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.