Reader Kate M., who occasionally questions what she finds to be an overly favorable view of President Obama here at Winning Progressive, recently pointed us in the direction of Glenn Greenwald’s article in Salon entitled “Obama’s ‘Bad Negotiating’ is Actually Shrewd Negotiating.” Greenwald’s thesis is basically that President Obama is not a true progressive but, instead, is purposely selling out progressive values and policies in order to win reelection. Greenwald’s thesis is well summed up by the title of the article when it was republished at AlterNet – Why Do We Assume Obama’s Actually Trying to Enact a Progressive Agenda?
Here at Winning Progressive we typically do not like to get into debates with other bloggers as we’d prefer to spend our time urging people to communicate the progressive message to outside the bubble of the blogging world. But Greenwald’s approach is so detrimental to the progressive movement that it is worth responding to.
At the outset, we should note that there are certainly areas where Winning Progressive has been disappointed with the Obama Administration. Civil liberties is one, as there needs to be a far larger break with the policies of the Bush Administration. Education reform is another, as the Administration has, unfortunately, drunk the charter school kool aid far too much. And, yes, we would have liked to see a bigger stimulus package, a public option, and a much more aggressive approach to stemming the foreclosure crisis.
But Greenwald’s effort to translate those significant disappointments into a much broader claim that President Obama does not share progressive goals and, instead, is purposely selling us out in order to win re-election misses the mark in a number of ways.
First, Greenwald ignores the many progressive victories that the Obama Administration has managed to steer through a largely dysfunctional political system, even in the face of historically unprecedented Republican obstructionism and opposition from most of the media. We have compiled a partial list of those victories here, but the basic point is that it strains credulity to suggest that an Administration that ended DADT, is expanding health insurance access to 32 million more Americans and ending abusive health insurance industry practices, increased student loans by $65 billion by ending unnecessary subsidies to banks that provided such loans, increased fuel efficiency standards to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, and has proposed air pollution regulations that will save more tens of thousands of lives per year is not progressive. Many of these policies could be improved, but progressive change is always a long hard battle, and the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats have made significant forward progress on a number of issues that are critical to progressives.
Second, Greenwald attributes bad motives to Obama Administration decisions that could just as easily be explained by tactical disagreements. The reality of the situation is that while there have been some significant disappointments with President Obama, the alternative of the tea party Republicans is far worse. With those Republicans in control of the House and aiming for the Presidency and the Senate in 2012, a critical goal for progressivism is making sure that Republicans do not get full control. And there are two competing strategies for achieving that goal. One is to give no ground and offer a bold agenda that won’t be passed in the next two years but that will help draw clear distinctions for voters in 2012. The other is to give a little on some core issues both to ensure that Republicans do not cause even further damage now and to help the public realize that the Democrats are the reasonable ones who are serious about governing. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages and while I tend to lean toward the former approach, I readily acknowledge the legitimacy of the latter approach (within limits) as a valid progressive strategy. It is a shame that Greenwald does not also.
Third, and most importantly, Greenwald ignores the role that the progressive base has to play in building political support for progressive policies. One of the biggest problems with the purist progressive critique of President Obama is that it treats him as if he can single-handedly change the political dynamic in this country. The President can and should certainly play a role in doing so, but such change also requires the active and organized effort of all of us progressives to take the progressive message to the voters and build a ground swell of support for our positions. Having progressives focus large majorities of their efforts on criticizing our President for accepting compromises that are short of what we want does little to build such political support. Instead, we progressives who would like to see the President go further should focus our energies on building the political support needed for the President to do so. Winning Progressive attempts to play a role in building such support by highlighting positive things about progressive policies and victories, and by encouraging our readers to share a positive progressive vision with their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and elected officials. Unfortunately, purist critics of President Obama, such as Greenwald, appear to focus almost all of their efforts on tearing our President down, rather than on building up our political brand.
None of this is to say that we should not criticize President Obama and push him to do more. But the danger of the Greenwald approach is that by focusing so much on disappointments from Obama, we threaten to reduce turnout among Democratic partisans and to leave average voters with the perception that the person they most associate with progressive politics has no base of support. The result of such impacts is to throw elections to Republicans, just as occurred in November 2010. What purist progressives like Greenwald seem to miss is that criticism should be done constructively, that progressives need to do their jobs of building political support for progressive policies, and that we also need to praise the President when he does the right thing. The Winning Progressive blog is all about getting progressives involved in taking those steps. It would be great if Greenwald and his followers would join us in this critical endeavor.