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

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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."

Is Lessig's disappointment becoming easier to understand? He judged Obama against what seems to many voters like the most reasonable standard of all: what he promised to attempt if elected. It isn't Obama's failure that rankles Lessig and many others, so much as that he never tried.

As Lessig puts it:

I thought Obama got this. That's what he promised, again and again. That was "the reason [he] was running for President[--]to challenge that system." Yet Obama hasn't played the game that he promised. Instead, the game he has played has been exactly the game that Hillary Clinton promised and that Bill Clinton executed: striking a bargain with the most powerful lobbyists as a way to get a bill through--and as it turns out, the people don't have the most powerful lobbyists. As I watched this strategy unfold, I could not believe it. The idealist in me certainly could not believe that Obama would run a campaign grounded in "change" yet execute an administration that changed nothing of the "way Washington works."

But the pragmatist in me also could not believe it. I could not begin to understand how this administration thought that it would take on the most important lobbying interests in America and win without a strategy to change the power of those most important lobbying interests. Nothing close to the reform that Obama promised is possible under the current system; so if that reform was really what Obama sought, changing the system was an essential first step.

I take no position about whether Obama's "change the rules of the game" rhetoric or his "prioritize working within the system toward health care reform and stimulus" actions were the wiser course. It is enough to note that this is a subject of intense disagreement on the left, that Obama explicitly championed liberals on one side of the argument, and that having won them over, he betrayed their trust. It isn't a coincidence that one motivation for the leftists taking to the streets in cities across America is the growing conviction that working within the political system is pointless.

Obama helped bring about that feeling:

In each case, the story is the same. The interests that would be affected by the CHANGE that Obama promised lobbied and contributed enough to block real change. Not completely, but substantially. Seven billion dollars have been spent lobbying this Congress during the first two years of the Obama administration, almost $1 billion more than was spent in the last two years of the Bush administration.54 That money blocks reform. It will always block reform, at least so long as the essential element to effecting reform, Congress, remains pathologically dependent upon the campaign cash that those who block reform can deliver.
...When critics like me attacked this retreat, the administration defended itself by claiming the president was never a "leftist." But the problem with this administration is not that it is too conservative. And certainly not that it is too liberal. The problem with this administration is that it is too conventional. It has left untouched the corruption that the president identified, which means that it has left as hopeless any real reform for the Left.

If Obama's defenders want to take on the strongest arguments against the president -- or the most compelling case for liberal disillusionment -- the best place to begin is Lessig's apt critique, or else the critiques that candidate Obama would make of the administration President Obama has run.

Image credit: Reuters

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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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