Liberals are dumping Obama. Again. A story on Politico today declares that the left has “revoked Obama’s liberal card” for presiding over a (meager) push to use force against Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria. And that, combined with a slew of previous disappointments—he never pushed for single-payer health care, he let the Glass-Steagall Act wither and die in favor of Dodd-Frank—this is the last straw. “I don’t think that anyone at this point would characterize the president as the progressive warrior that the progressive movement is anxious to see,” Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said.
If the news surprises, that may be because, like a friend who keeps reuniting with his college girlfriend, it can be hard to keep track of when exactly he is broken up with her and when they’re timorously seeing each other again. Stories of a liberal-Obama breakup have been a Beltway constant since before he was even sworn into office. (Remember all the heartbreak he caused when he invited Pastor Rick Warren to pray at his first inauguration?)
But for once, it might not be right to blame the recycling of the Obama-liberal breakup storyline entirely on a hungry press corps. (Although they’ve helped keep it alive.) Liberal elite opinion really has abandoned the president—only to briefly take him back—time and again since his first election.
Besides Glass-Steagall and single-payer, there was the debt ceiling, the failure of Obama to muster much support for cap-and-trade legislation, and continuous revelations about the scope of the U.S.’s drone use and domestic surveillance. Each of these issues, with varying legitimacy, have invited liberal declarations that the Obama administration is shaping up to be a resounding disappointment. That grousing crystallized into consensus by late 2011, even among some who thought it was wrong. (In an op-ed for the Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry accused white liberals of abandoning Obama because they held him to higher standards than a white president.)
The ur-text of this period was Drew Westen’s lamentation for the New York Times, “What Happened to Obama?” But that was also when Netroots activist Matt Stoller took to Salon to make “The Progressive Case Against Obama”—because the president had, among other things, increased domestic fossil fuel production, failed to aggressively address inequality, and amassed a shoddy record on women’s rights. MoveOn.org flirted with the idea of making their milions of volunteers and considerable fundraising prowess unavailable to their letdown of a commander in chief. “We are all incredibly frustrated,” Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, said at the time.
But events in 2012 clarified that there is a distinction between liberal elites and liberal voters, and between liberal disappointment and liberal abandonment. In 2012, as Scott Clement pointed out for The Fix, throughout the presidential campaign, liberal voters expressed disappointment in Obama but showed little sign that they would be unwilling to support his reelection. The results of 2012 bore that out, and not just at the polls. MoveOn.org joined with the AFL-CIO for what they touted as a “historic” effort for his reelection campaign.
Now that the election is over—indeed, now that Barack Obama never has to run for reelection again—liberal opinion is back at the fore. And it often appears to uniformly run against Obama. There are some good reasons for this, like the NSA revelations, whistleblower prosecutions, Obama’s decision on Plan B, and his somewhat mystifying inability to hold the line when Republicans threaten to shut down the government or allow the U.S. to default on its debts.
But he has also accrued some major liberal achievements (the massive and hard-fought expansion of health care and the sneaky implementation of the most stringent environmental regulations in modern memory), and failed to attempt at others (cap-and-trade). He has attempted to wrest very liberal economic compromises from Republicans and hamstrung himself with a poor understanding of negotiating tactics. “What happened” to Obama, is that he acquired a checkered rap sheet, like any president; in some senses, Obama’s record is quite liberal; in others, it is resolutely not.
In piece for New York Magazine that ran in late 2011, Jonathan Chait argued that the persistent disappointment liberals feel is the product of self-sabotage. “Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing.” It’s a partial history of how liberals have never been satisfied with any Democratic president—not Obama, not Clinton, not Carter, not Johnson, not Kennedy, not Truman—at least not until after he had left office. Time and again, he wrote, these presidents failed to live up to liberals’ expectations in almost identical ways: “He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace.”
In other words, liberals keep calling things off with Obama for the same reason that a lot of serial couples split—someone’s expectations are just too idealistic.
Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.