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‘Obamamania’ on the Wane

The progressive crowd isn't happy and is gearing up to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.

by
Eric Scheie

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December 1, 2008 - 12:01 am
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Well, being a libertarian means never having rose-colored glasses on, so it’s a bit hard for me to identify with that. But I think the unmistakable subtext is that the left is gearing up to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.

Many signs point to growing discontent on the left towards Obama. I expect the controversy over Obama’s backpedaling over the gays in the military issue will heat up, and I’m also seeing signs of irritation like this:

UC Berkeley students joined the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) last week to launch a national campaign urging President-elect Barack Obama to enact the federal Dream Act, which would legalize federal financial aid and open a path of citizenship for undocumented immigrant college students across the nation, who are otherwise entrapped in complicated paperwork.

Etc. No word on what the By Any Means Necessary brigade will do if Obama doesn’t comply, but when groups like that don’t get their way, they are unlikely to remain silent. Similarly, another group is demanding that Obama close the former School of the Americas (much hated by the hard left, and renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), but there’s no word on what they’ll do if the school continues.

There’s more and more disgruntlement over the absence of “progressives” in the Obama administration. Robert Kuttner complains that progressives are missing and that Obama had picked “the same centrist club” consisting of “a team of Rubinistas.”

The Nation‘s Chris Hayes is far less circumspect. He sounds angry and scolding:

Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care. And I don’t just mean in that in a sectarian way. I mean to say that the emerging establishment consensus on all of these issues came from the left.

Open Left’s Chris Bowers is at least as frustrated over the appointment of General Jim Jones to head the NSA, while progressives are being left out:

Why isn’t there a single member of Obama’s cabinet who will be advising him from the left? It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely.

It is just so very frustrating. It seems like the only place progressives are making any gains is in the House. We are being entirely left out of Obama’s major appointments so far. I guess everyone gets to play in Obama’s administration, except progressives.

I’m finding it very tough to be frustrated by their frustration, and I agree with Glenn Reynolds’ assessment that Obama is “looking ever more hawkish and tax-cutting, so who knows — things may work out.”

But if Obama is seen as betraying the left, while that might help him with the right, is that really his goal? I don’t think he’s playing to the right, because none of the appointments the “progressives” complain about can honestly be called rightist, or even conservative. As the New York Times noted recently, “he has yet to name any Republicans to cabinet-level positions as pledged.”

Since then, however, Team Obama announced that the president-elect plans to keep the Bush administration’s Robert Gates as secretary of defense — a move certain to infuriate “progressives.” By a process which is almost mathematical, the more infuriated the latter become, the more they make Obama look like a centrist whether he is or not.

John Hawkins of Right Wing News takes issue with the view of Obama as a centrist, much less a rightist:

Obama is not a centrist and he’s not filling his cabinet up with them either. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and the overwhelming majority of staffers Obama is bringing on are hard core liberals. The Kos crowd may not always look at it like that, but the netroots think anyone who doesn’t want to prosecute Bush for war crimes or deliberately lose the war in Iraq is practically a Republican.

That reflects the split I’ve seen in Berkeley for years — between Marxist-style “progressives” and mainstream Democrat “liberals,” with the former seeing the latter as “right wing.” (In fairness, I guess they are to the right — of the far left.)

I think what is emerging on the right is not so much a view that Obama is a centrist so much as a sigh of relief that so far, he’s not acting like the radical Marxist some conservatives predicted he would. Despite the past utopian ruminations of Bill Ayers, there is no Five Year Plan to liquidate the American Kulak class. (Just to be on the safe side, though, the latter are stocking up on guns, which benefits the economy.)

Barack Obama is a highly skilled politician who weighs the consequences of every move. While he ran on the left, he is now showing clear signs of what we would call “playing to the center.” As to how much of that is real centrism and how much is the appearance of centrism caused by angry progressive outbursts, it’s too early to tell.

But there’s no question that the angry progressive outbursts are growing shriller and shriller. Even before the Gates announcement became news, The Nation‘s William Greider sounded the alarm, in very strong terms:

Obama’s choices have begun to define him. His victory, it appears, was a triumph for the cautious center-right politics that has described the Democratic Party for several decades. Those of us who expected more were duped, not so much by Obama but by our own wishful thinking.

I’m enjoying this so much that I’m starting to engage in wishful thinking myself!

Is it possible that this is precisely what Team Obama wants? To lull the libertarian and conservative opposition into a false sense of security by adeptly pretending to play to the center? I’ve been so steeped in election-oriented thinking for so long now that it’s hard to analyze things any other way. But the election is over, isn’t it?

It’s a bit of a puzzle, but I’m hoping maybe he’s not playing to anyone, and that he really is at heart more of a centrist than a far left ideologue. Certainly, that’s what the American people would want him to be.

Of course, even if this is not from the heart, and he’s being a consummate politician and thinking ahead to 2012 (or the next congressional election), the practical result would still be the same.

As to the “progressive base,” I think Obama can take them for granted, especially right now. They have nowhere to go, and it’s not as if they’d ever vote Republican. Barack Obama can act like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon who famously said (to Joel Cairo, after slapping him):

When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.

This is not to say that I’m comparing Barack Obama to Humphrey Bogart, as it’s far too early for that.

However, at the risk of being engaged in wishful thinking, I’d enjoy seeing the Joel Cairos of the left get slapped a few more times.

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Eric Scheie blogs at Classical Values.
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