Obama’s done pretty alright, but liberals are incapable of being realistic about him

Jonathan Chait on Liberal Disappointment — New York Magazine

Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?

Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Obama invited the contrast with Reagan himself when he noted during the campaign, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” And yet so far at least, this country does not feel fundamentally, systemically changed by Obama in the way that it is remembered to have been by Reagan.

But here again, memory is problematic. Reagan, you’ll recall, spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma. Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.

And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, as reflected in the endless propaganda campaign to give him full credit for the end of stagflation and communism, the dogmatic insistence that everything the great hero said offers the One True Path for all time, and the project to name every possible piece of American property after him. Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match. If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.

23 comments on “Obama’s done pretty alright, but liberals are incapable of being realistic about him

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  1. Chait’s assertion that libs and cons think differently has it neuroscience proponiets as well. Libs are thought to prefer the serotonin reward system, while cons, the dopaminine reward system. Following the thread, libs are more prone to depression, while cons more to mania and schizophrenia.

    Chickens and eggs ensue.

  2. I do agree with Chait, on one point, ‘politics is the heart of the possible’ and Obamacare and Dodd/Frank came up because of him. Doesn’t mean they are any good they are not supposed to be, that’s the punchline that the OWS hasn’t gotten yet.

  3. “supposed to work”? You mean as far as Caddell and Schoen keeping their jobs as Fox News house liberals? Sure. Your friend Charles Pierce covered it a lot better:

    Beep. beep.

    Look. The clown car’s here!

    There’s a reason why nobody in the White House listens to these guys. They’re the political equivalent of two guys on a steam grate, hollering about the alien implants in their rectums. Patrick Caddell’s mad as a hatter, and Doug Schoen spends most of his time under the hassock, hoping that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t see him, and that the checks from that nice Mr. Murdoch keep clearing.

    Here’s the nub of their gist, as Mr. Cleese would put it: Assuming she’s as dumb as they are, and would actually consider being part of this lunacy, Caddell and Schoen believe that Hillary Clinton would be greeted by the Republican opposition as someone who, “…given her strong public support… has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington.”

    Hillary Clinton? The Hildebeast? The Borgia princess of Arkansas? The Bloody Mary Tudor of the Rose Law Firm? The witch queen of Mena Airport? The dark dowager empress of Whitewater? Vince Foster’s lesbian lover? THAT Hillary Clinton?

    The rest of the piece is typical Schoen flummery that blames Barack Obama’s “excessive partisanship” for the fact that the Republican party has become a Jesus-crazy cult of feces-tossing monkey arsonists. But that part there above? That’s absolutely classic. It may be the single most obviously peyote-inspired political argument that you can find outside of a sweat lodge in New Mexico. I’m not kidding. Nobody will write anything funnier about American politics than that until Mencken comes back from the fking dead.

    Well-played, boys.

    Read more: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/#ixzz1eSayhVO5

    Then there’s Howard Portnoy playing the clown who never seems to get picked up no matter how much he gesticulates.

  4. She has nominally come to represent the working class Democrat cadres, yes I know it’s a bunch of bunkum, Schoen is their minion, Cadell was McGovern’s wunderkind, of course the advise won’t be absorbed that is why the futility of the exercise.

    • Actually, I think understanding Caddell requires going back to Carter, not McGovern. It seems to me that Caddell never stops re-living the moment when a beleaguered president accepted his unconventional plan for re-booting all of American politics, culture, and history… put it into effect through a systematic campaign capped off with a nationwide address (the misnamed “malaise” speech)… achieved initial success… and then sabotaged it within weeks, preparing a turn in the exact opposite direction.

  5. Carter was tagged with the phrase ‘malaise’ which he never actually said, the tenor of the speech based on the late Christopher Lasch, revealed him out of touch with the times, and this was before the Iranian crisis, yet he was still
    20 points of Reagan, as the new year dawned,

    • WSJ op-ed eyewash that manages to c0ver a few standard talking points – Obama’s putative un-American otherworldliness, or the absurd notion that Toomey’s piddling pseudo-compromise on taxes was anything at all, and so on – though the notion that Carter was a conservative realist who deserves major credit for the Reagan boom is amusing. Somehow I doubt it will replace standard conservative dogma anytime soon.

  6. I’m late here, but this article is so poorly written and so poorly thought through it does a disservice to a kind of examination I would usually support at least in respect to the basic exercise. So what he’s trying to do ideologically interests me, but he does it so poorly with this piece that it’s repulsive. There are so many things he doesn’t try to substantiate and couldn’t substantiate even if he did try that it becomes laughable when he uses them as the factual basis for other things he tries and fails to establish. Yuk. What he says about Reagan is untrue from both a liberal and a conservative perspective and then he piles the other speculations on top of those untruths. Is this a writer you guys are familiar with?

    • Which article are you referring to, Mr. Miller? If you’re referring to the one quoted at the very top, by Jonathan Chait, then I think you should read the entire article. The above is just the concluding section. And it would be helpful if you referred to a specific passage that illustrates what you find so repulsive about it. Though I don’t agree with everything I put up on WreckBrow, and though I don’t think the conclusion was the most well-supported part of the essay, I think it makes a decent point that also happens, as bob noted, to related to the recent post on the “Age of Reagan.”

      • Yes, I am referring to the Chait piece. I tried to read the whole thing but became even more repulsed. At your suggestion I tried again. Again…yuk. Crediting Obama with “ending the war in Iraq” is like crediting Kobe with ending the disagreement with Shaq. Yes, it did end, but no one gets credit when something that shouldn’t have been allowed to continue in the first place finally comes to an end because you’ve taken your lust for violence to a new location. But actually, there, in respect to their ability to look the other way as people die horrible deaths, we can make a fair connection between Obama and Reagan because Reagan did nothing as the HIV epidemic killed thousands of gay men in San Francisco. There are some things that are hard to end. Situations vary in respect to what can and can’t be done by a President. Obama could have ended the war as soon as he took office. He ran on that promise and left himself an out by admitting that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he played both sides against the middle. Reagan played the same way. He could have acted and made a huge difference. Instead, he didn’t even say AIDS in public until the disease had devastated one of the largest cities in the US.

        • I find your reaction kind of odd, but it could be because you’re less a “liberal,” than a radical, yet feel like Chait is writing to and about you. He’s not. He’s writing to and about mainstream Democrats, very few of whom think of themselves as pacifists or revolutionaries, including people like Hillary and Biden, who supported Authorization for Use of Military Force and the Patriot Act, or Clinton’s military actions in the ’90s. Even latterday Green saint Al Gore spent years cultivating a centrist, military-friend image. He cast the virtually deciding vote in favor of Gulf War I, and used to say that the main mistake GHW Bush made was failing to “finish the job.”

          To my everlasting shame, I opposed Obama from the right during campaign ’08, but I followed his rhetoric and promises closely, and I never heard him promise anything much different from what he delivered in Iraq and A-stan. The actual agreement to leave Iraq completely to the Iraqis by the end of this year – the SOFA or Status of Forces Agreement – was finalized after election day ’08, by the outgoing Bush Administration. O and his partisans always insisted that an Iraqi withdrawal would be orderly. On A-stan, it appears from the reporting that O wanted to leave more quickly, but he was hemmed in by a number of factors, including his own campaign rhetoric as well as the political possibilities of the moment when he was finalizing the “Afghanistan Surge.” Presidents aren’t dictators, and even dictators gotta serve somebody.

          Anyway, Chait’s a smart guy, with a good sense of humor, and he’s an experienced political observer. He got a lot of notoriety for a column he wrote in 2004 entitled “The Case For Bush Hatred,” aka, “Why I hate George Bush,” but he’s better than that. If you step away from the emotional investment, the article is a good historical review on how liberals, as opposed to far leftists or radicals, have been unhappy even with presidents many in later years came to revere. The far leftists and radicals, by contrast, may have credited FDR or Truman or JFK or LBJ or Carter or Clinton or Obama with an act here or a gesture there, but never trusted or revered them.

          • I see your point about who he’s writing to but I never really felt he was writing to me. I just disagree strongly with his basic assertions, not because I’m a radical but because they’re wrong. My ideas are too nuanced and balanced to be radical. I want conservatives to be good conservatives not liberals. I want real conservatives to exist. I want real liberals to exist. Maybe the Occupy movement will help both develop because they’re taking a step back from the craziness on the supposed two sides, which are really the radical middle.
            But what I really wanted to know is what you finally got around to telling me, which is that you are familiar with Chait as a writer. I belief that if you weren’t, you might have been more critical of the ideas in this piece. Possible?

            • Other than the idea of “credit” for ending the Iraq War in an orderly manner, I’m not sure what other assertions you disagree with. I don’t see much in the piece to disagree with. Most of it is just a fairly straightforward history, or set of historical reminders, alongside some very general characterizations of the modern liberal mindset. I’m not really sure that he does an adequate job of explaining the ways in which conservatives and liberals are NOT mirror images of each other.

            • “Real” conservatves, “real” liberals. Kinda essentialist. I guess I think being a con or lib is like gender, ie performative. In the context of this time and place, the libs and cons define their categories by doing what they do. They are not poor examples or shadows of some more perfect entities.

              • Whether conservative vs liberal identity is an essence or merely a performance, or perhaps the performance of an essence or idea, Scott’s position does get at a complex problem, one that Robin devotes attention to in THE REACTIONARY MIND, and that runs throughout a lot of political writing, not to mention political righting, today: the confusion between possessing conservative inclinations or a conservative sensibility and between pursuing a conservative politics.

                There is a similar problem on the left. You might even say that any two-party/binary system must immediately divide into a four-party/quaternary system: affectively conservative political conservatives vs affectively liberal political conservatives vs affectively conservative political liberals vs affectively liberal political liberals. However, the confusion has been so foundational in our politics and culture for so long that it has confused all of the terms further, maybe even beyond disentanglement.

                Part of Robin’s project is to attempt to break through the superficial characteristics and reflexive associations to what, under whatever terminology, connects Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. For him, it’s the character of “reaction,” which is convenient especially if you take a “left Hegelian” view of world history, in which history itself properly understood is and can only be progressive liberation.

                The original conservative would be the member of the old regime, but in the modern era, with the old regime destroyed, conservatism is advanced as a cause typically though not exclusively by individuals who owe their own status, their own freedom to act politically, to historical forces that they are seeking to resist or divert. They produce a counter-dialectic: If humanity progresses through the negation of class differences on behalf of a universal subject (the collective proletariat universal – God), conservatism as reactionary conservatism is the negation of that negation. Not only does the reactionary depend on the left for something to react against, as well as (historically, materially) for his very being as a reactionary, but he also will take on the habits, attitudes, and methods that typified the left during its successful (but never or not yet completed) war against the old regime.

                Today’s anti-reactionary reactionaries, people like Andrew Sullivan and pm carpenter who deny that today’s “conservatives” are really conservative, are hardly the first to find themselves in that historical/intellectual predicament. Oakeshott, Sullivan’s model, sought to define conservatism as a sensibility, a preference for the familiar: original conservative affect. So to an Oakeshott-Sullivanist, today’s Palin-Limbaugh-Beck-Perry “conservatives” are a great grotesque perversion, and Sullivan constantly finds himself driven to defend the institutions and accomplishments of progressivism, though he almost always backs off at the verge of going over to the liberal-left. In a political-historical context informed by a Marxian “sharpening of the contradictions,” eventually it would become impossible to occupy this middle ground for very long, and it would be as untenable to remain an Obama-Menshevik as to write as one of his sympathizers from one notch over to the right, however obvious and personally decisive you find the differences between the Menshevik and the Bolshevik.

                  • I was responding, or I thought I was responding, to your idea that conservatives (or liberals or men or women or whatever) are merely whatever people who call themselves conservatives they do (perform) rather than better or worse embodiments of ideals. It’s also possible that I don’t really understand what the performative-identity concept can mean in this context.

                    • Well,my daughter’s home for the holiday, so after some political/cultural discussions with her, I was taking a stab at queering the discourse. Fits also with th Buddhist reading I’mdoing now. But since you cant’t read my mind (hopefully for you anyway) that may not have been clear. Also I was attempting a little anti patriiarchy chain yanking of Scott.

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