Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The courage to hope:Obama and the left 1 year on.

From Talk Left:

I knew that his policy positions were like Hillary Clinton’s (or any mainstream Dem, as Kos puts it). But I thought, despite my disagreements with his political style, that the historic opportunity he was presented coupled with his immense political talent would lead him to become our FDR…

It seems pretty clear that I was wrong. Apparently, I was the only one. Everyone else knew what they were getting — small bore, incrementalist, Beltway centrism. Of course this is “better than Bush.” But I thought we would get something bigger and better. Yes, I am pretty darn disappointed.

While some such as Andrew Sullivans understudy Patrick Appel calls it a ‘quote from the cocoon’, I still think the analogy is pretty apt. For all the talk of a new camelot in the white house (Ie JFK only less womanising), FDR has always seemed a more potential analogy to Obama. Neither was a close fit to their base, yet immense political skills and historic times allowed them significant achievements. Their skills as strategists and writers also parallel at heights that Kennedy and Clinton’s don’t reach.

But perhaps the most interesting US political event of 2009 has not been the astoundingly dumb way health care has been debated, nor the tea baggers (or that they choose to call themselves tea baggers), but the lefts rapid desertion of Obama.

9/11 obviously throws things off, but the Republican party and voters largely stuck to Bush throughout his time in office. It was only from 2006 onwards that you had enough voters shift that the republicans faced any real electoral losses, and even by 2008 when independents and democrats couldn’t stand him, a majority of the right still supported Bush.

Yet Obama for all that he has achieved has been deserted by many on the left. That is despite overseeing a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, beginning to close Gitmo and transfer to traditional legal prosecutions, a successful stimulus package, and coming closer than even FDR on meaningful healthcare reform (the public option is dead but something will still be passed).

Of course, left wingers like everyone else have jobs and mortgages and are suffering in a sluggish American economy, but and some changes like Dont Ask Dont Tell and full exposure on Torture have gone begging with no good justification. Yet after the rigid party discipline of the Clinton and Bush years, a style of politics we are very used to in Australia (Rudd’s support ratings amongst ALP voters has barely moved in 2 years, and Howard’s even longer), it is significant how little the bond holds for Obama and the Left.

In part this is because I think many misread him. Yes this could mean the conservatives were right that some saw Obama as ‘the one’, but more likely they thought that he could convince congress just as he had convinced them. There was also a general policy ignorance that let many think his proposals were more liberal than centrist, which closer watchers wouldn’t have thought so. Bush had the same issue (being not as far-right as many boosters thought), but he included enough lines to appease the base that they thought they were getting what they wanted, something the more cerebral Obama has always been very reluctant to do.

The depression on the left also says much about the post 1960’s left’s inherent pessimism and at times infuriating lack of courage in their convictions. Obama consistently said during the campaign that this would be a long slow, tough process, yet after one year of pretty significant successes (though health care is what really matters), many have like the blogger quoted at the top simply given up. Which in turn weakens Obama, in turn reducing their support for him.

I also think its easy to over-read the electoral significance of this shift. When health care is passed, the economy picks up, and Obama hits the road again to campaign both for congressional elections next year and his own re-election in 2012, we can be sure that much of the enthusiasm will return. Secondly, there are still signs that the Organising for America organisation, (ie the volunteers who put Obama in the White House) are still in good shape and keen to get involved again. Obama when campaigning will return the energy many feel has been lost while Obama has been governing.

But it may also indicate a significant shift in the left more long term. Even though they have just taken power for at least 4, perhaps 8 years, the lack of a clear agenda other than fixing the Bush era mess, and bringing America into the 21st century (ie accepting globalisations changed their industries, fixing health/welfare to similar standards to the rest of the developed world), the Left lacks a clear agenda. And so when the individuals at the top get in trouble, it is all too easy to fracture and bitterly divide.

Until liberal/left/centre-left wing politicians, thinkers and writers, begin to coalesce around a clear vision of what society should be, then even the most skilled of smart, pragmatic politicians like Obama are going to have a very tough time keeping the group together. Rudd has only escaped it in part because of a weak opposition but now that the euphoria of victory is slipping away, the left is faced with the same question it was 2 years ago : What do we really stand for? Ie: What should society look for? What are the top 5, top 3 principles we want to see embodied in society? What changes are impossible now but should be advocated for eventual implementation? What does the good society look like?

You can still win elections without answering that fully as Obama and Rudd show (both ran as people to fix the current problems in a pragmatic way), but you’ll struggle to keep the energy and enthusiasm going long term. That vision of a better society was what led the conservatives both in and out of government to dominate politics in the Anglo-sphere for the last 30 years. If the Left wants to do similar it has to do more than just win elections, it needs to return to the books and decide just what it truly wants to use political power for.

Otherwise this is going to be a very short and rather forgettable decade of left wing power.

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  1. I think Bam is much closer to Teddy Roosevelt (TR) than to FDR. FDR, unlike his older cousin, wasn’t a great writer and nothing describes TR’s pre-presidential career as well as the term, “community organizer”. And TR, just like Bam and JFK (but unlike FDR and every other US President), was an urban sophisticate – TR had even been Police Commissioner for New York City. Of course, as well as being a cosmopolitan, TR was a man of the wild west, but in that he was entirely self-made (although no less real for that).