This aspect of the liberal style expresses itself as a persistent desire to improve not just policy but politics itself. Progressivism developed a century ago out of a desire to cleanse politics of bosses and transactionalism. Republicans are focused only on dismantling government, and the great movements to reform politics have all come from the left. Some liberals attribute their disappointment in Obama to the excessive hopes he raised about representing better, cleaner, more uplifting politics. But the euphoria surrounding Obama’s election differed only in degree from that of previous presidents. Clinton was the Man From Hope, touring the country with Al Gore and promising the renewing spirit of a younger generation. Carter frequently pledged, “I will never lie to you,” and moved the 1976 Democratic convention hall to tears.
The reality of governing can never fulfill this hoped-for version, and so inevitably liberals recoil. Chris Matthews, who famously thrilled to Obama’s inspirational rhetoric, now complains, “Word is out that Obama is a ‘transactional’ politician.” Jon Stewart put it in even more anguished terms, expressing his disappointment that politics itself did not change under Obama: “He ran on this idea that the system and the methodology are corrupt. It felt like the country was upset enough that he had the momentum needed to reevaluate how business is done. Instead, when he got elected, he acted as though the system is so entrenched that it has to be managed.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing in 1949, assailed liberal idealists who were abandoning Truman for the millennial promises of Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party. Schlesinger defined this impulse as a “fear … of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences.” Schlesinger was writing about the left, but his description applies just as well to centrists. Indeed, the unhappy moderate liberals may be the most irrational component of Obama’s let-down supporters. Enraged left-wing bloggers may harbor unrealistic notions of what Democrats could achieve, but they are at least correct that Obama does not fully share their goals.
Is it really likely that all these presidents had the same flaws?
What, by contrast, are we to make of third-party activists like Thomas L. Friedman or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? They have a president who supports virtually everything they want—short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction through a mix of taxes and entitlement cuts, clean energy, education reform, and social liberalism. Yet they are agitating for a third party in order to carry out an agenda that is virtually identical to Obama’s. In a column touting the third-party Americans Elect, the closest Friedman comes to explaining why we should have a third party, rather than reelect the politician who already represents their values, is to say that such a party “would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago, not on the eve of a Treasury default.” He agrees with Obama’s plan, in other words, but proposes to form a new party because he disagrees with his legislative sequencing.
As political analysis, this is pure derangement. It’s the Judean People’s Front for the Aspen Institute crowd. But these sorts of anti-political fantasies arise whenever liberals are forced to confront the crushing ordinariness of governing. (Matthew Miller, a fervent promoter of Americans Elect, likewise pined for a third party in 1996, on the curious grounds that President Clinton wasn’t doing enough to balance the budget.) Liberal disaffection helped Republicans win elections in 2000, 1968, and very nearly in 1948. All those elections came after Democrats had held the White House for at least two terms, and liberal disgust with politics had built up to toxic levels.
There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.
Which brings us back to Obama. Is it understandable to believe that his administration has been a disappointment to date? Of course. On the other hand, maybe there is something to learn from the frequent (anguished) comparisons liberals make between Obama and FDR. Part of the reason Roosevelt’s record looms so large from a distance is because historians measure these things differently from political activists. Activists measure progress against the standard of perfection, or at least the most perfect possible choice. Historians gauge progress against what came before it.
By that standard, Obama’s first term would indeed seem to qualify as gangsta shit. His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.