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Obama’s Worst Enemy: Progressives?

I hear this argument again and again from democrats: By criticizing the president, you’re undermining his agenda. Funny—he seemed to be doing a pretty good job of undermining his own supposed agenda without my help.

A few days ago, I got into a little tussle with another Huffington Post commenter after agreeing with another commenter who expressed frustration with Obama and the democrats for continuing to fail to deliver on the promises of change at the heart of the 2008 campaign. Specifically, they voted down the amendment to break up the big banks and Obama sat idly by while Too Big Too Fail remained firmly in place. I wrote that this practically guaranteed another financial crisis and taxpayer bailout in the near future—a position that many economists agree with. I was called a “clown” who was “wasting his time” over the “arbitrary size of the banks” when I should have been focused on more important issues like making sure “the government continues to protect deposits.”

What ensued was a back-and-forth that I might have found quite valuable if the guy didn’t insist on attacking me personally, but that’s just the way it goes in the online comment jungle. (The Huffington Post allows you to flag comments that you find abusive, but I don’t believe in doing that. Let people be as vitriolic as they want—they’re only undermining their own credibility by doing so. Plus, I’ve had more than a few comments removed that weren’t abusive at all but merely a little snarky, so I refuse to flag anything. I’m a free speech purist.)

The thing is—I honestly feel this is a debate worth having. Are people like me in fact doing more harm than good by constantly expressing frustration and disappointment with the president and the Democratic Party for not going far enough to solve the problems we believe are the most significant this country is facing? Should we just stand behind the president no matter what, accepting any and all compromises he chooses to make?

I’ll risk a little quote from this guy:

The Democrats have consistently been delivering for the American people; the legislative record for the Congress clearly proves that. And, frankly, outside of not having Guantanamo Bay closed, President Barack Obama and his Administration have been delivering on the change that they promised on the campaign trail. Barack Obama never casted himself as a guy that was running from the left fringe of the Democratic Party and, frankly, I don’t see where all this “frustration of broken promises” from the left is coming from.

Obviously he doesn’t watch The Young Turks, as the host Cenk Uygur—whose political views and attitude are the closest to mine of any other commentator—has been doing a fantastic job of explaining it. On issue after issue, Obama has turned what could have been real change into “pocket change” as Cenk likes to say, and it only naturally follows that “Sometimes, I feel discouraged.”

No need to make a laundry list of the disappointments…well, maybe a little one: No accountability for those who authorized or carried out policies of torture. Instead, a surge in Afghanistan. No public option for health insurance. Instead, a mandate to buy private insurance even though there are no real cost controls. No independent consumer financial protection agency. No support to audit the Federal Reserve. And apparently, no legislation this year to address the climate change issue because it would have to include subsidies for more offshore oil-drilling.

But according to my online adversary, the reason all of these compromises and back-room deals had to be made is because of people like me, and apparently people like Cenk Uygur and every other progressive blogger/commentator who try to push the president further to the left. If it weren’t for “clowns” like us, we would have had a public option, strong financial reform would have already passed by now, work on the climate and immigration issues would already be well under way, we’d be seeing massive economic recovery and job growth, and the troops would be coming home from Iraq with the tide turning in Afghanistan.

Well holy shit, if only I’d known. I guess the right thing for progressives to do would have been to…what? Not demand a strong public option? Not put the pressure on for strong financial reforms including regulation of derivatives, an independent consumer financial protection agency, and an audit of the Fed? When Obama decided to concede to offshore oil drilling before the debate on climate legislation even began, I guess we should have cheered him on. Way to go, Obama! That’s Compromise We Can Believe In! Maybe you should concede even more to the interests of multi-national corporations!

All kidding aside, I just don’t buy it. We’ve got half the country (or at least what feels like half the country thanks to all the coverage they get from the mainstream media) howling that Obama is a socialist and what we need is less government regulation, more freedom for private insurance companies and Wall Street banks, and above all more oil drilling, baby. If these were the only voices we heard, you think Obama would move further to the left? If the political discourse is solely between the center-right and the far-right, it’s absolutely ridiculous to assume that politicians are going to go anywhere near the left.

But I continue to be attacked by Democratic Party supporters who insist I’m being naïve and childish, many of whom have been far more abusive and belittling than this guy. “Who did you think you were voting for?” they say. “Obama never promised to be a progressive president.” As if this matters at all. I criticized Bush from the left, but for some reason I shouldn’t criticize Obama from the left?

During the 60s, didn’t LBJ tell civil rights leaders that he wanted to do civil rights legislation but that they had to “make him do it”? Am I imagining things, or didn’t Obama ask the same thing of progressives when he first took office? That’s the whole point of political criticism—get out there and shout your demands so that the politicians can credibly say they are following the will of the people.

As far as I can tell, the “Don’t criticize Obama” crowd believe just the opposite: that criticism of the president—any criticism—damages his poll numbers and thus feeds into the narrative that he doesn’t have popular support. If we stood by him, however, his approval rating would be higher, and according to my commenter friend:

President Obama, hypothetically, could take those numbers to Congress and clearly argue that the American people are staunchly with him and with his ideas on the way forward, drastically leveraging the bully pulpit to secure more of what he wanted.

What’s missing from this picture? The actual policies we need is what. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the president’s personal approval rating. Look at the poll numbers on the specific issues. The public option consistently had about two-thirds support among the American people—an overwhelming majority in such a polarized political climate. But did Obama—who supposedly wanted a public option—ever take those numbers to Congress and use the bully pulpit to push it through? Not even close. How much support was there to break up the big banks? Enough to get the amendment passed if Obama had wanted it to.

And that’s where I believe these Obama-loyalists go wrong. If Obama actually wanted the things that progressives wanted, we wouldn’t be criticizing him! But instead of rallying support from those that got him elected, he keeps trying to court so-called ‘moderates’ and conservatives as though desperately trying to prove that he’s not the radical socialist they accuse him of being.

This is why I’m coming to believe more and more that he never wanted any of these things in the first place—that he was a corporatist all along whose only agenda was to become the POTUS and do favors for the wealthy and powerful. He tosses a bone to the left every now and then to make it look like he still cares, but if he really cared we’d be seeing a much different White House.

Of course I could be wrong. As I wrote to my comment-buddy:

I honestly hope you’re right and that “clowns” like us are just whining and complaining over nothing, that the Democratic Party really does place more value on the good of the American people than the good of their corporate campaign donors, and that all of this watered-down industry-friendly legislation that’s being marketed as “Change we can believe in” actually does change things and that after Obama’s presidency we’ll look back and marvel at our wonderful health care system, clean environment, risk-free financial system and booming economy—I sincerely hope all of that, and if it happens I’ll be first to admit I was a naive fool for thinking it was all just political theater.

But, more importantly:

That doesn’t mean I’ll regret holding the democrats’ feet to the fire and making sure they knew the perception was out there that they were selling us out. I don’t believe we’re doing any harm—we’re just challenging them to prove us wrong. I hope they do.

I just highly doubt they will.

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