Just 18 months into the Obama Presidency, the verdict of the academy is already beginning to take shape. This summer has seen an array of assessments specifically on Barack Obama and his Administration and more generally on the triumph of corporate politics in the Age of Obama.
Apart from the Jonathan Alter book The Promise: President Obama, Year One, which was published in May and the forthcoming Paul Street book The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power which will be released next month, the assessments have been in op-eds or essays in scholarly journals and leftist publications. And again apart from the Alter book, the assessments have been more critical than glowing. The Street book, from what I've heard, promises to be an evisceration of the Obama Presidency. Not surprising given that Paul Street is one of the nation's leading radical historians along with Mike Davis.
The Alter work, of which I have only read excerpts, while praising the young President isn't exactly a tribute either. According to Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, "Alter gives this White House a mixed grade so far on achieving its policy goals, working with a highly politicized Congress and communicating with the public." Tim Rutten's review in the Los Angeles Times finds Alter "sympathetic to the President's goals" while casting "a cold eye on his most vociferous political antagonists" and yet "independent enough to criticize the administration's — and the chief executive's — shortcomings." Alter, of course, has known the President nearly two decades or put another way the pair have been acquainted nearly half their lives. If your friends aren't willing to raise their voices on your behalf, who will?
While the right is populated by sycophantic obstreperous propagandists who inhabit the rive droit of the Potomac think tanks that are wholly servile to the interests of the American corporate-led oligarchy and seemingly allergic to facts, the left, to begin with, lacks that vast corporate-funded infrastructure. Even if they did possess it, the left is hardly going to countenance such a wholesale capitulation to longstanding Democratic goals that the Obama Administration has set aside.
While the vitriol may emanate from the right, some of harshest rebukes have come from the left. The President can brush off being called a socialist but the appellation of a Bush third term clearly stings. Newt Gingrich, a career politician with presidential ambitions, can call him "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" urging the GOP faithful and indeed all "patriotic Americans" to resist the President's "secular, socialist machine" and Obama says not a word. But Glenn Greenwald and Dylan Ratigan, two journalists, discuss the President's targeting of American citizens with extrajudicial executions on a television programme and that unleashes the volcanic wrath of Robert Gibbs.
The litany of progressive complaints slip off the tongue effortlessly. Single payer didn't have a prayer much less a hearing. The public option wasn't an option. Lip service to LGTB goals but not much real movement even when the opportunity arises to make a definitive stand. Leaving Iraq is defined as garrisoning 50,000 troops indefinitely. With each new boot on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban only has spread like a wild fire across the country returning to the north after a nine year absence even as General Petraeus assures us that we are turning the tide. Guantánamo, still open and now hosting the trial of a child soldier. The Patriot Act extended without tighter privacy protection for US citizens. The Employee Free Choice Act all but forgotten. Comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely delayed even as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. Comprehensive climate and energy legislation stalled with public support melting away faster than Greenland glacier. The financial sector reform law still doesn't solve the Too Big to Fail problem thus all but guaranteeing another bailout when our high rolling casinos overextend themselves as they inevitably will. The initial trepidation over the appointment of 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals to the recently formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is now giving away to outright despair at the thought that the President as he finds his fiscal religion might be willing to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.
While one wants to be supportive of the Administration, it is increasingly difficult to do so when one senses that things are seriously amiss. Even the Center for American Progress' John Podesta, the former Clinton Chief of Staff who headed the Obama Transition that filled the key posts in the Administration, has said that the White House had lost the narrative by the end of this first year in office.
He's not the only one. When Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a center-left publication, asked leading liberal progressives thinkers to assess President Obama's performance this past April, a recurrent theme among the nine contributors was a fear that the Administration had lost control of the all important economic debate. Robert Reich, President Clinton's Labor secretary, lamented that Obama's failure to provide "a larger narrative" to explain the causes of the crash and his response to it had left the public "susceptible to [conservative] arguments that its problems were founded in 'Big Government.'
Here's how Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal summarized the debate among many of the nation's leading progressive voices:
The fear among the Democracy contributors is that against this disciplined assault the White House is suffering from what could be called a "narrative gap." By which they mean that the White House has inadvertently allowed Republicans to shift public discontent from business to government by not working more doggedly to link President George W. Bush's anti-regulation, tax-cutting policies not only to the 2008 meltdown but also to the economy's meager performance over his entire tenure. (During Bush's two terms, the economy created only one-fourth as many jobs as it did under Clinton; poverty rose sharply; and the median family income declined, after rising 14 percent under Clinton.)
Among those who haven't taken their quills to penning paeans to the virtues of Barack the Great Disappointment are Frank Rich, Michael Tomansky, Eric Alterman, Joe Klein, Brad Carson, David Swanson, Danielle Allen, Michael Walzer and Barbara Ehrenreich. All have published essays - devastating critiques of varying degrees - on Obama the man and Obama the President over this the summer of our discontent. Even if they express some sympathy for his plight given the condition of the country he inherited, these voices point more to the bad and the ugly than to the good the Administration has accomplished. Progressive economists like Robert Reich, Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman continue to bemoan the President's economic policies often wondering if the President and his economic team gets the magnitude of our malaise. Others befuddled by the President's lackadaisical approach to the severity of the crisis include Simon Johnson, Felix Salmon, Nouriel Roubini and Martin Wolf.