Why Obama Disappointed Progressives

Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down, Bill Press, Threshold Editions, 311 pages.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Although it violates the first canon of literary criticism, let me judge Buyer’s Remorse by its cover, or at least take note of a couple of its features. On the back, Senator Bernie Sanders artfully praises the book without criticizing its subject—the outgoing president. On the spine, there is the logo for the publisher Threshold Editions, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster. Other recent Threshold authors include Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. But ultimately, a book must stand on the words inside the cover, even if it were published alongside a work by Donald Trump, another Threshold author.

Bill Press builds his case by examining virtually every aspect of the Barack Obama’s presidency and frequently finds him lacking. There are instances where he makes a strong case that the president could have achieved more, although Press attributes mystical power to Presidential Leadership and—in a phrase that should be stricken from the pundit lexicon—the Bully Pulpit.

It seems like ancient history from the vantage point of 2016, but Barack Obama took office in the midst of a an economic crisis that could have consumed his presidency. The fledgling administration’s response was to cobble together what would eventually pass as a 787 billion dollar stimulus plan to jump-start the economy. Christina Romer, the president’s chief economic advisor, initially argued for a much larger amount, and outside critics, most notably Paul Krugman, argued that the program was much too small and overly focused on tax cuts. Obama would have been wise to give a hearing to Romer, instead of relying on Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—as he would have been wise to pass on the Clinton administration/Wall Street retread in the first place. But Press clings to a fantasy world where the president only needs to go golfing with Republicans and be willing to “twist arms and knock heads together” in order to get his way from Congress. Press, however, has a point about the president’s negotiating skill in not seeking a larger amount up front.

The president’s signature achievement has been the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. To Obama’s GOP foes, the program is tantamount to evil. Repealing it would have been President Cruz’s top priority. But progressives generally see it as a win, though Bill Press is here to rain on the victory parade. To him, Obamacare is a compromised, Heritage Foundation-inspired retread that fails to achieve progressive goals: “It’s a half-baked measure that falls short of what is needed and of what was politically possible. Its main provision is to force people to buy health insurance from a private insurer if they’re not already insured by their employer. That is certainly not a progressive idea. In fact, its not even a good conservative idea.”

While Press nails the act’s shortcomings, he doesn’t make the case that more was achievable and he doesn’t give sufficient weight to the problem of Joe Lieberman as one of the Democrats’ 60 Senate votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.

The single issue that most helped to propel Barack Obama past Hillary Clinton in 2008 was his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which contrasted sharply with Clinton’s vote to authorize the war. By 2008, the phrase “Iraq War” was shorthand not only for the disastrous invasion itself, but also for the campaign of lies and half-truths (remember the phrases “smoking gun” and “mushroom cloud”?) used to sell it, the use of torture, and the surveillance state built to contain the constant threat of terror in the United States that the war was supposed to alleviate.

Barack Obama was dealt a very weak hand from the preceding Bush administration on foreign policy. He played it poorly from the outset by arguing that the “real war” was in Afghanistan instead of Iraq. That might have at one time been true, but by 2009, that was a difficult case to make—and our time there since 2009 has accomplished little. Press writes that “with the Taliban still controlling vast areas of Afghanistan and with no guarantee that any central government … will survive, many Americans are wondering why we went there in the first place, what we achieved in the long run, and why we stayed so long. President Obama could have pulled the plug on Afghanistan [during] his first month in office. The end result would have been the same.” Press is also critical of Obama’s war in Libya, which was fought absent congressional support, and that accomplished little more than turning the country into a failed state.

One area where Barack Obama made a clean break from his predecessor was in the use of torture against terror suspects. Buyer’s Remorse duly gives the president credit for this break, with reservations: “On January 22, two days after his inauguration, Obama followed through by signing a series of executive orders banning the use of torture, ending so-called extraordinary rendition flights and closing secret torture prisons in Poland, Thailand, Morocco, and Britain’s naval base at Diego Garcia. So far so good. But there were already clouds on the horizon.” Press, and many others wanted the president to bring charges against members of the Bush administration, starting at the top.

Buyer’s Remorse makes numerous valid criticisms of Obama, but suffers from Press’s need for a political savior. All the president had to do to meet with his approval was to enact single payer health care along with a two trillion dollar stimulus, indict the outgoing president and vice-president as war criminals, and enact cap-and-trade—and that’s just as a start. Obama failed to be a Progressive Savior, but he has succeeded well enough to launch the GOP into a paroxysm of Trumpian insanity.

For the premise of Buyer’s Remorse to hold, there would have to have been another progressive savior available in 2008, but Obama’s only serious opponent for the Democratic nomination that year was Hillary Clinton, who went on to enact some of the policies that Press (rightly) objects to as Obama’s secretary of state. It is difficult to imagine how a Clinton presidency would have been radically different than Obama’s. Having a front row seat to the failed impeachment of her husband, the one area where Clinton might have been better prepared than Obama in 2009 was in sizing up the implacable nature of the Republican opposition.

While reading Buyer’s Remorse, Press reminded me more than once of Mother Paroo from The Music Man, skeptically evaluating her spinster daughter’s high standards for a mate consisting of a “blend of Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster,” with which no man could ever hope to compete. His naive expectations are more startling since, as he repeatedly reminds the reader, he is a grizzled veteran of the White House Press Corps. Since his advice to Bernie Sanders, should he make it to the White House, is simply to “be yourself,” it would appear that the veteran correspondent hasn’t learned from his disappointment in the last eight years.

Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.

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20 Responses to Why Obama Disappointed Progressives

  1. connecticut farmer says:

    Press is only one of a huge number of so-called “journalists”–actually nothing more than highly paid propagandists–confer the title of “savior” upon whomever they believe will make the world aright, initially swooning at their feet only to reject them afterwards in a fit of disappointment and pique over their failure to live up to expectations. And the same pattern will continue, regardless of who is elected come November, whether Clinton, Sanders or Trump. No matter how hard we try, we cannot ascribe divinity to mere mortals.

  2. JLF says:

    An imperial presidency it is not. When all money comes from a House of Representatives, a body with an implacable Republican majority the last six of the eight years of the Obama presidency, what could be done could only be done before January 2011. With members fearful of losing their majority status, Obama could not bring himself to force unwilling Democrats to do more than they did. Nowhere is his failure as leader more evident.

    But what goes around comes around. The discipline that united the Republican opposition also bred expectations, expectations that the leadership had no intentions of fulfilling. Hence the Trump Revolt. And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.

  3. Liam says:

    Some historical notes about 2009:

    1. The Dems only had a 60 vote supermajority for a few month. It took over a half year to seat Al Franken, and Ted Kennedy was dead within a month after that. While Kirk eventually kept that seat warm for a few months, by January 2010 a Republican filled the seat for 3 more years.

    2. The so-called stimulus package was truncated by the gang-of-five (Senators Specter, Snowe, Collins, Nelson and Lieberman). The tax cut part was kept, but the stimulus to spend was heavily cut back. There was a third part that was, however, very successful at preventing what would have been a world-wide credit meltdown: it prevented widespread state and municipal credit defaults. That’s the dog that didn’t bark in 2009, and this country and the world would have been a far worse place if it had barked. The unwinding of state and municipal credit problems was instead worked out over a series of years – the steady and significant drop in public employment since 2009 is the not well-understood consequence of that.

  4. bt says:

    “With members fearful of losing their majority status, Obama could not bring himself to force unwilling Democrats to do more than they did”

    ——

    Spineless Democrats in Congress is a story that goes back for most of my adult life. Obama was not the first Democrat President who could not count on his own party for support.

    The Republicans have out-organized and out-campaigned the Democrats for a long time. The Republicans were so good at selling their package, it was almost as if they could sell refrigerators to Eskimos. And Democrats are always afraid of them. Pathetically so.

    I put this down to the fact that the GOP has always had more money to work with. And not campaign money – the GOP has had long money. Wealthy people have been building an enduring foundation of media, foundations, legal groups, industry groups, think tanks. It’s been very successful.

    You really have to wonder what those guys in the Star Chamber are saying about their new standard bearer, though.

  5. Clint says:

    Bill Press is part of The Liberal Mainstream Media ,who attempt to orchestrate elections and issues and then attempt to deny that they’re part of The Liberal Mainstream Media.

  6. Steven A.D. says:

    “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down.” Press seems to be speaking on behalf of a lot of folks.

    I think this president, a fairly pragmatic fellow, accomplished about as much as possible given environmental realities.

    If you buy into half of what Press is critiquing here, I suggest you take shelter where you belong: Fantasy Land

  7. Fran Macadam says:

    And in the main, Obama converted the progressives, if not to be neocons in name, through RTP (the euphemism for constant pre-emptive warmaking without accountability, “Right to Protect”), to become collaborators in “kinetic” “overseas contingency operations.”

    The Presidency has never been more imperial in warmaking, and the progressive peace movement so supine to have become not only irrelevant, not just invisible, but non-existent.

  8. A.J. Kinnamamn says:

    “Press reminded me more than once of Mother Paroo from The Music Man, skeptically evaluating her spinster daughter’s high standards for a mate consisting of a “blend of Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster”. ‘Suse me for sayin’, but Pr Obama never promised Bill Press or Th Frank a progressive rose garden. They projected their expectations upon him and then blame him for not living up to their expectations. They are hyping Bernie Sanders, who has proven himself unready for the big leagues, and damning Hillary Clinton, who would be a capable heir of Pr Obama. In damning her, the implicitly boost Trump. Such are the follies of the Democratic left.

  9. Myron Hudson says:

    There were a lot of nimrods out there who thought Obama was going to be some kind of liberal messiah, instead of the centrist he presented himself as. Apparently Stooksbury was one of them.

    You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, and then there are fools those who fool themselves.

  10. Myron Hudson says:

    …sorry about the word order in that last sentence.

  11. Myron Hudson says:

    and I meant Press not Stooksbury. Giving up now.

  12. Schuman says:

    Obama has been an average President. Maybe he could not be anything else. In the history books he will be the first black one, and little more. He won’t be lambasted either, which is already an achievement.

    I cut him some -a lot of, really- slack for the disaster he inherited from W., both at home and abroad, but he could have done better. The drone strikes, Gitmo, etc.

    If we have learned something from these last eight years is that the American political system is deeply dysfunctional. And Americans’ recurring habit of voting the opposite party to “check and balance” from the Legislative only adds to the problem.

  13. philadelphialawyer says:

    “It seems like ancient history from the vantage point of 2016, but Barack Obama took office in the midst of a an economic crisis that could have consumed his presidency.”

    True, but starting there lets President Obama off the hook for his biggest failures (next to his deeply disappointing FP, where, as President, he had lots of power, and yet gave us the Afghanistan Surge, the Libyan Debacle, the Syrian Misadventure, Iraq Redux, the Ukranian Coup D’Etat, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, etc, with, on the other side of the scale, Cuba and Iran), which was his basically doing nothing during the transition from November 4, 2008 to January 21, 2009. What Obama SHOULD have done, during that time, was create Administration bills for not only the stimulus, but health care, labor, tax, financial, environmental, and other regulatory matters, etc. Then, when he took office, and while the iron was hot, with the outgoing Administration reviled, while he had the wind at his back, with an 80% approval rating, the whole country (except for the DC Republicans and the worst racist-reactionaries) proud of and behind him, and a huge House majority and a fillibuster-proof Senate (at least in terms of pure partisanship) on his side, he should have, immediately, presented a barrage of these first “Hundred Days”/honeymoon bills to Congress. And taken the effort, and spent the political capital, to get Blue Dog Senators to at least not fillibuster them, even if they voted against them.

    That brief period, from when Obama took office to the loss of Ted Kennedy, was a once in a generation opportunity, from the perspective of “progressives,” ie liberals. Like LBJ in 1964 and 1965. Like FDR in 1933 to 1937. Obama’s period was shorter, but he has, in my view, not enough to show for it, even with that excuse.

    President-elect Obama SHOULD have known that the DC Republicans want no part of bipartisanship and compromise and responsible governance. Much less participation in the process of necessary “change” that Obama ran on. But he either didn’t know enough about the topic, or thought, somewhat egotistically, that he had the Golden Key to unlock the better angels of the GOP Senators and Reps. Hillary damn well knew it, and would not have made the same mistake.

  14. philadelphialawyer says:

    “There were a lot of nimrods out there who thought Obama was going to be some kind of liberal messiah, instead of the centrist he presented himself as.”

    As I recall, there was a lot more to “Hope and Change” than mere “centrism.” What was all the fuss about, otherwise? The chanting and the girls fainting and so on?

  15. Liam says:

    Also, it was pretty clear to many progressives after the Panic (September 2008) that Obama was not ever get a chance to enact much of the domestic agenda he had been campaigning on before that point. And it was always about a 50/50 proposition if he would be able to avoid being co-opted by the Deep State on foreign policy – the main thing he didn’t do was bomb Iran. Not sure Hillary would have been able to avoid that stupidity.

    I suspect Obama will get more credit than he does now. Heck, if his predecessor is looked on more kindly than when he left office, there’s no reason to suspect Obama won’t.

    Obama’s unpopularity numbers have never descended near those of GWB, GHWB, Carter, or Nixon

  16. Matt says:

    As I recall, there was a lot more to “Hope and Change” than mere “centrism.”

    Exactly. Obama was supposed to change the game, to transform Washington. I wouldn’t blame him if he tried but wasn’t able to, as it’s believable that one president can’t overturn the whole DC establishment, but he could have at least tried. Sanders and Trump are pretty much a continuation of the 2008 campaign in that sense.

  17. philadelphialawyer says:

    The other aspect of Obama’s presidency that disappoints liberals is that Obama had a grassroots army behind him in January ’09, but he sent it home. And proceeded to NOT get most of his agenda passed, or passed in watered down fashion. And then lose both midterm elections. “I got this” turned into “I got little or nothing.”

  18. Fran Macadam says:

    “As I recall, there was a lot more to ‘Hope and Change’ than mere ‘centrism.'”

    Yeah, it was dashed hopes and chump change.

    The Goldman Sachs Prez: “I would have liked to have done something but it would have pissed off too many powerful people.”

  19. balconesfault says:

    @philadelphialawyer Then, when he took office, and while the iron was hot, with the outgoing Administration reviled, while he had the wind at his back, with an 80% approval rating, the whole country (except for the DC Republicans and the worst racist-reactionaries) proud of and behind him, and a huge House majority and a fillibuster-proof Senate

    The approval rating dropped 10% in a month … and the GOP leadership never acted as if the approval rating mattered.

    Liam already addressed the filibuster-proof supermajority – which never existed until Franken was sworn in on July 7, and by then Obama’s approval rating had lost another 10% … and by then the Tea Party had been in ascendance for 3 months, scaring a number of blue dog Dems to pull back on their support for a progressive agenda.

    The author has it right when he notes “the problem of Joe Lieberman” … and on a number of issues that problem extended to Evan Bayh (protector of Big Pharma), Ben Nelson (who had helped block a filibuster of Bush’s tax cuts in 2001), and Mary Landrieu (as big a defender of oil interests as most GOPers).

    If I fault Obama … and the Dems in general … for anything, it was for not raising the stakes significantly for any Dem who would have supported a McConnell-led filibuster. I can see a Dem deciding they need to vote against a Democratic bill in order to support their States interests. I cannot countenance a Dem upholding a filibuster that blocks Dem legislation from making it to the floor.

    But the problem was real, and had Obama had a more heavy handed press against the GOP from the beginning on the Senate, you might have never had the Arlen Spector defection … which would have meant the Dems would have never had their filibuster proof majority.

  20. mtnwoman says:

    And after all that, the odious TPP will be his legacy. The one issue Obama went to the mat for, and with Repubs as his strongest allies.

    And government is still bought and paid for by big money. The rich get richer, the rest decline. The game plays on….

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