Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Booman: Obama and the New Netroots
I enjoyed reading Chris Bowers's recent piece on losing the argument to President Obama. It's an admission that Obama has support from an overwhelming percentage of self-style progressives in this country. Nowhere was that more clear than during the late stages of the health care reform effort. While progressives were deeply disappointed that the reforms didn't include either a public option or an expansion of Medicare, that didn't prevent roughly 90% of them (and all elected progressives) from supporting final passage of the bill. Progressives have been frustrated and/or skeptical of a number of steps taken by the Obama administration, going back all the way to the appointments that were announced during the transition. But, even there, 90% of Democrats were supportive.

Bowers focuses on Obama's amazing success in developing Obama for America (now, Organizing for America). The work of the OFA not only goes largely unreported by the progressive netroots, but it has been openly resented. Back in 2007-08 it was an open secret that the big-hats in the netroots felt snubbed by Obama's decision to do an end-around of traditional progressive organizations and build one for himself. Here's the result:

In just the final ten days of the legislative fight, OFA aides said they drove over 500,000 calls to Congress. The group also executed over 1,200 events during that period, about 100 per day, and mobilized a novel program for over 120,000 supporters to call other Obama fans in key districts to fan local enthusiasm for the bill -- a first for either national party. These are massive numbers. OFA has actually been turning out impressive field figures for some time, as I've reported, their struggle has been converting turnout into impact on the Hill. Now, OFA is pointing to examples of votes that switched in response to the field, like Rep. Brian Baird -- a metric that organizers could not cite a few months back.

Nothing comparable came from the progressive netroots, as the most energized activity was coming from opponents of the bill at FireDogLake. The simple fact is that the vast majority of progressives, having successfully toiled to elect one of their own president, are invested more in his success than in narrow ideological battles. A small minority of progressives prefer to judge the president's progressiveness entirely but what he does and not by what he says or who he is. Yet, there is nothing in Obama's personal history nor in his voting record to suggest that he is anything but a committed pragmatic progressive. Fortunately, he is smart enough to understand the political space for progressive policy in our country and the role of a president. Obama is the leader of the entire country and a shepherd for the Democratic Party. He is not in the White House to implement a wholly progressive set of policies, nor could he do that without his flock scattering to the winds. So far, one lone sheep (Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama) has lost its way.

The debates over the closure of Guantanamo and the legal treatment of detainees are the most prominent examples of the limitations on imposing progressive solutions on a fundamentally non-progressive country and culture. But similar results have arisen over ideological progressive demands that Obama nationalize the banks or risk total failure on health care reform in the service of destroying the private insurance industry. Those were demands that were defensible on the merits, but inconsistent with a commitment to Obama's overall success as president. They were ideological demands based on a belief that what's right (from their point of view) is more important than the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that we have a Democratic president who is on the whole keeping faith with his campaign promises but who is also facing a vicious idiot-wind of opposition. If the spectacle of eight years of Bush-Cheney didn't give you an understanding for what a failed Obama presidency might mean for this country and the world, the circus freak-show act of the tea partiers and the resurrection of militias should do the job.

A lot of progressives convince themselves that their policies are popular and that a president who implements their policies will be rewarded in the end. I confess that I feel this way, too, on most issues. But a quick look at how the attempt to close Gitmo was stymied, or the attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan was scuttled, or how the proliferation of myths about Obama have spread, should provide you with some prudent caution about what will and won't fly in our current political climate. The opposition ha a say, too. A smart politician anticipates these attack and picks his fights wisely.

Obama invested a good part of his first year in office pursuing bipartisanship. Most progressives correctly predicted that such efforts would be fruitless. But without make a visible effort, he'd have paid a much higher price for passing health care with no Republican votes (if he could have passed it all) and for making recess appointments. People may be disappointed that Obama can't win over support from Republicans but they don't blame him because they know that he tried and that he paid a price for trying. Obama's effectiveness is enhanced by his early decision to make his cabinet an ideologically broad group, including Bush's defense secretary, several other Republicans, his bitter rival for the nomination, and a wide sampling of the Democratic Party's branches.

For me, 'progressive' means 'committed to progress' which may be incremental or sweeping, but which doesn't get bogged down in ideological roadblocks. There is no such thing as 'noble failure' when failure means that the current incarnation of Republicans is restored to power. A wise president works with what's he got and doesn't add more burden than the beast can bear. That's different from triangulation. Triangulation is passing your opponent's agenda on your terms and then taking credit for it. Obama is passing his agenda on the terms the system will bear. And that is progressive enough for me. And I don't care who gets the credit.

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