At a Congressional Black Caucus gala in September, President Obama exhorted his supporters to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” Despite the fatuous indignation of the likes of Representative Maxine Waters—thrice ranked one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics—over these remarks, Obama was right to call liberals out for their armchair petulance. The president’s CBC speech, along with his futile campaign for the American Jobs Act, amounted to a desperate effort to galvanize liberals for 2012, and that such an effort is necessary for a president who has overseen the greatest advancement of liberal legislation since the Great Society is simply baffling.
This summer, in a New York Times tantrum that has since become a canonical text for querulous liberals, Emory psychologist Drew Westen asked, “What happened to Obama?” Perhaps the more pertinent question, however, is, “What happened to Obama supporters?”
Some degree of liberal disenchantment was inevitable. Idealistic insurgency of the sort embodied by Obama ’08 will always out-inspire reaffirmation of the status quo, which Obama ‘12 would have represented even if he had by now enacted every plank of the Democratic platform and was presiding over full employment to boot. Furthermore, liberals are vindicable in their umbrage at Obama’s specific indiscretions on civil liberties and gay marriage. But the sweeping degree of liberal discontent is just pathetic, for their disappointment in the President’s foreseeable inability to meet their comically inflated expectations is a direct consequence of their naïve belief in his ability to meet them in the first place.
Obama cannot be faulted for this grossly fantastical outlook that his campaign engendered; presidential candidates customarily promise the moon to get elected, be they John McCain vowing a balanced budget by 2012 or Michele Bachmann guaranteeing $2/gallon gas. Responsibility for any ensuing disillusionment, therefore, rests exclusively with those guileless enough to partake of the snake oil peddled by pander-prone politicians.
Some of this naïveté can be attributed to such sentiments as liberal commentator David Sirota’s assertion that “Most agree that today's imperial presidency almost singularly determines the course of national politics.” Sirota betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern presidency and its continuing dependence on congressional compliance for any shred of domestic agency, claiming also that Obama “has mustered the legislative strength of [Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1908],” which is wildly inaccurate.
Liberals often lament the lost opportunity for a second New Deal, but how they expected Obama to achieve with a 7-point popular mandate, 60 Senate Democrats, and 255 House Democrats what Roosevelt achieved with an 18-point popular mandate, 76 Senate Democrats, and 334 House Democrats, they never explain. In spite of this disadvantage, Obama was still able achieve what Roosevelt couldn’t—universal healthcare. But rather than exult in this historic achievement, liberals chose to sulk over the comparative triviality of the public option.
Liberals also elide in their analysis the moderation of Obama’s electoral coalition, 63 percent of whom identified as moderate or conservative. Could it be that some of those 63 percent desired not another New Deal but, rather, the post-partisan conciliation that Obama promised? Were liberals simply not listening when Obama said “There is not a liberal America or a conservative America”?
By directing their ire at Obama for the failure to undo in two years forty years of conservative governance with majorities smaller than either Roosevelt’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s, liberals implicitly pooh-pooh the role of the opposition party, whose uniform truculence has endowed them with unprecedented leverage in spite of their minority status. How was Obama to counter promiscuous parliamentary obstruction, lock-step legislative opposition, Fox News propaganda, Tea Party vitriol, Koch cash, and the suicidal determination of the Republican Party to destroy him at all costs? Simple, say liberals: Use the bully pulpit.
Ah, the fabled bully pulpit. Liberals remain transfixed by the delusion of, in the formulation of New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, an Aaron Sorkin-esque “Democratic president who would simply advocate for unvarnished liberalism…and sweep along the public with the force of his conviction.” Liberals propose that better messaging by the Obama administration would overpower the structural impediments of a doddering economy, a sclerotic political system, and an entropic media culture. History suggests otherwise.
To begin with, Obama recently adopted the bully pulpiteer model of the presidency with his American Jobs Act tour, and yet the anticipated wave of public support has, astonishingly, failed to materialize. Furthermore, this style of presidential leadership was attempted once before by another modern president—George W. Bush. Bush’s 2005 crusade for the partial privatization of Social Security is perhaps the finest modern example of the power of the bully pulpit being put to the test. We all know what the results of that test were.
By invoking the specious mythology of the bully pulpit, liberals blind themselves to the reality of their plight and their own culpability. It is not Obama’s poor communication skills that have resulted in the nation’s sharp right turn. No, by devoting so much energy to attacking the president from the left and blaming his lack of leadership for their demobilization rather than mobilizing themselves, liberals have essentially left Obama alone in the fight against the Republicans. And in a battle between left and right in which the left attacks the left and the right attacks the left, who do they expect to win?