The Catch-22 for Obama and Progressives

There are barely fifteen months to go before the 2012 election; the economy remains ostensibly stuck somewhere between neutral and barely crawling, perhaps, dare I say it, on the verge of a double dip recession; and millions of likely voters are still frustrated and worried about not just their future, but the future of the whole country. As things stand right now the race for the White House is wide open, as is the Senate and the House of Representatives. Who ever wins will determine the fate of the nation for the next four or more years.

After spending much of his political capital on a stimulus bill, an auto bailout and both healthcare and financial reform, President Obama finds himself in a most precarious position. On the one hand, it is quite clear by all the evidence available that the private sector is still incapable of standing on its own two feet and bringing an end to the massive unemployment that continues to plague the country. What is needed is some kind of injection of federal spending to ease the pain and suffering of the multitudes. But, on the other hand, the political will for further government spending is simply not there. Even if Republicans were willing to allow the President another bite at the stimulus apple – lightning striking in the same place twice would be more likely to happen – Democrats would probably pass on it out of fear of a public backlash.

To make matters worse, not only is the prospect of a jobs bill off the table, the government is moving forward with an austerity program designed to trim the massive debt that has piled up over the last decade. Ironically, this will only exacerbate an already sluggish recovery and actually increase the unemployment levels, which of course will increase the deficit.

There’s no way around it: the President is in a catch-22 situation. If he calls for more government spending to get the economy moving, he risks admitting the obvious: that his ’09 stimulus wasn’t sufficient enough, which economists like Paul Krugman predicted would be the case, as well as inviting the public flogging he would no doubt receive at the hands of the GOP, who have already stuck him with this recession and have no intention of letting up.

But if Obama doesn’t call for government intervention, if he continues to cling to the ridiculous notion that the country can climb all the way out of the worst economic downturn in eighty years simply by growing at .5% to 1% per quarter and adding a paltry number of jobs per month, while at the same time cutting spending, he ends up playing right into the waiting hands of the Tea Party extremists who see an opportunity to seize control of the nation through the ensuing calamity, which will undoubtedly be pinned on Obama, too.

In other words, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Not a pretty sight, but this is the price you pay when you don’t seize upon your political opportunities. Your opponents end up calling the shots. And now Obama finds himself playing in his opposition’s sandbox. It’s their court, their rules and their ball. He must now summon what political strength he has left if he intends to survive a reelection bid.

The President has tried being the adult in the room, to no avail. He is dealing with a political faction that doesn’t react like past political factions. This mob is unbending and unyielding. His only play, I feel, is to go big. He needs to go on the offensive and go after the Tea Party. As low as his approval rating is, it is still higher than that of Congress, and, better still, considerably higher than the Tea Party. After winning big in last year’s midterms, the public is finally starting to get a good glimpse at the people they voted into office and they are clearly having buyer’s remorse. Obama’s task is to shine a spotlight bright enough on this malignancy so that the vast majority of Americans can’t help but see it for what it is.  This isn't about trying to convince voters that as bad as things are they could be a whole lot worse. As I mentioned in an earlier piece that strategy failed once; it will fail again.  No, this is about saying, "Look what happened the last time you took to the polls. You really want to go that route again?"

Face it, the prospects for a significant reduction in the unemployment rate is remote at best. No president since FDR has been reelected with unemployment this high. Obama’s only chance is to clearly draw a distinction between his policies and the extremism of the Tea Party, and he must do so in a way that puts enough distance between himself and the progressive flank of his Party. As strange as it might sound, he must appeal to independents as someone who is above what both Parties have wrought. He must be his own third-party candidate.

But while Obama’s task might be daunting, believe it or not it pales in comparison with the task that lies before progressives. If you thought the President was stuck between a rock and a hard place, try walking a mile in those shoes. One look at the majority of left-leaning blogs out there and you’ll think you’re on the set of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Schizophrenics have more stability in their daily lives than the vast majority – note I did not say all – of my dear comrades.

One camp represents what I call the Obama apologists. These are the people who hold onto the notion that Obama must be defended at all costs, even at the expense of reality. That to criticize him, even if constructively for his own good, somehow is akin to joining forces with the dark side. It’s bad enough that the Right constantly assails him; the least the Left can do is have his back. While laudable, this tact actually has the opposite effect. It further polarizes the electorate into believing that both sides of the political spectrum are blind and corrupt and in that scenario ends up pushing the moderates and independents into the waiting arms of the GOP, who, it’s time to admit, are far better at blind allegiance to ideology than progressives have ever been.

And then there’s the camp that feels betrayed by Obama’s pragmatism and willingness to compromise. In their myopic universe, the only way to deal with politicians like Obama is to challenge them either in a primary or with third-party candidates. Like the patient who cut off his nose to spite his face, these people see valor in defeat, even if it is a costly defeat. Want to know how costly? Just look up the elections of 1968, 1980 and 2000. In each instance this camp was responsible for challenging the Democratic incumbent, thus leading to a Republican win. The 2000 election could prove to be the costliest in history. Does anybody doubt that Al Gore would’ve won Florida, and with it the Presidency, had Ralph Nader not been on the ballot?

I myself have never subscribed to either camp. As I said in an earlier posting, I have always considered myself a sort of devil’s advocate. I call ‘em as I see ‘em. I want this president to succeed, but not because of any blind allegiance or wishful thinking that he will one day wake up with the ghosts of FDR, Truman and LBJ in his body. I want him to succeed because in spite of his shortcomings he is considerably better than anybody else out there. As Bill Maher quipped on his Real Time show, “Who ya gonna date, Mitt Romney?” Because that’s what it comes down to, folks. You either go with Obama to the prom or you go with the other guy or gal. There is no “none of the above” choice. Not in this broken and corrupt two-party system.

But that doesn’t mean that I give up the right to criticize this president when I think he deserves it. I have always considered it paradoxical that so many progressives feel they should forfeit their right to be critical of this president, as though somehow they have sworn an oath of loyalty to him. You don’t see such thinking on the Right. When their leaders falter, it’s like feeding time at the zoo. The simple truth is that it is our duty to point out the failings of our leaders, not to bury them or, as some sadly do, abandon them come election time, but to hopefully get them back on track and to help them win. Sometimes that criticism can be harsh, as mine has been from time to time. But I do it not with any great joy or love, but with a fervent belief that to shirk my responsibilities as a journalist is to live a lie. And that I will never do.

The truth is often painful, but ignoring the obvious is far worse. This president has a little more than a year to convince the majority of voters that he is worthy of a second term. At this critical juncture, the last thing we should be doing is sparring the proverbial rod and enabling the president as it were just because we either lack the stomach to do what is right or we are concerned with how we will look doing it. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, you know.  If it’s piling on we’re concerned with, we needn’t be worried; that’s what the Tea Party is for.


Brian Weston said…
Peter, you hit the nail on the head once again...another great blog.

I actually thought Chris Matthews had a pretty good consideration he was pushing for on his show. Why not go on the offensive and put forth an effort to gather a list of a bunch of infrastructure projects in these naysayer right wing representatives' districts and put forth a giagantum bill to fund these projects. Then, when (note I did not say IF) the Tea Party et al decide to vote it down, dessimate them politically for essentially voting against job creation - the very policy most Americans are more concerned about than the debt. This would at least start to put the Tea Party in their place and also promote what is needed to happen anyways.