The liberal presidency

Liberals comfortable with Obama’s presidency – marred with death and debt – show the limits of political liberalism.

Obama's approval rating among Democrats hovers at 90 per cent [GALLO/GETTY]

The “this is our moment” magic was gone. Liberals were defensive, the energy of 2008 replaced with the “we-wish-it-weren’t-so” lament of dread pragmatism. Barack Obama had delivered a lot less change than hoped, expanding wars and oil drilling and inequality and generally proving to be much more of a standard-issue corporate spokesman than a bold, class-warring red. Even some of the die-hards were willing to concede that the US president hadn’t quite lived up to expectations. 

Still, ahead of the election he had one big thing going for him, as any liberal facing a leftist firing squad would tell you: He wasn’t the other guy. 

“Whatever disappointments we have with Obama’s first term – and there are many – progressives have a profound interest in the popular rejection of the Romney/Ryan ticket,” declared The Nation‘s version of the editorial.

Beating those Republicans

After four years of Obama, members of the Liberal Commentariat were ever-so begrudgingly willing to concede that a man to whom they had devoted precious column inches drenching in we-are-not-worthy praise was not, sorry to say, the second coming. Still, as the presumed lesser evil, we’d all be a little better off were he to get a second term, the narrative went. The morning after? The hard work of really holding him accountable begins. You’re darn tootin’. 

Then the guy won, defeating a Republican challenger with all the charisma of a jammed office printer. And liberals wept. 

“After Tuesday, Obama will have the opportunity to become one of the most celebrated presidents in history,” remarked Chris Hayes of cable news network MSNBC, which didn’t air a single story critical of the president in the days prior to the election. “Years from now,” Hayes continued, Obama could be “seen as ushering in a new era of liberal governance in America”.

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“I’ve supported many pols [sic] over the course of my life,” gushed David Roberts, dropping the snark he brings to left-of-centre website Grist, “but Obama may be the only one I’ve consistently admired.” The president is more than just a politician, though. “There aren’t many male role models in our culture,” Roberts added in the election afterglow. “Lots of macho bluster. Lots of overgrown children. Nice to have a real man at the top.” 

Obama’s victory means “this was a consequential presidency in terms of policy”, said Rachel Maddow, a regular guest at the White House and a host on its cable network. During his first term, Obama made significant strides “in terms of civil rights” by allowing gays to fight his wars and delivered “historic, historic change like health care reform”. Onward and upwards. 

Clara Jeffrey, co-editor of Mother Jones, summed up liberal sentiment when she posted a link to a slideshow of the president with the teaser: “Awesome photos of Obama being awesome“. If this was standing up to the most powerful man in the world, the principled progressive finally freed from vulgar electoral concerns, what would not standing up to him look like?

Basking in victory, the American liberal no longer maintained the hardened realism that manifested itself prior to the election, whatever earlier sense of regret that this is the best our system can do giving way to that long-lost earnestness one might on a cloudy afternoon call naiveté; in some cases, careerism. 

Others, of course, never even pretended: Dead Afghans and all, they always thought the president was pretty awesome. They like the image they were sold by his award-winning campaign – that of a hip, sophisticated leader from a critically acclaimed televised drama – and aren’t too keen on the details, preferring instead to enjoy their product untainted. 

Even if liberals disagree with something the president does, it’s not going to do so “with a lot of fuss“, as author Rebecca Solnit admitted prior to the election. After all, there’s an endgame to think about: Beating those Republicans. 

“That means,” Colonel Aureliano Buendía said, smiling when the reading was over, “that all we’re fighting for is power.” *

The makings of a president

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, “The same person who attacked my home has gotten re-elected,” one Debra Downer told the Reuters news agency, among thousands of victims of the president’s drone wars. Since Obama’s victory, “the pressure on my brain has increased,” the victim said. “I remember all of the pain again.” 

One wonders, where is the American progressive to sooth the conscience? Who better to explain that it’s nobody’s fault – it’s nobody’s fault, okay – and that if you really think about, maybe we shouldn’t ever dwell on this little massacre ever again because would it be better if Mitt Romney killed your family? Ignore the pain away, friend. And let’s be honest: They weren’t the world’s greatest kids. 

Not confronted with the stench of rotting bodies, the wail of fathers who lost their children, the cry of children who lost their mothers, the silence when whole families are shredded and burned by our freedom, the American liberal is free to imagine Barack Obama as both a grand leader and something of a friend. Thanks to an award-winning ad campaign, Obama the product – not the man, because who knows that? – is smart, hip and sophisticated, or everything George W Bush was not. He’s nerdy but cool and what if he secretly follows you on Tumblr? 

But here’s the thing with that, friend. Barack Obama is the US President, which is to say: A bad person. A murderer. Since taking office in 2009, Obama has authorised attacks that have killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent men, women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. 

He waived restrictions on selling arms to countries known to use child soldiers. Hospitals in Iran are running out of basic medical supplies because of the “crippling” sanctions he boasts of imposing. 

At home, the US enjoys the largest prison population in world history, with more than two million human beings behind bars. Alas, in four years Obama did not find a single soul worthy of his awesome power to pardon and free. 

If I had a friend like that, I probably wouldn’t be friends with them anymore. 

To the president’s supporters, as with most Americans, though, these are mere details, certainly not character flaws. Maybe the overseas killing and domestic jailing is uncouth, but the disagreement isn’t visceral; there’s no urgency to it. The blood is real, but let’s not go around saying it’s on anyone’s hands. It’s not like the Republicans or the god awful public are any better, the story goes, so best not worry our pretty little minds about the things in life you can’t change. Plus it helps us in the heartland. 

“They’re tactical changes,” one of the delegates replied. “Right now the main thing is to broaden the popular base of the war. Then we’ll have another look.” *

The limits of political liberalism

If one’s progressive values are more than just a social media-savvy posture, a guy like Barack Obama can’t be your friend or your winking ally. When a charismatic political figure co-opts your cause to implement a reactionary, literally murderous agenda, the impulse should be to fight back, not roll over or send an open letter. 

But liberal discontent with Obama and his agenda has long been overstated. At a recent Netroots Nation, a conference for white liberals, the president enjoyed an 84 per cent approval rating just months after doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan and saving oil giant BP from bankruptcy after it poisoned the Gulf of Mexico under his watch. 

Meanwhile, the vast majority of self-described “liberal Democrats” support Obama’s liberal use of drones – more than three-fourths, according to one poll – because hey, at least they’re not Americans dying. 

Make no mistake: Barack Obama’s presidency is a liberal one. His support among progressives isn’t reluctant, but enthusiastic and overwhelming. His approval rating among Democrats hovers at 90 per cent. They’re infatuated with their team’s star player, especially now coming after a big win. They want to give him a mixtape and make silly faces together in one of those photo booths at the mall.

“He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over colour, over despair,” says Ezra Klein, a liberal writer for The Washington Post

“I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted,” says Kevin Drum, a blogger for Mother Jones. “[I]f he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over mine.” 

Obama’s could be “one of the truly great presidencies”, says Chris Hayes. 

You get the idea. 

We don’t know Obama’s heart, if deep down inside the man weeps for the children he kills like he wept in front of the campaign staff that brought him personal glory. We don’t know if historians will consider Obama one of the “great” American presidents, though if he kills enough people anything’s possible. But we do know that Barack Obama is a liberal, according to the vast majority of liberals, and a killer, a fact the vast majority of liberals are fine with. 

The point isn’t to indict one political faction when so many have failed us, of course, but to recognise the limits of political liberalism. Given a mandate for change, the president presided over a million-plus-per-year foreclosure crisis, formalised the use of indefinite detention and extra-judicial murder, and deported more immigrants than any president in US history. His signature achievement? A healthcare plan modelled off the one passed by his Republican rival. 

This is the best liberalism can do, folks. If you want meaningful change, not just in the name at the top, it would be foolishness to turn to an American progressive with an Obama-Biden sticker on their hybrid. Their doctrinaire commitment to incrementalism and the Democratic Party has led us to today, a world where the rich get richer and the poor get bombed. And they’re pretty cool with that. 

Maybe this is an indictment. 

He was going to go on, but Colonel Aureliano Buendia stopped him with a signal. “Don’t waste your time, doctor,” he said. “The important thing is that from now on we’ll be fighting only for power.” *

* Note: Excerpts from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. 

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.