The Left's Summer of Discontent
Progressives increasingly see Obama as a loser. If so, it's because he is one of them.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Friday, August 12, 2011
Barack Obama's recent political difficulties have proved shattering to many of his erstwhile enthusiasts. One of them is Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.com, who in a column last week declared himself fed up--with America.
The lesson of the debt-ceiling deal, Mr. Weisberg sobbed, is that "there is no point trying to explain complex matters to the American people. The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed." A pithier expression of this lament was the headline of an online column by liberal Republican Charles Fried: "Obama Is Too Good for Us."
It takes an authoritarian mindset to look at a failing leader and fault the people for failing to follow him. But Mr. Weisberg has long harbored suspicions about his countrymen's fitness to be led by the man he described, in an August 2008 column, as "handsome, brilliant and cool." At the time, Mr. Obama was not doing as well in the polls as Mr. Weisberg thought he should have been, given the all-around awesomeness of the junior senator from Illinois. If Mr. Obama lost to John McCain, Mr. Weisberg concluded, it could mean only one thing: America was irredeemably racist.
You heard that a lot in those days, and although Mr. Obama is generally credited with having run a high-minded postracial campaign, he was not above slandering his critics as bigots in an effort to evade scrutiny. "We know what kind of campaign they're going to run," he said at a fund-raiser in June 2008, after securing the nomination. "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"
Just ask Drew Westen, who noted in a New York Times op-ed that Mr. Obama "had accomplished very little before he ran for president," that he "had a singularly unremarkable" academic career, "publishing nothing . . . other than an autobiography," and that as a state senator he "voted 'present' . . . 130 times." Mr. Westen, a psychology professor who moonlights as a Democratic tactician, was spared the charge of racism only because he waited until this past Sunday to reveal those misgivings. In his essay, he acknowledged that in 2008 he was "bewitched" and "enthralled" by Mr. Obama's "eloquence" and thus "chose to ignore" the candidate's deficiencies.
Unlike Mr. Weisberg, Mr. Westen attributes Mr. Obama's adversity to the president's shortcomings, not the voters'. But like Mr. Weisberg, he insists the problem is one of communication. As Mr. Westen tells it, "Americans were scared and angry" when Mr. Obama took office. Like traumatized children, they "needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end." He reproves Mr. Obama for having refrained from identifying "villains," including "Wall Street gamblers," "conservative extremists" and George W. Bush.
In reality, Mr. Obama has been no slouch in the vilification department, regularly demonizing, among others, "millionaires and billionaires," insurance companies, "corporate jet owners" and Republicans, including Mr. Bush. Mr. Westen errs in assuming that normal American adults are as easily enthralled as he is by political fairy tales. He also criticizes the president for not having dispensed with opposition by instructing congressional Republicans in 2009 "that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement." Was he asleep when the ObamaCare steamroller went by?
Not everyone on the left is disillusioned by Mr. Obama. Some viewed him all along as insufficiently progressive--as a "centrist" (septuagenarian radical Tom Hayden) or a "moderate conservative" (former Enron adviser Paul Krugman). A former MSNBC host groused this week that the president "is the world's worst negotiator and has absolutely no interest in fighting for progressive principles."
Actually, Mr. Obama botched the budget negotiation not because he wouldn't fight but because he didn't know when to give in to minimize his losses. He stubbornly clung to his demand for a tax increase long after it was clear that was a deal breaker, yielding only when the alternative was to risk imminent catastrophe.
By contrast, Bill Clinton never even made such a demand in the budget battles of 1995-96, from which he emerged victorious. Later he worked with the Republican Congress to enact conservative policies, including welfare reform in 1996 and a cut in the capital gains tax in 1997.
Mr. Clinton was ideologically flexible, whereas Mr. Obama is rigid. Yet the left stuck with Mr. Clinton even through his impeachment. Everyone loves a winner, and progressives are angry and disconsolate with Mr. Obama because they increasingly see him as a loser. But if the president is a loser, it is precisely because he is one of them.
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