchs all. Welcome to the plutocracy that Clinton advanced exponentially when he coopted Republican policies (and Newt still hasn’t gotten over it) and transformed the once-Democratic Party into the new version, Clinton-style. Bush-Cheney took the establishment of plutocracy to an unprecedented and breath-taking level, so breath-taking that Democrats couldn’t even cough up the words “impeachment” or “treason” while they were raising their hands to vote WITH Bush-Cheney. Then came Obama and we have the very embodiment of the most cynical, corrupt politics I can remember – since Nixon. There is no Democratic Party, nor any Republican Party. There are oligarchs and they are selling us down a river that is heavily polluted with every poison they can put into it. America is still busy worshipping Clinton and Obama even while being betrayed with wanton abandon; if it’s done with a charming smile and some cute phrasing, America doesn’t seem to mind. What fools “Democrats” be and, to the uber Machiavellian Clinton’s credit, like all con-men, he could spot a mark – a fool – a mile away and take advantage. Obama, a la Clinton and a la Chicago, knows how to work the crowd and how to work the powers BEHIND the curtain.



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