Why Liberals Shouldn't Lay Off Obama

Judging from the headline, "Liberals, Lay Off Obama," Peter Beinart, in The Daily Beast, wants to make an argument about why liberal criticism of Barack Obama is counter-productive.  He ends up making a different argument: Obama, it seems, is governing as a liberal, and doing a good job of it.

If he gets health-care reform, Obama will have done more to rebuild the American welfare state in one year than his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did in a combined twelve.

And that's true. And lots of liberals are happy. But that doesn't mean they ought to accept this blueberry pie and close their mouths.

I don't know whether Beinart opposes the ambient pressure that Obama gets from his left.  He shouldn't. As noted before, it seems to me that liberals criticize Barack Obama more than conservatives criticized George W. Bush until the last few years of his presidency. Why that is, I don't know for sure. It may be that Bush found a way to truly unite conservatives. Or it may be that the political poohbahs in the administration went out of their way to paint opponents as disloyal. Or that, because Democrats were the out-group for so long, and their hopes for Obama were so high, that they cannot be anything but critical.

But what's clear to me is that the country could have used more criticism during the Bush era. Specifically, criticism from within his party, using the regular conservative social cascade mechanisms like talk radio, might have tempered the excessive hubris that became the Bush administration's biggest blind spot. Bush wasn't a god. Elections aren't -- can't be -- the only means of holding powerful interests accountable.

The presidency has acquired (and lost and reacquired) enormous discretionary powers over individuals, companies, the military and other nationstates the course of more than two centuries. Waging war -- the power to order people detained, or killed -- is certainly the most urgent type of power that needs a check. Domestic politics are mostly about whose projects get funded and whose ideals get advocated by the government. Without a check on his power -- without internal opposition -- President Obama would be able to do pretty much whatever he wanted. And even if you think that's OK in practice -- if you think that Obama is a benevolent guy who knows how to exercise power cautiously -- it really isn't OK in theory.

I'm expressing an opinion here. It's the opinion that, given the lessons of the past eight years --or the past 220 years -- the more constructive criticism, the more pressure a president gets, the better. The press, either because it's in the tank for Obama or because it's weak and feckless, cannot and should not be the only watchdogs. Republican criticism has virtually no resonance at all. So it's up to Democrats to help police the guy, the man, the mortal, they elected to the most powerful position in the world.

The push and pull between the White House and Democrats is also good for Democrats. It reminds the president which party he belongs to. It reminds the party that its interests often do not align with the interests of the executive branch. And it helps to build legitimacy for whatever policy decision is ultimately arrived it. Since President Obama and Democrats are usually on the same page, if not on the same sentence, a vigorously contested policy debate is often the best way to ensure that the policy is durable.

The White House views the internal dissent as an annoyance, which is OK, but one that they've got to deal with. Dealing with it humbles the presidency as an institution.

In some ways, the volume of liberal pressure against President Obama exceeds the magnitude. That is to say that, with the brief exception of a period lasting for a few weeks over the summer, Democrats have given President Obama about 90 percent of their support. The farther way from Washington you go -- in proximity to the debates, rather than in actual distance -- the less likely you are, as a Democrat, to be critical.    So even the most potent arguments from the progressive intellectual elite aren't likely to sway policy too much. But that they exist is a constant reminder to the White House that it has been entrusted with something that it had better not abuse.