An Intra-Left Debate: Is Obama the 'More Effective' of 2 Evils?

Progressives grapple with uncomfortable, frequently ignored questions raised by the president's agenda.

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Left-leaning journalist Glen Ford, the editor of Black Agenda Report, has taken to the radio waves to proclaim Barack Obama "not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil." By virtue of being a Democrat, he argues, the president has been able to advance policies that would trigger resistance if the GOP attempted them. His deficit-reduction commission has created "a model for austerity," and he codified preventive detention in law, Ford complained. "He's expanded the theaters of war in drone wars, and he's made an unremitting assault on international law," he continued, adding that "what will go down as his biggest contribution to history is a kind of merging of the banks and the state, with $16 trillion being infused into these banks, into Wall Street ... and the line between Wall Street and the federal government virtually disappearing."

These were his opening remarks in a debate with Professor Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown sociologist. My sharp-eyed colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates drew my attention to the exchange.

Thank goodness these two men were arguing. After watching conservatives avoid the tough questions raised by the Bush Administration for years on end, a decision they eventually regretted, it's been disheartening to see so many on the left keeping quiet about President Obama's actions and their implications for liberalism and progressivism.

Hopefully this exchange is a portent of things to come. Here's Dyson defending the left: 

Of course, the fluff and the desiderata may be absolutely true, as Mr. Ford has indicated. But the reality is, is that Obama is as progressive a figure who has the chance of being elected in America. Friedrich Engels is not going to be the secretary of labor, and Marx will not be the secretary of Treasury, bottom line. Now, having said that, all of the stuff that Glen Ford has talked about is absolutely right in an ideal world where the politics of erosion can be stemmed by progressive forces that have an upsurgence, that have the possibility of getting elected.
But if you ain't in the game -- Miami Heat is playing the Oklahoma Thunder. It's not 'I'd prefer it be the Los Angeles Lakers.' This is the game we're talking about. And if the American left can't be involved in the actual practice of government to offer the critical and salient insights that are available -- take -- take 2000, when siding with Nader, then Al Gore, who should have been president, who would have prevented some of the stuff that we see now happening, didn't occur. The left won't take responsibility for the fact that, with the extraordinary intelligence of a Glen Ford and many other leftists notwithstanding, the reality is that he's the most progressive president, as Gary Dorrien, an American leftist who teaches at Union Theological Seminary argues, since FDR. Those are the stakes on the ground. We're talking about what he's done with earned income tax credit, when we talk about bailing out the American automobile industry, when we speak about the fact that Affordable Healthcare Act is put forth, you talk about pre-existing conditions. When you speak about, across the board, what Obama has been able to do despite the intransigence of the Republican Party, then you talk about on-the-ground practices of actually achievable political goals.

Dyson's general argument is familiar. Basically, he thinks it's a mistake to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But look at the faulty assumptions he makes on the way to that claim.

Of course Karl Marx is never going to run our economic policy. What does that possibly have to do with Obama's treatment of Wall Street? Are we to believe that only a radical Marxist would've failed to funnel trillions to the former and future firms of leading officials in the administration?

Yes, it makes sense for leftists to judge Obama's successes alongside his failures. But Dyson's attempt to evaluate the whole leaves me reeling. He seems to acknowledge the morally objectionable things that Obama does in the realm of national security -- codifying indefinite detention into law; waging secret, undeclared drone wars that routinely kill innocents; violating international law (for example, he's failed to meet his legal obligations under torture treaties duly ratified by a past Senate and signed by President Reagan).

Confronted with those issues, how does Dyson reply by praising "what he's done with earned income tax credit"? Like Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, and Ross Douthat, I'm glad that under Obama a working family with three children can receive a maximum of $5,751 rather than $5,112. Am I supposed to consider that in the same moral universe with a policy that most recently led to 13 innocent people being killed in Yemen? In order to theoretically reduce the already miniscule chance of an American citizen dying in a terrorist attack, our president wages an ongoing assassination campaign that has already killed hundreds of innocents. On the other hand, he got working class people in one of the richest countries on earth $639.

Dyson talks as if the former helps to mitigate the latter. Is that a widely held belief on the left?

The Affordable Care Act is a more substantial change in policy. Progressives understandably celebrate the new people it insures, the added protection it gives to insurance consumers, and what many on the left regard as prudent reforms likely to improve the health care system as a whole going forward. It remains the case that President Clinton (and President Nixon, for that matter) attempted major health care reform legislation. The auto-bailout? George W. Bush approved the first phase of it. When Obama pushed through the bigger part of it, Rep. Paul Ryan voted yes. Nor was it the only auto bailout in U.S. history. President Carter signed the Chrysler bailout. All of this is to say that Dyson exaggerates the degree to which Obama's domestic policy is "the most progressive since FDR," especially given the existence of LBJ.

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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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