[Publisher’s Note ]Liberals Back to Giving Obama a Pass | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

What are liberals for?

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.

More from