Saturday, December 19, 2009

Criticizing President Obama Is Pragmatic

President Obama's defenders in the media often describe him as a "pragmatist." Although these journalists usually do not define the term, it seems that they wish to imply that Obama can set aside his ideological commitments in order to deliver concrete results to his constituents. By contrast, many commentators portray Obama's progressive critics as people who place ideology above tangible results and who refuse to compromise and accept the incremental advancement of their overall political agenda.

Mainstream media outlets barely do a decent job reporting the news. Their attempt at political science is absolutely atrocious.

The Assumption That Obama Is a Progressive
When commentators describe Obama as a pragmatist, they assume that he is a progressive who compromises to achieve practical benefits. It is unclear, however, that Obama is actually a progressive.

Although Obama became the darling of the political Left during the Democratic primaries, he never really embraced policies that were more progressive than other mainstream Democratic presidential contenders. Nevertheless, the Left was so desperate to replace President Bush and to avoid the "triangulation" of the Clinton era that it easily accepted Obama's progressive narrative. Obama also benefited from an adoring media, which failed to raise tough questions about his progressive credentials and which often rushed to denounce his critics.

After he secured the Democratic nomination, President Obama started moving more overtly to the center. Many progressives accepted this "transformation" as a necessary element of a national political campaign. But long before he won the election or even the Democratic nomination, progressives had enough reasons to question Obama's liberal credentials. Obama, for example, criticized a Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed prior caselaw forbidding the death penalty in rape cases. He also praised a conservative Court ruling that found an individual right to bear arms and which invalidated a Washington, DC gun law. Obama also voted to renew the Patriot Act and, betraying a campaign promise, to extend immunity to telecoms that conducted unlawful surveillance on behalf of the Bush Administration. Citing his own religious views, Obama stated that he did not agree with same-sex marriage. And while the antiwar Left certainly preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton, Obama, like Clinton, said that he viewed the war in Afghanistan as a "just" war.

Although journalists often portray Obama as a pragmatic progressive who can prioritize concrete outcomes over his own ideological commitments, another narrative is also highly plausible. Obama is a political centrist who is in fact pursuing his own ideological commitments -- even if this means discarding the interests of liberals who were instrumental to his political success. This narrative, however, does not sound nearly as laudatory and self-sacrificing as the pragmatism rhetoric. It is, however, a perfectly logical take on Obama's political orientation.

Even if Obama is a progressive, he could compromise his ideological values in order to maximize his opportunity for reelection. If this is the reason for Obama's "pragmatism," then it is unclear that voters -- and certainly liberal voters -- should laud his careful effort to tread the center and to compromise with conservatives.

The Assumption That Obama's Progressive Critics Are Not Pragmatic
Commentators who laud Obama as a pragmatist almost uniformly condemn his progressive critics as ideological and impractical. Unlike Obama, who is a good, pragmatic progressive, liberals who criticize the President are politically inflexible ideologues whose rigidity, if widely followed, would preclude the implementation of helpful policies.

This juxtaposition of Obama (good, pragmatic) and his progressive critics (impractical, ideologues) has occurred most recently in debates surrounding healthcare reform. After the White House instructed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to delete the public plan and Medicare buy-in from the healthcare bill, liberals criticized Obama for betraying his campaign promises and for watering-down the measure. The White House responded by calling Obama's liberal critics "irrational" and "insane." Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic argued that they are privileged white college graduates who need not worry about the practical implications of their positions. These arguments are deeply flawed.

Brownstein's racial analysis is simply another bizarre manifestation of the notion that criticizing Obama -- even from a progressive perspective -- inevitably comes from a racial place. This argument is old, tired, and should be retired.

With respect to the point about pragmatism, depending upon the goals of progressives, criticizing Obama could operate as a highly pragmatic political tactic. President Obama has several items on his agenda -- including reelection. These goals, however, might cause him to act in a way that is inconsistent with progressive political agendas. Progressives can only influence Obama and other elected Democrats if they express their discontent. If they can also reveal that Obama is betraying his liberal base, then they can possibly make him more vulnerable from a political perspective. In order to cure or avoid this vulnerability, Obama may have to act in a way that addresses the concerns of progressives. If progressives never complain or engage in advocacy or mobilization, then politicians will have very few incentives to address their concerns.

By criticizing Obama, progressives are modeling the behavior of social movement participants as diverse as the abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights advocates, feminists, and proponents of GLBT rights. Progressive movements have never achieved their goals by peacefully acquiescing to the will of politicians. While successful progressive movements have undoubtedly made and accepted compromises, they have also condemned politicians -- even sympathetic politicians -- when doing so was appropriate. The election of Obama does not provide a reasonable basis for abandoning this tried and tested historical approach to social change.

6 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this post, Darren. I'm so sick of liberals telling other liberals to shut up and swallow without complaint whatever unpalatable policy comes out of this Congress with Obama's blessing. This is crazy. Muzzling dissent? From the left, no less? It's adding insult to injury.

Shame, is all I have to say. Not to mention that this kind of acquiescence will come back to bite us (them) in the you-know-what.

Aspasia said...

Besides, how many times did Obama instruct his followers to "make him live up to his promises"? So now that they're trying to, they're being told to shut up. Ah...just another empty statement from Obama.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hey, Elizabeht and Aspasia: thanks for the encouragement. I named this blog "Dissenting Justice" precisely because in 2008, the Left muzzled dissent to a large extent. I really depend on readers and bloggers like you to keep going.

Elizabeth said...

You know, Darren, there is something unsavory and insidious about the thought police on the left. I'm not really suprised by its existence, but I am surprised by its virulence.

I'm surfing through leftist blogs, reading posts related to the health insurance reform, and marveling at the raging intolerance of differing views on the issue. There is a dissertation somewhere here to be written on how the group allegiance affects our cognitive biases and vice versa.

I have been unaware of the liberal group-think until this summer (I'm slow), not until discussions on Obama and the health "care" "reform" specifically have directed my attention to it.

For example, I saw one well-known progressive blogger kick out his partner and friend from his blog for (politely) expressing views critical of Obama and his reform efforts. That really took my breath away (still does), so much so that I wrote a post about it (which seems eerily -- or maybe not so much -- prescient today).

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Elizabeth: I missed this post (the last one). Interesting story. A few of my colleagues in academia reacted with harshness to my critiques of Obama as well -- and especially to my defense and support of Hillary Clinton. I expect more from liberals AND from educators.

Hippi Chicki Niki said...

This was just brilliant. Amazingly brilliant. I see why it was included on your "Editor's Picks" list. I lost count of how many times I said "YES!" aloud while reading it.

You alluded to this argument, later, in your response to one of my comments about Rahm Emanuel being pragmatic. You have completely moved my point of view on this issue more in-line with yours.

I remember a pundit or a guest on the pundit's show (Rachel Maddow maybe?) saying that other Presidents that have transformed society for the better and have been looked upon favorably by history (I think JFK was specifically mentioned as an example) all had a lot of criticism from the left which influenced their policy further left.

As for the assumption that Obama is a progressive, I think hat it is an erroneous one. He has even made a comment or two to the effect that he is closer to the center and his wife is the progressive. I think that her speeches on the campaign trail have led others to the expectation and belief that they have the same political philosophy. It has been noted by several historians that chronicled the campaign and the first year in office that they disagree quite a bit politically and that lively debates about their beliefs (especially their disagreement about his belief that you could use the system, as it exists, to effect change). I believe one very important problem with this is that, during Obama's presidency (and partially due to the immense influence of Fox News Channel) the criticism from his right is louder and more visible and more emotionally charged than the criticism from the right and he may be making policy more in reaction to their criticism than in reaction to progressive criticism. Instead of trying to silence each other, we need to be trying to get louder and more pushy.

(N.B. I was amused to notice that this was written while you were probably still grading finals. It struck me, as I read it, that the structure seemed very close to a sample of the perfect test answer...)

I'm off to tweet this one now!

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