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Robert Kuttner: Liberal criticism of Obama is out of tough-love

Posted Aug 16 2010 11:00am

ON TUESDAY, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs railed against what he called “the professional left.’’

“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon,’’ he told The Hill, a Washington publication. “That’s not reality.’’
Later, Gibbs apologized for losing his cool. “I watch too much cable, I admit,’’ he wrote. “Day after day it gets frustrating.’’

Who got under Gibbs’s skin? The White House expects liberals to be Obama allies. Yet left-of-center cable TV commentators like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and contributors to the Huffington Post among others, have been scathingly critical on issues from Afghanistan and civil liberties to the economy.

As co-editor of a liberal magazine whose stance has ranged from polite pleading to occasional exasperation, I have to say that Gibbs misses the point entirely. Few liberals are critical of this president out of ideological purity. Even fewer want to eliminate the Pentagon.
Most progressives fervently supported Obama. Many of us imagined a rendezvous between a brilliant outsider politician and a practical crisis rooted in failed conservative ideology a Roosevelt moment.

The George W. Bush view that the private sector can do nothing wrong and government nothing right crashed the economy. In repairing the damage, Obama had an opportunity to restore a more balanced form of capitalism and to make it a governing philosophy shared by a majority of Americans, just as FDR did.

Liberals have criticized Obama mainly because he is bungling this opportunity, not because he isn’t as leftwing as some might like.

If his governing style and legislative achievements were producing either an economic recovery, or a sense on the part of distressed voters that he is their champion even if Republicans block his efforts, we would be cheering, never mind the details of his health reform.

Politics is the art of the possible, but also the art of leadership. President Roosevelt’s Democratic Party gained seats in Congress in 1934, the first mid-term election after Roosevelt took office, despite unemployment exceeding 15 percent. Ordinary Americans knew Roosevelt was on their side.

And rather than seeking illusory common ground with Republicans or with Wall Street, Roosevelt was eloquent in naming and shaming his opposition.

By contrast, Obama has not convinced regular citizens that his primary goal is an economic recovery for Main Street. His economic team is far too close to Wall Street.

He has sent mixed messages on whether his top priority is restoring jobs or reassuring financial markets about reducing deficits.

With his temporizing, Obama has left independent voters perplexed and the Democratic base dispirited. Democrats are now at risk of an epic legislative defeat this November, leaving Obama with even less running room to provide the recovery program that the country needs.

Obama’s failure to rise to the moment seems more characterological than ideological. He has the temperament of a conciliator, at a time when his opposition wants mainly to destroy him.

Why isn’t Obama behaving more like Harry Truman in 1948? Truman pulled off one of the great upsets of American political history, winning his own election and flipping 75 House seats from Republican to Democrat.

Even though Republicans, who controlled Congress in 1948, were certain to block his program, Truman sent Congress the legislation he wanted and dared Republicans to vote it down rather than starting with half a loaf, ending with crumbs, and blurring differences.

Rather than turning obstructionism around on the Republicans, Obama seems to fear looking weak. But that reticence isn’t working.

So for the most part, liberals are criticizing our president out of tough love. We dearly want him to succeed. For if he fails, we fail.

And if Robert Gibbs, and the rest of Obama’s too-small insider circle mistake this benign exasperation for ideological purity, they are passing up a chance to rekindle the groundswell of enthusiasm that elected this president. It wouldn’t take all that much.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and author of A Presidency in Peril , which is available in our bookstore.

This article was originally published by the Boston Globe .

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