If we trace liberal disappointment with President Obama to its origins, to try to pinpoint the moment when his crestfallen supporters realized that this was Not Change They Could Believe In, the souring probably began on December 17, 2008, when Obama announced that conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren would speak at his inauguration. “Abominable,” fumed John Aravosis on AmericaBlog. “Obama’s ‘inclusiveness’ mantra always seems to head only in one direction—an excuse to scorn progressives and embrace the Right,” seethed Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow rode the story almost nightly: “I think the problem is getting larger for Barack Obama.” Negative 34 days into the start of the Obama presidency, the honeymoon was over.
Since then, the liberal gloom has only deepened, as Obama compromise alternated with Obama failure. Liberals speak of Obama in unceasingly despairing terms. “I’m exhausted [from] defending you,” one supporter confessed to Obama at a town-hall meeting last year.
“We are all incredibly frustrated,” Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told the Washington Post in September. “I’m disappointed in Obama,” complained Steve Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography. The assessments appear equally morose among the most left-wing and the most moderate of Obama’s supporters, among opinion leaders and rank-and-file voters. In early 2004, Democrats, by a 25-point margin, described themselves as “more enthusiastic than usual about voting.” At the beginning of 2008, the margin had shot up to over 60 percentage points. Now as many Democrats say they’re less enthusiastic about voting as say they’re more enthusiastic.
The cultural enthusiasm sparked by Obama’s candidacy drained away almost immediately after his election. All the passion now lies with the critics, and it is hard to find a liberal willing to muster any stronger support than halfhearted murmuring about the tough situation Obama inherited, or vague hope that maybe in a second term he can really start doing things. (“I’m like everybody, I want more action,” an apologetic Chris Rock said earlier this month. “I believe wholeheartedly if he’s back in, he’s going to do some gangsta shit.”) Obama has already given up on any hope of running a positive reelection campaign and is girding up for a grim slog of lesser-of-two-evils-ism.
Why are liberals so desperately unhappy with the Obama presidency?
There are any number of arguments about things Obama did wrong. Some of them are completely misplaced, like blaming Obama for compromises that senators forced him to make. Many of them demand Obama do something he can’t do, like Maddow’s urging the administration to pass an energy bill through a special process called budget reconciliation—a great-sounding idea except for the fact that it’s against the rules of the Senate. Others castigate Obama for doing something he did not actually do at all (i.e., Drew Westen’s attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay assailing Obama for signing a budget deal with cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid that were not actually in the budget in question).
I spend a lot of time rebutting these arguments, and their proponents spend a lot of time calling me an Obama apologist.
Some of the complaints are right, and despite being an Obama apologist, I’ve made quite a few of them myself. (The debt-ceiling hostage negotiations drove me to distraction.) But I don’t think any of the complaints—right, wrong, or otherwise—really explain why liberals are so depressed.
Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
So, what if we compare Obama with a real alternative? Not to Republicans—that’s too easy—but to Democratic presidents as they lived and breathed?
One variant of liberal disappointment has taken the form of resurgent Clinton nostalgia. Hillary Clinton, removed from the undertow of partisan combat in her role as secretary of State, has enjoyed soaring approval ratings, while Bill has burnished his credentials with a book on fixing the economy. If Bill Clinton (or Hillary Clinton—admirers tend to blur their identities) were in charge, pine their devotees, they wouldn’t have rolled over on the economy. They’d have fought the Republicans on the stimulus and won. “If Hillary gave up one of her balls and gave it to Obama,” James Carville told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last year, “he’d have two.” Clinton was known for his slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” and has become one repository for frustrated Democrats who believe Obama failed to attack the economic crisis with enough vigor. “No one ever had to tell Hillary that,” a bitter Clinton primary supporter recently remarked to the Daily Beast.