White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went off the other day on the "professional left," which is never satisfied. The White House apparently is miffed at the criticism they get from the left.
It’s summer. It’s hot. The president’s poll numbers stink. The economy is going south. Tempers are short. But really. The left is pushing the president from the left? The horror. The shame.
Here are six reasons Gibbs’ outburst doesn’t make much sense, not counting the fact that it will generate hundreds of articles like this.
1. The left was right. The president is in trouble because his historic reforms were too timid, not too bold. The recovery plan wasn’t big enough. The banks were rescued, but not reformed and no heads rolled. These two alone have been lethal to the economy, to working people, and not surprisingly to the president’s popularity and Democratic prospects.
2. The left was wrong—but not because it was too independent, but because it was too cooperative. Instead of building an independent populist movement with a moral voice driving opinion outside the Beltway, much energy and resources were devoted to the legislative sausage-making process, largely in support of the president’s agenda. This White House would have been far better served with an independent movement, such as those FDR and LBJ suffered and benefited from. One result is that the ersatz Tea Party formations captured the voice of populist outrage.
3. The left isn’t the problem; the corporate wing of the party is. The left hasn’t gotten in the president’s way, for better or worse. It’s the corporate right of the party—the Blue Dogs and New Democrats—that have stood in the way. They joined with Republicans to weaken the recovery plan. Sen. Max Baucus did the dance with so-called moderate Republicans like Charles "Death Panel" Grassley that ate up the first year in useless negotiations. Blue Dogs largely sabotaged energy legislation. New Democrats weakened already inadequate financial reforms. And the deficit hawks now sabotage needed jobs programs in an economy in big trouble. The problem with the left is that it has been too weak, not too strong.
4. The left hasn’t been a rebel; it’s been too good a soldier. Amazing that the White House would be upset at carping from the Beltway left which has embarrassed itself by its willingness to absorb insult and salute. Women rallied to support a health care bill that weakened choice. Progressives supported the bill despite the president’s unwillingness to fight for a public option, the taxes on good (read union) health care plans, and the grotesque deal with drug companies to sustain the ban on Medicare getting bulk price discounts. Environmentalists went so far as to embrace off-shore drilling in the failed effort to get the energy bill. Black leaders like Al Sharpton argued against any targeted economic programs, even as the African-American community was suffering depression levels of misery in the economic collapse. The antiwar movement gave the president a pass on Afghanistan. Gay people have been remarkably patient at delay in repealing the indefensible don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Progressives pushed financial reform hard, even after the Treasury Department helped defeat amendments to break up the big banks and more.
5. The White House has been hurt less because the left is critical, but because the White House isn’t listening. The left correctly understood the White House faced a pitched battle over the direction of the country, not a post-racial, pragmatic, bipartisan era of good feelings. The president’s search for bipartisan cooperation compromised his greatest asset — the bully pulpit. From day one, he should have been teaching Americans, over and over, how failed conservative ideas and policies had driven us over the cliff, just as FDR and Ronald Reagan had done from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The failure to do that has allowed conservatives to revive without changing a whit. Now, three months from the election, the president says he’s ready to draw the contrast and start pushing, far too late.
6. Reality counts. Gibbs accuses the professional left of being congenitally dissatisfied. I should hope so. But the White House problem isn’t temperament, it is reality.
This White House has passed historic initiatives — the biggest recovery act ever, comprehensive health care reform, financial reform, equal pay reforms, the largest increase in poverty spending since the 1960s, the greatest expansion of service programs since the Great Depression, and much more. The White House understandably wants credit. It had a check list; it made the compromises it needed to make; it moved the ball forward. Why the carping?
But reality counts. We’re suffering mass unemployment. One in four homes with mortgages is underwater. Bankers were rescued, the debt increased, and politicians in both parties are starting to talk about cutting Social Security benefits. The war in Afghanistan is a mess. We can argue about whether the president fought hard enough, or compromised too soon—but the reality is that the reforms, as bold as they were, are not sufficient to deal with the mess we are in.
Here the White House has been consistently off key. Last week at the AFL-CIO executive council, the president delivered a powerful and rousing address that made his pitch for the election. At the core was a metaphor:
This election is a choice. You’ve got these folks who drove America’s economy into a ditch, and for the last 20 months, we put on our boots and we got into the mud and we’ve been shoving that car out of the ditch inch by inch, and they’ve been standing on the side the whole time watching, telling us, no, you’re not pushing hard enough, you’re not doing it the right way — not lifting a finger to help. And now we’ve finally got that car up on the blacktop there, about to drive, and they say they want the keys back. (Laughter.) Well, you can’t have the keys, because you don’t know how to drive. (Laughter.) You don’t know how to drive. (Laughter.) You’re not going to get the keys back. (Applause.) You’re not going to get them back.
This is terrific stuff — only the car is not "out of the ditch and on the road." We’re still pushing our way out of the ditch. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ll need new efforts to get there. There’s a huge difference in presenting reforms as solutions, the right answers to hard problems — and presenting reforms as steps in the right direction, with a long way to go. "Stay the course" limited Republican losses in the off year election of 1982 despite the deep recession, but Reagan had blamed liberalism from day one for what wrong, pounded on it, and kept selling his program not as a solution, but as building a new direction. Obama does this well when he does it, but not enough and not consistently
Finally, the good book says as ye sow so shall ye reap. We’ve got a huge enthusiasm gap going into this election. The rising Obama electorate—young, single women, minorities—is discouraged, disengaged and staying home in large numbers. The organized base of the party, particularly unions, is getting big-time pushback from discouraged members. Across the board, the "professional left" reports that resources are down for voter registration and mobilization.
Get out of the Beltway, Mr. Gibbs. Talk to some folks. You’ll find the Beltway carpers are the least of your problems.