The straw that may break the donkey's back: can Democrats defend Obama?

Since the election loss last year, a deepening sense of dread and fear has descended upon many Democrats.

The right wing juggernaut seems unstoppable. Emboldened conservatives are succeeding with their plan to drown government in a bathtub.  They are in the process of dismantling decades of progressive legislation and reform. The transfer of wealth and power to the rich will likely continue, even as the country descends further into economic decline.   The stock market is crashing.  People talk of social unrest and civil disobedience. A right wing populist uprising seems like a  real possibility. Words like “fascism” occur often in emails and blog posts.

Worse, the Left is divided. Many Democrats are angry at President Obama for his early and frequent compromises that, they say, have further empowered the GOP. Progressive email lists and blogs are abuzz with heated discussions about whether to primary President Obama, with centrist Democrats warning of a dangerous repeat of 2000.   There is considerable acrimony and name-calling.  See the Washington Liberals Yahoo email list streamed along the left of this website, this poll, and the examples below for an indication of the divided opinions on this topic.

Certainly, the GOP, the military, and their rich allies deserve most of the blame for the grim situation. But many Democrats accuse President Obama of failing to lead or, even, of selling out. At best, they say, Obama has been a poor negotiator and a weak leader. At worst,they say, he has betrayed Democratic principles by actively protecting Republican criminals and actively promoting conservative policies.

The recent budget negotiations over the debt deal were, for many Democrats, the straw that broke the donkey’s back.  Some progressives (e.g., Mike Malloy) say the Democratic Party is dead. I know long term Democrats who are seriously considering joining the Socialist Workers Party.

Some Democrats still think (or pretend) that President Obama is doing a good job. Given all that he’s up against, they say, he should be applauded: he saved the economy from disaster, ended DADT, started withdrawal from Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, and enacted health care reform that extends coverage to millions more Americans and ended the worst abuses of insurance companies. Plus, he’s begun regulation of Wall Street. Unfortunately, a divided Senate with arcane rules has stymied his more aggressive progressive policy initiatives.  And the House is now in GOP control (largely due to the failure of Democrats to turn out to vote last November.)   The Republicans did all in their power to assure defeat of Obama’s progressive agenda.  Change takes time.

Other Democrats reject this anodyne view of the President and point out his many sell-outs and betrayals of Democratic ideals.  The bailouts were corrupt and unfair. Health care reform lacked a public option and was a gift to Big Insurance and Big Pharma.  The President repeatedly supported centrist candidates and appointees over progressive ones.    DADT was long past due and, in any case, makes it easier for gays to get killed in service of the imperialist war machine, which continues in full force and with increased funding, as does the surveillance and imprisonment infrastructure built by Bush.  Critics of Obama say that much of the blame for the Democrats’ “shellacking” last year lies at the feet of the president. See Petition expressing extreme disappointment with President Obama’s policies for a summary of the case against Obama.

Other Democrats acknowledge Obama’s failings but say: look, we gotta stick with him because the alternative is even worse. Do you want a repeat of 2000 with Nader? Imagine if someone like Perry gets to choose the next Supreme Court judges.

A concrete example of this powerful argument against criticizing Obama appeared recently on the PDA economic justice email list.

I once had two union organizer uncles living in Germany during the 1920s. According to them it was the German Communist Party who enabled the Nazis to succeed! They would not join the center parties in a ‘Reichstag’ coalition and their continuous street battles with the Nazis drove the average German also into their camp. The center parties with the Social Democrats and the Communists had more delegates than the Nazis, but without the far-left Hitler achieved domination constitutionally!

The idea is that purist progressives’ impatience with Obama may lead to a far right wing victory in 2012.

This is, unfortunately, a powerful argument, and it is a reflection of the grimness of the current situation that Democrats may have to pretend to like the President in order to avoid disaster in 2012.

On the same PDA email thread someone posted this more inflammatory anti-Obama quote:

U.S. President Barack Obama is singularly the most dangerous, anti-democratic president in the history of this nation. He has used his pigmentation as as a shield for corporate fascism and the emaciation of everyday, ordinary Black, White, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in this nation and around the world.
–Larry Pinkney, Editorial Board, Obama’s Bait and Switch Game: Otherwise Known As B. S. Aug. 4, 2011

Most people responded negatively, saying that the quote was off topic. One guy went further and wrote, “Racism is an ideology used to divide us. Its false ideas and debasing caricatures can be used by any person of any color for whatever purpose they are serving. Think about what you are doing by broadcasting racist ideas that were carried in a publication whose purpose is to provide a forum for African-American political commentary.”

Indeed, some people accuse Democrats who oppose Obama of being racists. But many African Americans are highly critical of the president, including Cornel West and (recently) John Conyers.   I think it’s unfair to accuse critics of Obama of racism. I voted for Obama and donated a lot of money to his campaign, as did many other (white) progressives.

Someone sent a link to an article about an effort to primary President Obama, “Primary Obama” Ads Roll Through D.C.. In response, someone responded:

Republicans must love it! Bet some of them paid for it. Either that or it is being pushed by some politically naïve progressives. What a shame to waste money an effort doing this, when what is really needed is a progressive push to change the power structure in the House and Senate.

I acknowledge the power the “lesser of two evils” argument and the possibility that the GOP are behind some anti-Obama activism on the left.  The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to defend a president whom you believe has betrayed you. Can we pretend to like the guy and his policies?     Commentators like Glenn Greenwald and Paul Krugman keep reminding us of Obama’s failings.  As Dennis Kucinich says in an excellent interview for TruthDig, Obama Got the Deal He Wanted.

Furthermore, I doubt that many Americans (especially the unemployed and those dependent on government programs) will buy into a favorable view of the president.  The cat is already out of the bag, and already the GOP is accusing Obama of selling out seniors on Social Security and Medicare.  President Obama has made it quite easy for right wing populists to portray the Democratic Party as the handmaiden of Wall Street and government corporatocracy.   A substantial chunk of the Left is already dead set against Obama, whose motivations and psychology remain a deep mystery.

Unless Democrats confront Obama’s failings, they risk being ignored and rejected by the public, who will know full well about Obama’s failings. As David Spring says, “My concern is that Obama is doing to the Democratic Party what Bush did for the Republican Party – making it just about impossible for us to win elections. If we do not stand for protecting Social Security and Medicare, then what do we stand for? ”

A good summary of the dilemma is expressed by this guy’s comments on the PDA email list:

We are working here in Illinois on two progressive campaigns and might add a third. In each we have discussed the issue of how progressives candidates should relate to and speak about the president. No consensus yet, but I think we need to develop talking points that enable progressive candidates to distance themselves from the corporate Democrats including the president without alienating party regulars.

It’s a tough balancing act.

That sums it up well. We’re in a pickle, because we have to support a Democratic president who, under normal circumstances, would be primaried. How can Democrats criticize Obama’s policies without weakening Democrats?  But if we don’t criticize Obama’s policies, we’ll look silly.

The situation is grim and I wish there were a good way forward.

If Obama would withdraw, then a better candidate could possibly step forward.   But this seems unlikely to happen. (Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

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