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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

The more time I spend in Berkeley, California (where I am on an extended visit), the more I find myself wondering about something.

Is the left-wing phenomenon known as “Obamamania” on the wane?

It might be too early to tell, but from what I’ve been reading and hearing, I see clear signs that it is. A number of leftist commentators have worked themselves into quite a lather over Barack Obama’s apparent “centrism” — especially his failure to appoint “progressives” (code language for far leftists).

Things have come a long way since the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mark Morford mythologized Barack Obama as a “powerful luminosity, a unique high-vibration integrity” in a piece which noted approvingly that “spiritually advanced people” saw him as approaching Godhead — as a magical “Lightworker”:

Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

Whether Morford still seeks the beatification of St. Barack, I don’t know, but these days his paper seems more to be playing the role of devil’s advocate. A recent piece (headlined as “Obama Team Heavy On Centrists — Economic appointments make some Republicans happier than liberals” at the web site) grimly noted Republican praise, and liberal skepticism:

While Republicans were praising Obama’ economic team (Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. said Obama demonstrated “strong and early leadership by his choices), liberal were more skeptical. Noting the heavy reliance on former Clinton administration officials, including Geithner and Summers, Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said both men “supported policies that got us here. They were big fans of financial deregulation, they didn’t take financial bubble seriously — back then it was the stock-market bubble, but they said asset bubbles were not a big deal. The hope is they’ve learned something, and that remains to be seen.”

The Berkeley Daily Planet (“Party’s Over–Time to Get Back to Work“) wasted no time in taking Barack Obama directly to task. The first sentence (sounding eerily like a conservative Op Ed in the Washington Times) laments that “as the economic news goes daily from bad to worse, Obamamania continues unabated.” As the editorial reminds us, the fabled Kennedy of Camelot was a war hawk, and it might be time to take off the rose-colored glasses:

In the words of the song (and the title of the book) Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. When the symbolic significance of Obama’s African ancestry is added to the mix, it’s an irresistible combination, bound to induce euphoria.

That’s why it’s incumbent on those of us who are mightily impressed with Barack Obama and his whole family to keep our critical faculties intact. Despite good intentions and personal integrity, John Kennedy took the country in some unfortunate policy directions. The disastrous Vietnam war had its roots in the Kennedy administration.

A cloud on this week’s sunny horizon is the lurking presence of Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, two of the villains in the Clinton economic debacle. Bob Scheer in his syndicated column at truthdig.com does a good job of skewering them, and Obama supporters everywhere should suggest to their hero that much better advice is available.

Rahm Emmanuel, chosen for Obama’s chief of staff, is both good news and bad news. He’s smart and competent, but he used his brains and muscle to push Clinton’s dreadful welfare reform policies. His father seems to have worked with the Israeli terrorist group Irgun in his youth, and just caused a flap with racist-appearing anti-Arab remarks quoted in the Israeli press, though Rahm apologized for him later. Perhaps the son is wiser than the father, but let’s wait and watch.

On the other hand, the list of excellent advisers that Obama has assembled is very long, so a few bad apples probably won’t spoil the whole bunch. But — to mix in one more metaphor — it’s time for the rose-colored glasses to come off.

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.

Eric Scheie blogs at Classical Values.
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