Tony Harnden, of the Telegraph suggested on Saturday that President Obama has lost the left and that, "suddenly it's cool to bash Barack". Indeed, it is telling that embattled Democrat Charles Rangel decided that his political fortune lay in deriding President Obama over his actions in Iraq,
"Rep. Charles Rangel compared President Obama to former Vice President Dick Cheney Saturday for their shared commitment to the Iraq War, one the Harlem Democrat argues is based on the country's hunger for oil."
As the New York Daily News article indicates, this is not the first time that Rangel and Obama have mixed it up. But Rangel's decision to so publicly chastise the President in the midst of his current political woes seems to add weight to Harnden's claims about the end of hat has been a rocky honeymoon between Obama and the left flank of his party.
In some regards it seems clear that Barack Obama has wasted a perfect opportunity and it is a failure for which many on the left are unwilling to forgive him. Over the past year and a half, Obama has upheld the presidential tradition of acting too boldly on foreign affairs and too tepid on domestic affairs.
The idea that President Obama has acted in a tepid fashion on domestic affairs may strike some readers as counter intuitive. Indeed, many conservatives have, from the start of the administration's time in office, found themselves diametrically opposed to the vision of America that Barack Obama and Democrats have presented. Contrary to the idea that Republicans have been engaged in a program of obstructionism, many on the left have seen conservative intransigence as the rarest of political gifts: honesty.
Conservatives and Republicans find themselves on the opposite side of the Democrats' ledger because they are fundamentally and philosophically opposed to what the President and what were his House and Senate majorities proposed for the country and they have, from January 2009, been outspoken in their opposition. In spite of that opposition, President Obama was elected with a mandate of promises that made up his more than a year long campaign run.
Outspoken conservative opposition to that mandate provided President Obama with the perfect background against which to stand strong on those promises. Instead, Obama has sought to bridge a divide that is both real and meaningful with concessions that have fundamentally undermined the promises that won him so much of the left's support on the campaign trail. In so doing, President Obama has, to many on the left, failed to realize the opportunity of his election and sold the country short in the process.
Of course, the President's proponents have lauded his long list of legislative victories. But a quick look at those victories will demonstrate why they have left liberals feeling underwhelmed.
On February 17, 2009, the President signed into law what many called the most sweeping economic stimulus package in decades. A year later, President Obama touted that the bill had saved two million American jobs and stopped the American economy from devolving into "a second Great Depression".
However, Obama's decision to provide economic stimulus was anything but bold. Despite much hand wringing over fiscally conservative representatives, Obama's decision was really just an extension of the reality that President George W. Bush realized was necessary a year prior to Obama. While the size of Bush's stimulus package ($152B) paled in comparison to Obama's ($787B), it is also worth noting the difference in scenarios that each president faced.
Certainly there was a growing sense that something was amiss with America's economic situation in 2008, there remained a degree of ignorance as to the scope and a guarded optimism about the ability to contain that situation. Perhaps the strongest indicator as to the country's health, the rate of unemployment tells a striking story. In February 2008, when President Bush signed his bill into law, the national rate of unemployment was 4.8%. A year later, when President Obama signed his bill into law, that rate had almost doubled to 8.1% and a year after that, the rate had more than doubled to 9.7% (rising to double digits in late 2009).
The scale of the respective stimulus package may have varied, but the underlying understanding of each President about the need for government injection into a fragile economy remained fundamentally the same. In this regard, while most liberals saw the stimulus package as necessary, it is difficult to see it as a big legislative win for the Party or the left.
On February 27, former Reagan and Bush (41) advisor Bruce Bartlett wrote about the then raging health care reform debate:
"The real problem, in my view, is not that the Democrats’ ambitions were too large, but rather that they were too small. In particular, I think they erred by not making the case for a single-payer system in the first place. Had they done so, the plan they eventually developed would have appeared to have been a modest alternative. I say this not because I favor a single-payer health system—although I don’t fear such a system particularly, either. Rather, it’s because I understand political dynamics—you often have to ask for twice what you want in politics in order to end up with half of what you need at the end of the day. The great mistake that administrations of both parties often make is to put forward plans that have no bargaining chips or fallback positions built into them. The various trade-offs inherent in any major policy initiative were made within the administration rather than between Congress and the administration. This meant that the administration’s initial proposal was really its bottom line position; it had nothing to negotiate with and once the inevitable compromises started, the logic and integrity of the proposal quickly collapsed."
While President Obama was quoted in the following You Tube video of a 2003 speech as being a straight up and down supporter of a single payer health care system, the fact checking website PolitiFact notes that Obama's support for a single payer system, thought it used to be much more robust, has always come with qualifiers. From 2004,
"Obama says he supports the idea of universal health care but does not think a single-payer government system is feasible. He says the government should be the health care provider of last resort for the uninsured."
However, what rankles liberals is that Obama failed even to live up the promise of creating a system whereby a government program could become the, "provider of last resort" via a public option. Various versions of the program were proposed and debated, from the stronger Rockefeller formulation to the weaker Schumer alternative. Regardless the strength or nuance of the proposal; however, President Obama and the White House failed to show up for the initiative and provide the requisite support to see any of the proposals make their way through debate and into the bill.
So while Democrats trumpeted their successful passage of health care reform as a landmark victory, the bill remained distinctly bitter-sweet for those on the left.
And most recently with financial reform, while the President has sounded all the right populist notes to align his efforts with low public opinion of Wall Street, we've learned that behind closed the administration worked to scale back all of the toughest measures introduced by liberal and progressive senators,
"“Geithner’s team spent much of its time during the debate over the Senate bill helping Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd kill off or modify amendments being offered by more-progressive Democrats. A good example was Bernie Sanders’s measure to audit the Fed, which the administration played a key role in getting the senator from Vermont to tone down. Another was the Brown-Kaufman Amendment, which became a cause célèbre among lefty reformers such as former IMF economist Simon Johnson. ‘If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks in America,’ says the senior Treasury official. ‘If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened. But we weren’t, so it didn’t.’”
Whatever teeth the financial reform bill has coming out of conference will be due almost entirely to the dogged determination of the progressive and liberal senators who worked to create a tougher bill as time and debate worn on, not President Obama and his team who worked tirelessly in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, President Obama has sought to maintain an unsustainable, if not all too predictable, status quo. The President has stayed the course in Iraq, a war that much of his popularity and momentum in the Democratic primary was based on opposing (Obama trumpeted his opposition of the war as juxtaposed against Hillary Clinton's supportive voting record on a regular basis). And on Afghanistan -- a war that some increasingly see as unwinnable -- President Obama chose, after an extended process of deliberation, not only to stay the course, but to escalate America's efforts.
All of which has left Democrats in a precarious position vis-a-vis the November mid-term elections. After a year and a half of legislative victories, conservatives have a distinct advantage in voter enthusiasm in the upcoming elections. And while conservatives re rife with, at least, broad philosophical reasons to get to the polls in opposition to President Obama and the Democrats, liberals and the Democratic base find themselves lost in the details of half-wins and unnecessary concessions.
November is still a long ways off, but at this point, it doesn't look good for Democrats. That picture is due in no small part, as Harnden writes, to the fact that, "[t]he "no drama Obama" demeanour that served him so well on the campaign trail is now becoming a liability." The late blossoming fight in Obama and a lack of willingness to fight for things that matter to people who imbue the party with energy and vigor has, again as Harnden notes, lost Obama many of the people -- among those many on the left -- who propelled him to victory such a short time ago.
And that loss for Obama is just the win that hungry conservatives have been waiting for and betting on.