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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Lord knows I’ve had my share of disagreements with the “professional left”, as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs derisively referred to them in a rant to The Hill this morning. And I tend to endorse Jonathan Cohn’s view that Obama has had a reasonably accomplished first year-and-a-half in office that perhaps has been taken for granted by some liberals.

But if there is a gulf between what Obama has accomplished and the amount of credit that some liberals are willing to give him for it, it just became much wider today with Gibbs statements like “those people ought to be drug tested” and “they wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president”.

One problem that Obama is having — and not just on the left, although it might be most acute there — is the dissonance between the grand, poetic narratives of the campaign trail and the prosaic and transactional day-to-day grind of governance. To some extent, this is intrinsic to the nature of the respective activities. Still, for the 70 million who voted for Obama, there was a sense that — after a difficult eight years for a country challenged by two wars, two recessions, Hurricane Katrina, and the worst act of terrorism in history — things might finally start to be different. That change had come. That progress was happening. That politics were becoming more elevated. A black man had just received 365 electoral votes, for crying out loud!

The euphoric feeling among liberals in the days between the election and the inauguration seems so quaint now — like something that happened decades ago — but it was very tangible at the time. Conservatives, for their part, were willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, with his approval and favoability ratings sometimes soaring into the 70s: such a post-election “bounce” had once been commonplace in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy, but had rarely been seen in the post-Watergate era.

But Obama was never really able to capitalize on that momentum. Perhaps, in the face of the headwinds of an ever-deepening jobs crisis (far worse than his advisors had anticipated) and unrepentant Republican obstructionism (a canny, even ballsy strategy in retrospect), there was no way he really could have.

Nevertheless, I suspect that for most liberals, any real sense of progress has now been lost. Yes, the left got a good-but-not-great health care bill, a good-but-not-great stimulus package, a good-but-not-great financial reform plan: these are a formidable bounty, and Obama and the Democratic Congress worked hard for them. But they now read as a basically par-for-the-course result from a time when all the stars were aligned for the Democrats — rather than anything predictive of a new direction, or of a more progressive future. In contrast, as should become emphatically clear on November 2nd, the reversion to the mean has been incredibly swift.

What liberals haven’t had, in other words, is very many opportunities to feel good about themselves, or to feel good about the future. While the White House has achieved several wins, they have never been elegant or emphatic, instead coming amidst the small-ball banality of cloture vote after cloture vote, of compromise after compromise.

Meanwhile, the White House has had two incredibly cynical moments in the past several weeks — Gibbs’ rant today and the premature firing of Shirly Sherrod three weeks ago. Both reflected politics at its worst, the clumsiest possible efforts at “triangulation”.

I am taking it for granted, of course, that Gibbs’s comments today will prove not to be a cagey political strategy: they were so naked and inartful, such a Velveeta attempt at Sister Souljah moment, that I don’t see how they possibly could be. They will annoy the left but do nothing to placate Obama’s critics on the right or persuade those in the center.

The Sherrod incident, as I wrote at the time, raised questions about the White House’s state of mind. Did it not recognize how silly it looked? How incredibly daft a political strategy it was for a Democratic White House to bark for fear of Glenn Beck’s command? These same questions can be raised today. But in Sherrod’s case, at least, the White House was trying to react to a developing story in real time. Gibbs’s comments today, in contrast, were completely unprompted.

I don’t know whether Gibbs was going “off-message” out of frustration, or whether the White House has become so jaded that they actually think this was a good strategy. Either way, it speaks to the need for some fresh blood and some fresh ideas in the White House. The famously unflappable Obama is losing his cool.

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