Every time new legislation or policies fall short of the expectations of progressives, several things happen. First, progressives complain that President Obama (yet again) has rushed to compromise with moderates and conservatives. Second, media commentators praise President Obama for being pragmatic and willing to work with others. Third, conservatives describe the legislation or policies as evidence of President Obama's sinister plot to turn the US into a communist society. To all who have engaged in this discourse, repeat after me: Obama is a moderate.
Progressives Continue to Ignore Reality
Regular readers of this blog know that I have long described Obama as a moderate -- even before he was elected. A long list of prior blog entries on this subject appears below this article. During the Democratic primaries, when Obama was the untouchable darling of the progressive community, I often watched with alternating confusion and amazement over the Left's collective worship of Obama and its portrayal of him as a progressive figure.
After Obama was elected, several factors indicated that he would fall far short of the wild expectations that many progressives had of him. He appointed despised Clinton-era officials to positions in his own administration. He chose Hillary Clinton, a "defeated" enemy of the political left, as his Secretary of State. And he would soon show his commitment to some policies of the Bush administration that progressives had vigorously opposed.
Although these decisions caused some progressives to awaken quickly from what I have described as an Obama-Vegetative State (a condition in which the patient is unable to think critically about Obama), clearly, others remain wedded to the unsubstantiated idea that Obama is a true progressive.
Despite the variety of data that prove Obama's moderate leanings, many progressives cling to the fantasy that he is a leftist. Accordingly, they become extremely upset when he dives toward the center and "compromises" with Republicans and moderate Democrats on issues such as the healthcare public option, the Bush tax cuts, and the magnitude and substance of the economic stimulus. Progressives demand that Obama negotiate from the left and move slightly to the right. Surprisingly, they assume that he shares their desire to start from the left in the first place.
The False Pragmatism Canard
In response to progressive criticism over Obama's political moderation, media commentators scold progressives for being partisans. They also praise Obama for being flexible and strategic. These commentators believe that Obama is a progressive but that he, unlike his progressive critics, is pragmatic. Most of these commentators, however, do not even engage the possibility that Obama himself is a strategic moderate who occupies the center not because failing to do so would doom him politically, but because this is the political space that coincides with his own ideological commitments.
The Conservative Red Scare Tactic
No one can convince Obama's rightwing critics that he is not a Muslim, socialist, communist, foreign-born individual causing the inevitable destruction of US society. So, I will leave them to their ideas. It is interesting, however, that the right and the left are equally drawn to their belief that Obama is a progressive.
What Progressives Must Do
If progressives wish to engage in helpful politics, they must first embrace a strategy grounded in reality rather than fiction. President Obama is a moderate. Starting with this premise creates the conditions for effective political action.
Second, progressives must become students of history. Moderate presidents have presided over deeply progressive social change, such as the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights to women, and the implementation of extensive civil rights legislation in the 1960s. If progressives study this history, they can learn how to build effective political action for change.
Third, progressives must engage in organized social movement behavior to shape public opinion about the need for change -- rather than exclusively focusing on their defeats. Although many progressives continue to participate in collective politics, these efforts are literally drowned out by the voices of critics who are continually frustrated by a president who does not satisfy their unrealistic expectations about his political ideology.
Finally, progressives need to engage in multidimensional political advocacy. Focusing on one political figure is a completely ineffective political strategy. Historically, political change has come about as a result of complex activism at the local, state and federal level. This political action has targeted voters, corporations, lawmakers, and executive branch officials. It has also involved courts and litigation. For many progressives, however, the national government -- and more specifically Obama -- has absolute centrality.
Social movements have produced remarkable progressive changes in the US. Part of this history involved criticism of political leaders. Nonetheless, a large part of that history centered around crafting public information campaigns and fostering ties with the public and with multiple layers of politicians and private entities to create political opportunities for change. If progressives refuse to follow this historical practice, then they will have to blame themselves as much as (or even more than) Obama for the failure of progressive politics.
The promised reading list on Obama as a moderate:
2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama
Chicken Little Politics: Moderate Obama Causes Progressive Panic
Criticizing President Obama Is Pragmatic
Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State
Free at Last? No!
From the "Duh" Files: Effusive Political Adoration Does Not Lead to Social Change
A Sober Look at a Democratic Sweep
If Obama Emulates Lincoln, Will Progressives Follow Abolitionists and Radical Republicans?
Head Explosion at The Nation: Left "Duped" by Its "Own Wishful Thinking"
The "Yes We Can" Movement Gets Sudden Reality Check!