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Borde-nough: Democrats need to keep an eye on their President and party

Published: February 6, 2009
Section: Opinions


the_hoot_2-6-09final_page_08_image_0001A near-consensus has formed in this country around the fervent hope that Obama will improve America’s economic performance and its international standing. But on a January 16 radio show, commentator Rush Limbaugh reportedly let his listeners know that at least one very dim light remains lit in the camp of those who “hope he [Obama] fails.”

Limbaugh’s undignified wish for Obama deserves no further comment. But his reasoning deserves attention. Explaining himself, Limbaugh said, “I know what his politics are…. I hope liberalism fails. Liberalism is our problem.”

Many self-described “liberals” (as that term is used today) have reacted to Limbaugh’s remarks by branding him a sore loser. Responses posted on the Internet have pointed to the currently enormous popularity of Obama as proof of just how far out of touch Limbaugh is.

Unfortunately, such a reaction has perverse effects on the politics of the left. And it has a disturbing parallel in the tendency of Obama supporters to treat him as the embodiment of all things good and leftist. Progressives’ too-frequent unthinking identification with Obama cheapens their November victory by handing other people the power to say what it is they want the government to do. It matters little whether those other people are the Rush Limbaughs of the world, the collective Democratic Party leadership, or even Obama himself. The left’s mistake is to let others define the terms of its politics.

In an ideal world, the tens of millions of Americans who spent much of last year enthusiastically cheering for “change” would now be engaged in a vigorous debate about the changes needed. What should the components of a new “stimulus” or “bailout” plan be? Should it include provisions preventing the money disbursed from being funneled through trade and investment into foreign economies? Should government intervention in the economy continue to take the form of large checks written piecemeal by Congress and left to the discretion of the executive to spend, or should changes in economic policy be deeper and more systemic? Given the new approach Obama was supposed to bring to office, should costly policies closely identified with the Bush administration, such as an inviolable defense budget and highly regressive tax cuts, be thoroughly revamped in light of current economic conditions? What about Iraq and Afghanistan?

The public, and particularly those of us who helped to elect Obama, are not asking these questions. Obama may have been inaugurated just a few weeks ago, but too many of his supporters have already canonized him. Before even taking his oath, he has entered a pantheon that one might have thought was reserved for deceased leaders of the highest stature. To be sure, the mere fact of his election was an event of historic significance. But in the eyes of many supporters, he has acquired a characteristic that only presidents who have actually become history can ever truly possess: an inability to do wrong.

Alas, Obama can and will do wrong. Arguably, he already has. This is not to say that he will make a bad president. The best ones make plenty of mistakes. But like any leader, Obama needs critical voices, especially those of his supporters, to guide him. If the political left is not prepared to provide such criticism, it will grow disappointed with the new president, and Obama, for his part, will redefine the left in ways that will leave many of his strongest supporters in the recent election occupying an untenable political fringe.

It’s too early to tell whether this unfortunate scenario will ever come to pass. But Obama’s performance thus far should concern those who took his breathtakingly simple slogan, “change,” closest to heart. Obama has peopled his government with leftovers from Bill Clinton’s administration, and has even appointed a few Republicans. Some of Saint Barry’s hagiographers claim that he has evoked Abraham Lincoln by creating a “team of rivals” whose differences will improve policymaking.

The Lincoln analogy seems flawed. Unlike Lincoln, Obama won a sizable majority in the popular vote. The crisis he faces is not one of internal division threatening the country’s survival but of whether the US will thrive despite economic failures. He did not need to appoint political opponents either to shore up support within his party or to conciliate the opposition. Interestingly, given all the talk of constructive rivalry and diversity surrounding the Obama administration and the Democratic left’s unflinching support for him thus far, his appointments include few politicians who comprise that wing of his party.

“Never you mind,” reply those who have been busy erecting shrines to the president. People who thought they were casting their vote for progressive social change need not worry, they say, because the great man himself is in charge.

But Obama’s initial actions suggest that he, like any other leader, needs his supporters behind him at the helm helping to chart a course rather than prostrating themselves before him at every turn. Even before likely adjustments in the name of bipartisanship increase the proportion of tax cuts in Obama’s proposed stimulus package, he wants 40% of the money spent in that way. These cuts will be shared more widely than were George Bush’s, and I won’t turn mine down. But worried consumers may not spend this money, and much that is spent will be quickly diverted overseas through the many exit routes from America’s open economy. Tax cuts will not fix a broken system that generates wealth for a few, poverty for many, and not enough to sustain most people in the large and vibrant middle class that has been the hallmark of American prosperity. And tax cuts copy Bush’s policy choice.

The economic programs that Obama claims will create three million jobs seem more apt to create a few millionaires. Spending on alternative energy production, federal building modernization, computerization of medical records, school technology, and expansion of the reach of broadband will redound mainly to the benefit of contractors who won’t need many new employees to do their work. The materials involved are likely to come from overseas; like the data entry work involving medical records, manufacturing these materials will not employ US workers. Only Obama’s road-repair scheme might produce a significant number of American jobs. But, in practice, it is likely to be a handout to cash-poor governors– mostly in road-blanketed Democratic-governed states– to dole out to influential contractors who will keep much of the money themselves.

Leftist Obama supporters hope that he would move to stop the growth of social inequality before it undermines the polity. But the substance of his stimulus plan, coupled with his aides’ December suspension of his call for repeal of Bush’s tax cuts, should make those supporters wary. Obama seems committed to distribution rather than redistribution– a policy sure to be temporarily popular but ultimately unsustainable.

Looking abroad, the new president has never satisfactorily promised to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the important bloc of his supporters who have opposed those wars certainly developed expectations that a President Obama would favor non-military alternatives. However, Obama’s “new mission” of “ending the war” in Iraq may get the US out of that country no faster than Richard Nixon’s new approach got the US out of Vietnam after 1968. His “careful,” “responsible and phased” withdrawal will leave behind an American “residual force” of undisclosed size. In Afghanistan, he is increasing U.S. involvement. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has told Congress that the “military challenge” there requires a “long and difficult fight.” Continued attacks on Pakistan show that Obama, like Bush, is ready and willing to expand the war there. Perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s recent Russian-backed demand for closure of the US air base on its territory will do what Obama resists doing: end our Afghan adventure. Obama’s much-heralded executive order “ensuring lawful interrogations” forbids the Central Intelligence Agency from operating secret detention facilities. But other Federal agencies may still do so. The order does not clearly forbid the transfer of detainees to private contractors or allies who might torture them, or allow the Red Cross access to such detainees.

Obama’s minimization of the influence of the left, who any shrewd politician knows have no alternative party to turn to at present, will not be checked by Congressional Democrats. Many of them supported Bush’s wars when they were popular, calculatingly backtracked toward opposition as the country’s mood shifted, and then criticized Bush when that position came into vogue. They kept funding the wars, notwithstanding what this meant for American soldiers and for the millions of Iraqis and Afghans whose lives the wars ended or ruined. At home they designed their “bailout” package as a politically useful kitty. Little attention has been paid to the deal obviously made by Bush and Democrats in Congress whereby the first half of last year’s $700 billion bailout would be spent by Bush, while the second half would be “released” by Congress after Obama’s inauguration. This division, coupled with the massive discretion allowed to the president(s) in dispensing the money, had less to do with economic exigency than with a desire to pay off friends.

The media has said much about the Republicans’ uncertain future, and with good reason. But Obama’s actions suggest that Democrats may also face an internal reckoning. Progressives most enthused by Obama’s call for change cannot be content to recall his slogan, read his party label, and fawn over him like hormone-happy adolescents. They should not allow Obama to define them, any more than they would allow Limbaugh to define them. They need to pay attention to the Democratic leadership and to play the role of chaperones, applying a not-so-subtle tap on the shoulder when party leaders get too intimate with the wrong people and policies. This will help Obama succeed, not make him fail.

Being a good Democrat does not mean being an ass and foregoing critical observation. If leftist Democrats and the public as a whole have profited from lending Obama their ears, they have a lot to lose if they don’t lend him their eyes, as well.