The Liberal Critique of Obama: Judging the President by His Own Standards

The left's core complaint is that he promised to challenge the political system but worked within it instead, never even attempting important reforms

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In the course of endorsing most of Jonathan Chait's essay on liberal discontent with President Obama, my colleague Clive Crook sums up its argument. "If liberals were to judge Obama by any intelligent standard -- comparing him with the Republican alternatives, or with previous Democratic presidents -- they would surely be impressed," he writes. "Healthcare reform, financial regulation, the stimulus: by progressive lights, these are notable, even historic, achievements." So why is it that American liberals seem "congenitally unable to apply such a standard"?

This ignores the source of the allegedly unreasonable liberal standards: Barack Obama. As I've argued at length, Obama defenders just ignore his broken promises on civil liberties, executive power, and national security. But set that aside, for there is something else that he promised his supporters in order to triumph over Hillary Clinton and John McCain, then totally ignored.

Take a look at some representative Obama quotes from Campaign 2008:

  • "If we do not change our politics -- if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works -- then the problems we've been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come."
  • "But let me be clear -- this isn't just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it's about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans."
  • "We are up against the belief that it's all right for lobbyists to dominate our government--that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we're not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change."
  • "Unless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change."
  • "If we're not willing to take up that fight, then real change--change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans--will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo."

These quotes were curated by Larry Lessig in his new book, Republic Lost. Here is his comment on them:

I was convinced by Obama. More than convinced: totally won over. It wasn't just that I agreed with his policies. Indeed, I didn't really agree with a bunch of his policies--he's much more of a centrist on many issues than I. It was instead because I believed that he had a vision of what was wrong with our government, and a passion and commitment to fix it... In speech after speech, Obama described the problem of Washington just as I have, though with a style that is much more compelling.

It was this theme that distinguished Obama most clearly from the heir apparent to the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. For Clinton was not running to "change the way Washington works." She stood against John Edwards and Barack Obama in their attack on the system and on lobbyists in particular. As she told an audience at YearlyKos in August 2007: "A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They represent nurses, they represent social workers, yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people." ...Instead, Clinton's vision of the presidency was much like her husband's... She saw the job of president to be to take a political system and do as much with it as you can. It may be a lame horse. It may be an intoxicated horse. But the job is not to fix the horse. The job is to run the horse as fast as you can. Clinton had a raft of programs she promised to push through Congress. Nowhere on that list was fundamental reform of how Washington worked.

Lessig and many Obama supporters besides backed him because of that distinction. "It was my view, too, that the critical problem for the next president was the corruption we've been exploring," Lessig wrote, "not because corruption is the most important problem. But because corruption is the gateway problem: until we solve it, we won't solve any number of other critical problems."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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