Monday, December 13, 2010

The Liberal Cult of Personality

I understand why the Obama-McConnell tax deal disappoints liberals. They’ve spent most of the last ten years submitting the Bush tax cuts for the rich as Exhibit A in their case for Republican political cynicism and social irresponsibility. So you can hardly blame them for cringing at the sight of a liberal president lending his diminishing authority to their extension. From any recognizably liberal standpoint, it’s lamentable that a liberal president has decided that he has no politically viable choice in the matter. Obama hasn’t hidden the fact that he too is disappointed by current political realities.

I’m having a harder time, however, processing the widespread conviction in liberal circles idea that, by consenting to the extension of those tax cuts, Obama has somehow betrayed his liberal base. Maybe Obama hasn’t played his political cards as well as he might have. But there’s no denying that he was dealt a weak hand—if Reid and Pelosi had the votes to let the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts expire, they would have brought the issue to a vote before the mid-term election. It’s hard to see why Obama’s disinclination to bet on his pulling an inside straight at this late date should cast doubt on his liberal authenticity.

So why are a lot of liberals disappointed not just by current political circumstances, but by Obama himself? Robert Kuttner's remarks about what sweeteners congressional liberals should demand in exchange for voting in favor of the Obama-McConnell deal suggest the beginnings of an answer (my emphasis):
“The other day, I was part of a conversation in which the question came up: If Democrats in Congress do hold their noses and vote for the tax-cut deal in order to prevent unemployment benefits from being cut off on Christmas, what might they ask of Obama in return? There is not a great deal that he can deliver legislatively, unless he decides to get serious about wielding his veto pen.

“The best idea to emerge was this: Democrats should demand, in return for their aye votes, that Obama appoint Elizabeth Warren to chair the National Economic Council, to succeed the departing Larry Summers. Warren is the one senior administration official who has not stopped fighting to protect regular Americans. . . .

“According to press reports, the man about to get the job is Roger Altman, an investment banker and former deputy to Rubin. Altman has been to the White House at least three times in recent weeks, and his appointment seems all teed up. Altman would continue the Wall Street dynasty around Obama -- the very gang whose reckless deregulation and speculation brought us the economic collapse whose damage is now being used to justify wrecking Social Security.

“Getting Warren instead of Altman would almost justify voting for this stinker of a tax deal.”
Notice that Kuttner isn’t urging liberal congressmen to hold out for an administration promise to pursue any particular policy or to deliver any identifiable bundle of political goods to favored political constituencies. He hasn’t a word to say about what appointing Elizabeth Warren rather than Roger Altman as Chair of the National Economic Council would mean for the administration’s economic policy. Evidently, Kuttner thinks that supporting the tax-cut deal is a stiff, but reasonable, price for the liberal community to pay for Obama's making his administration look more like liberals want a Democratic administration to look.  And liberals like the look of Warren's warrior spirit more than Altman's Wall Street smirk.

That’s another reminder how large an ideological investment liberals have made in Barack Obama’s charismatic authority. He didn’t pry the liberal wing of the Democratic Party out of Hillary Clinton’s hands during the presidential primaries by advancing a noticeably more liberal policy agenda. (Indeed, the only material difference I can think of in their agendas off hand is that Hillary supported and Obama opposed the individual health insurance mandate that found its way into ObamaCare). The biggest thing he had going for him during the Democratic primaries was that, although there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between their Iraq policies going forward, Obama had cut a dashing figure opposing the Iraq war when Hillary was still supporting it. All liberals thought that a Hillary presidency would be a spectacular improvement over Republican governance. But when they compared Obama to George Bush or John McCain in their mind’s eye, they couldn’t help seeing the superiority of liberalism incarnate.

So what do liberals do now when they see Obama trying to smile with Mitch McConnell’s boot planted firmly on his neck? They could conclude that their policy agenda isn’t nearly as popular as they’d expected it to be and try thinking up ways to make liberalism more viable politically. Or they might take themselves to task for not realizing that Obama’s charisma doesn’t make up for his lack of experience and hope he’ll learn a thing or two on the job. It’s a lot easier, however, to decide that Obama has betrayed them by not really being the guy they thought he was and turn to other people to stiffen his spine.


DannyP said...

It seems to me that it was Hillary who protrayed herself as the "fighter" for liberal causes during the primaries while Obama portrayed himself as a conciliator who could break the political impasse of the last 20 years by putting our politics on a new plane. I don't see that liberals have any reason to say that Obama misrepresented himself--if anything, he has been more of a fighter (or at least a much less effective conciliator) than advertised.

Anonymous said...

What's dissappointing about Obama isn't so much his weakness of will as his ideological vacancy. He keeps his priorities to himself and then portrays whatever occurs on his watch as a vindication of his leadership. Liberals are the last ones to catch on.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point by Anon at 11:19, particularly use of the words "ideological vacancy." It's a good way of putting what I have noticed but have been unable to articulate.