My post, How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency, provoked a range of responses and I’d like to address the dominant themes. Here’s an excerpt of the piece for context:
When Robert Gibbs attacked the professional left he didn’t specify anyone by name, but the assumption was that it was cable personalities, disaffected interest groups, bloggers and online commenters. With each passing day, I’m beginning to realize that the crux of the problem for Obama is a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, among them Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher. Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren’t complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.
The essence of their critique is that the White House lacks a moral compass. The instances where Obama displays a flash of moral authority – the mosque speech comes to mind – these bloggers cheer him with the same fervor as his most ardent fans.
Some will dismiss them as minor players in the wider national discourse, but two things make them a thorn in the administration’s side: a) they have a disproportionately large influence on the political debate, with numerous readers and followers — among them major media figures; and b) they develop the frames and narratives that other progressive Obama critics adopt and disseminate
I’ve argued for some time that the story of Barack Obama’s presidency is the story of how the left turned on him. And it eats him up. You know it from Robert Gibbs, you know it from Rahm Emanuel, you know it from Joe Biden and you know it from Obama himself. The constant refrain that liberals don’t appreciate the administration’s accomplishments betrays deep frustration. It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.
As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire adult life. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.
Point #1 (Does the White House really care about a handful of liberal bloggers?)
Although several readers disagreed that bloggers had the power I was attributing to them, there was general consensus that they were an annoyance to the White House.
Politico said that Bill Burton’s silence reveals how the White House feels:
Who, exactly, makes up this “professional left” that is so bothering President Barack Obama and his advisers? On Tuesday, Gibbs’ deputy, Bill Burton, made it clear that the occasionally critical cable personalities originally associated with this comment have the administration’s blessing. “If you’re on the left, if you’re somebody like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or one of the folks who helps to keep our government honest and pushes and prods to make sure that folks are true to progressive values, then [the president] thinks that those folks provide an invaluable service.” Burton told reporters. Noticeably absent from Burton’s embrace was anyone from the blogosphere once courted so avidly by the White House. Peter Daou thinks he knows why…”
Ezra Klein, as well-sourced as anyone I know, writes:
Peter Daou is right that liberal bloggers are getting under Obama’s skin.
Point #2 (Do liberal bloggers want to bring down Obama?)
The title of my post (“How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency“) was largely interpreted as a slam on the bloggers themselves. It certainly wasn’t meant as one, which I hope was clear from the body of the post. Rather, it was intended as a literal observation that a small group with disproportionate influence was contributing to President Obama’s depressed approval ratings by holding him accountable whenever he appeared to undermine core Democratic and progressive principles.
Which is why I said “bringing down” not “brought down.” The former is a question of degree, and reversible, the latter much less so. And nowhere did I argue that these bloggers wanted to bring down the administration. Quite the opposite. In a concurrent tweet, I said: “Critical difference between Obama’s liberal critics and his conservative ones is that the former want him to succeed, the latter to fail.”
Point #3 (Wouldn’t Obama be doing fine if people had jobs?)
Notwithstanding the opening sentence (“This post was originally written about the frightening case of Anwar al-Aulaqi”), a number of readers took issue with what they perceived as an inordinate focus on civil liberties and rights. They contended that Obama’s problems boil down to the bad economy, no more no less.
Alex Pareene at Salon:
I think the principled civil libertarian critique of Obama is completely correct — and I also think it has little to do with his, or the Democratic Party’s, unpopularity. I think if the economy was booming and unemployment was low, Glenn Greenwald would still be completely correct and the president would be much more popular.
Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler, two of the bloggers I referenced in the piece, echoed that refrain.
I think the reason why people are so angry at Democrats and disenchanted with Obama has very little – basically nothing – to do with what bloggers have been saying, and everything to do with the fact that there are no jobs and millions of people are having their homes foreclosed.
As much as I focus on torture & assassination, I’d buck up a lot faster if the Admin focused on helping people save their homes.
It’s always daunting to cross verbal swords with the likes of Glenn and Marcy, but even though it’s indisputable that a better economic environment would benefit Obama, I think pinning the president’s troubles on the economy is an incomplete reading of the social and political climate.
For one thing, most Americans still blame Bush:
Nearly two years into his presidency, 51% of Americans say President Barack Obama bears little to no blame for U.S. economic problems, while 48% assign him a great deal or moderate amount of blame. More Americans now blame Obama than did so a year ago, but a substantially higher percentage, 71%, blame former President George W. Bush. LINK
A majority of the country still believes that President Obama isn’t responsible for the state of the U.S. economy, but the number has steadily declined since his presidency began. According to the brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent think Obama inherited the economic situation, versus 32 percent who say his policies are responsible for it. LINK
For all their economic gripes, 52 percent of Americans say they’d rather have President Obama than his predecessor in control of economic policy, vs. 35 percent who’d prefer to have former President Bush in charge. LINK
For another thing, there’s actually a case to be made in favor of the administration’s economic policies, not least of which are avoiding a depression and saving the auto industry. Ezra elaborates:
A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would’ve been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.
The fact of financial reform is less impressive given the fact of the financial crisis, and readers know that I’m skeptical about the final design of the bill. But the consumer protection agency really is an important addition that might not have been included if the White House was occupied by a different team. There are the smaller items that, in any other administration, would be seen as achievements. Menu labeling in chain restaurants. The Independent Payment Advisory Board to bring down Medicare costs. Ted Kennedy’s SERVE America Act. And then there’s what didn’t happen: The financial system didn’t collapse. Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George W. Bush deserve some of the credit for that — though they also deserve some of the blame for not preventing the crisis in the first place. But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history — and it’s also one of the least popular.
(Steve Benen has made a similar case, as have others.)
The reality is that Obama’s problems have been brewing from the day he took office. They came to a head during the health insurance battle and they have been exacerbated by an ailing economy and a series of events, actions and decisions, many of which seem insignificant against the backdrop of a back-breaking recession, but taken together, reinforce doubts about Obama’s ideological and moral compass.
For nearly two years, I’ve written about the demise of “hope and change,” basing my arguments on two related theses:
1. The convergence of left-right opinion is a critical factor in the shaping of conventional wisdom against Obama.
2. A range of acts and omissions have resulted in a sense that Obama lacks moral authority, lacks the courage of his convictions, lacks convictions, all fatal impressions for a leader.
On the first, I’ve argued that the cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion and ultimately determining conventional wisdom. Typically, countervailing left-right narratives create enough tension to prevent the public from rapidly congealing around a single view. However, in some cases (Bush with Katrina, Obama on health care), left and right come to agree that a political leader is on the wrong track. It is this merging of left-right opinion that has damaged Obama. He can sustain relentless attacks from the right – it’s what everyone expects – but when the left joins in, the bottom drops out. That’s why opinion-shapers in the liberal blogosphere exert inordinate influence over Obama’s fortunes. And from the growing alarm at the White House, it’s clear they know it.
This is directly related to the second thesis, that Obama’s problem is not about policy but about character. Here’s how I framed it in a recent post:
Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies … Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.
It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process. From gay rights to executive power to war to the environment, the left increasingly believes the Obama White House lacks the moral courage to undo Bush’s radicalism.
This is not just a blogospheric theme. The NYT on Monday:
We are starting to wonder whether Congressional Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, or simply lack convictions.
Long before the American public rendered judgment on Obama’s economic policies, a core group of progressive bloggers and activists were expressing alarm at everything from gay rights to Gitmo to torture, women’s reproductive freedom to Afghanistan. They were essentially saying that Obama was betraying his implied and explicit promise to be the anti-Bush.
As far back as May, 2009, I wrote:
Over the past four months there have been a series of flare-ups between the Obama administration and the progressive activist community, centered mainly around the new administration’s willingness (or lack thereof) to reverse Bush-Cheney’s radical excesses in the realm of civil liberties, secrecy, detainee treatment, interrogation, and counter-terrorism.
Ever astute and incisive, Digby raises what I think is the critical point in this entire debate: “The argument against torture is slipping away from us. In fact, I’m getting the sinking feeling that it’s over. What was once taboo is now publicly acknowledged as completely acceptable by many people. Indeed, disapproval of torture is now being characterized as a strictly partisan issue, like welfare reform or taxes.”
Ari Melber, my former Kerry campaign colleague, takes a parallel tack, arguing that there should be no debate here; torture is illegal. Even Bush acknowledged that. Glenn Greenwald, an indispensible voice on this topic, says bluntly: “Ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has taken one extreme step after the next to keep concealed both the details and the evidence of Bush’s crimes, including rendition, torture and warrantless eavesdropping.”
As has been the case for years, Democratic leaders, operating within the Washington bubble, misconstrue the concerns of the netroots and often privately dismiss them as the rantings of immature outsiders and political neophytes. But as always, the progressive community, a far more efficient thinking machine than a handful of strategists and advisers, is looking ahead and raising a unified alarm. The message is this: anything less than absolute moral clarity from Democrats, who now control the levers of power, will enshrine Bush’s abuses and undermine the rule of law for generations to come.
Setting aside all the campaign slogans about hope and change, what Obama really signifies is a razor sharp break from Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Rice, Rumsfeld, Addington, Libby, Bybee et al. After eight years of damage to the fabric of our Constitution and our nation, the entire point of a new face, a smart, youthful, inspiring Democratic president is to completely and totally reject the Bush years, to reject the lawless behavior, the Orwellian rationales, the blatant disregard of the Constitution. Neglecting to do so, and leaving any doubt about where Democrats stand on these issues, is profoundly detrimental to the country.
This was about Obama’s character, not just his policies, about moral courage and conviction — and the lack of it. The right, led by radio blatherers and the still potent rightwing attack machine, had their sights on Obama’s character from the very beginning. They were bent on destroying him. It’s when the left began conveying doubts about his moral authority that the warnings signs should have started flashing in the West Wing.
The health care debate, with the left’s profound disappointment over the public option and the right’s overwhelming antipathy to a “government takeover” permanently defined and enshrined the previously inchoate impressions of Obama as a man whose obsession with conciliation rendered him incapable of taking an unshakable stand in defense of his principles.
This is how I see the steady unraveling that has led to Obama’s steep drop in the polls and the deflation of the hope bubble. So even though a better economy would improve his standing, to reduce his problems to a poor economy is a gross oversimplification.
P.S. Even though it’s self-explanatory, to avoid any misunderstanding, the word ‘stupid’ in the title is only there as part of the infamous “it’s the economy, stupid” phrase. And saying “it’s Obama’s character” is not a value judgment but a contention that his problems are about character more than policy.