The Strategic Failure Of the Purist Left’s Persistent Attacks On President Obama

(Cross-posted at Winning Progressive)

For much of the time that President Obama has been in the White House, it has become fashionable among a vocal subset of progressives to attack President Obama as a failure who does not share our progressive values. While Winning Progressive thinks our President has been way off base on some issues (such as education policy and civil liberties) and we have been disappointed with compromises reached on others, the purist progressive critique is highly overwrought. Even more importantly, the approach of focusing progressive anger about the current political situation at President Obama is, as we will discuss below, extremely bad political strategy that will eviscerate the Democratic voter enthusiasm that is critical to winning in 2012.

One high-profile purveyor of the “President Obama as a capitulating non-progressive” view is Drew Westen, a psychology professor who a few months ago had a column in the New York Times entitled “What Happened to Obama’s Passion?”. In it, Westen chided the President for not fighting aggressively enough for certain progressive policies, and for not framing politics in terms of a story that paints conservatives and bankers as the clear villains who wrecked our economy. Westen’s column can be summed up by his assertion that:

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue.

A number of commentators took Westen’s column on, pointing out President Obama has strongly spoken up on exactly the progressive principles (such as universal health care) that Westen claims he has not, noting various factual errors in Westen’s column, and challenging Westen’s assertions about the importance of the story telling approach that Westen wishes President Obama had taken.

There are three other problems with the critique put forth by Westen and other purist progressive critics of President Obama that we’d like to discuss here.

* Results Matter – Any fair analysis of President Obama must address not only the shortcomings, but also the successes. The list of progressive victories is long, as we’ve previously laid out in this post from late December 2010. Additional victories since then have included finalization of air pollution regulations that will save 13,000+ lives per year, requiring insurance companies to provide birth control with no co-pays, urging federal courts to find the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and proposing to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars to 54 miles per gallon. There are certainly issues in which President Obama has been disappointing or even downright wrong, but this overall track record is easily the most progressive of any President since Lyndon Johnson and belies the contention that it is hard to know what our President is fighting for.

* Don’t Ignore the True Political Enemy – The obsessive focus of some progressives on criticizing our President is also misguided because it distracts attention from conservatives, who are the real political enemy. For example, on health care reform the debate with President Obama is over the best ways to achieve universal coverage. Meanwhile, Republicans oppose government doing anything to increase access to health care and want individuals to incur more of the costs of care. Similarly, for Medicare, the debate with President Obama is over the best ways to ensure the long-term fiscal solvency of the program. Meanwhile, Republicans have voted to abolish Medicare. On LGBT rights, the debate with President Obama focused on the best ways to end DADT and DOMA. Meanwhile, with only a few exceptions, Republicans are unequivocally opposed to repealing either of those discriminatory laws. If we want to be spending 2013 and 2014 debating how to expand health care coverage and increase LGBT equality, rather than desperately fighting attempts to turn back the clock on both of those issues, we progressives should be focusing our energies on attacking these Republican plans and explaining to the public why progressive views are right and conservative proposals are wrong, rather than devoting most of our energy on pretending that President Obama is a failed capitulator who is little better than the GOP.

* Voter Enthusiasm Is Critical to Winning Elections – In an interesting article in the New York Review of Books, Andrew Hacker discussed the critical role that voter enthusiasm plays in deciding elections, with the 2008 versus 2010 elections results serving as a good example:

The 2010 turnout was in the usual midterm range, about twenty points below the preceding presidential figure. But the dip was not at all the same for both parties . . . . the sharp GOP gains in the House were due to “a drastically lower Democratic turnout.” Surveys show that of those who voted in 2008, Democrats were almost twice as likely not to do so in 2010. So the voters in 2010 had a markedly different profile: they were older, whiter, more ideological on economic and social issues, and more firmly Republican. Had they been the electorate in 2008, John McCain would now be president.

In short, Democrats lost in 2010 because a different electorate showed up in 2010 than in 2008. Yet the purist progressive critique threatens to cause this exact same result in 2012.

We already know that, contrary to the evidence, conservatives will portray President Obama as an ineffective radical. If we progressives fight back against that message by highlighting both the progress made under President Obama and the pathological intransigence that the GOP has engaged in to try to undermine the Obama Administration, then we have a good chance that the 2012 electorate will re-elect President Obama and a Democratic Congress so that we can continue the progress. If, however, we progressives spend the vast majority of our time erroneously portraying the President as ineffective and little better than the GOP, then the voters will not realize why they should vote for the Democrats and, instead, we will end up with President Romney, Speaker Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Unfortunately, the approach taken by Drew Westen and his ilk threaten to lead to exactly that result, rather than to a political atmosphere in which we can be once again advancing the progressive agenda.