JONATHAN COHN JULY 30, 2010
he managed (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi) to enact a health reform that, imperfect as it is, will greatly improve Americans’ lives — unless a Republican Congress manages to sabotage its implementation.
But progressive disillusionment isn’t just a matter of sky-high expectations meeting prosaic reality. Threatened filibusters didn’t force Mr. Obama to waffle on torture; to escalate in Afghanistan; to choose, with exquisitely bad timing, to loosen the rules on offshore drilling early this year.
Then there are the appointments. Yes, the administration needed experienced hands. But did all the senior members of the economics team have to be protégés of Robert Rubin, the apostle of financial deregulation? Was it necessary to install Ken Salazar at the Interior Department over the objections of environmentalists who feared, rightly, that his ties to extractive industries would make him slow to clean up a corrupt agency?
Prior to 2008, what kinds of things had been on the lefty wish list? What made our hearts sing? A temporary tax cut and a one-time investment in infrastructure and energy projects? Nope. Bailing out General Motors? Nope. Financial industry reform? Nope. Before 2008, Wall Street reform was barely even on anyone's radar. It's purely a reaction to a crisis, not the culmination of a long campaign by populist liberals — and in any case the final result was watery enough that it's highly unlikely to change Wall Street in any serious way.
So that leaves healthcare reform. And watered down or not, that really is a big deal. But among big ticket items on the lefty wish list, that's it. That's all we got. And I hardly have to tell you that not every lefty is as enthusiastic about its final form as I am.
So in terms of setting liberal hearts aflutter, there's basically been just one thing — and not much hope of getting anything more for the rest of Obama's term. And to tot up against that, we've had an almost complete acquiescence to the Bush/Cheney vision of national security; an escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the reappointment of Ben Bernanke; a couple of very moderate Supreme Court picks; an obvious unwillingness to back a serious energy bill; and indefensibly slow progress in naming new appointments. All of these things can be justified individually, but if you put 'em together and weigh them against a single major piece of liberal legislation you don't get a very pretty picture. And that's the picture a lot of liberals are seeing.
A common theme in both arguments, and Matthew Yglesias' yesterday, is that liberals are as disappointed with the effort as with the results. It would be one thing if Obama were going down fighting. But he eschews confrontation and spent much of his term trying to work out deals with Republicans.
This has always Obama's personality: He's always been cool, not hot. And, on legislative issues, it's important to remember that he's often fighting with the conservative wing of his own party while a confused, sometimes skeptical public watches. That complicates strategy--a lot.
Still, the critics have a point: Obama could push harder sometimes. At the very least, the institutional constraints on his power wouldn't, or shouldn't, prevent him from getting behind this effort to let the majority rule in the Senate or naming Elizabeth Warren to run the new consumer protection board. If he does these things, who knows, maybe liberals will start to get a little enthusiastic again.