Sometimes I feel rather alone in my continued insistence that Barack Obama is a great President, and my frustration with those who attack him from the left. So let me point to three people who more or less agree with me about the President and his critics: Andrew Sullivan, John Cole, and Michael Tomasky.
To some extent, Obama has real policy differences with some of his progressive critics: he’s a Hamiltonian at heart, who thinks that a sound economy depends on a healthy big-business sector and doesn’t much mind making some fat cats even fatter if it moves the country forward. So it’s natural for people who wish that Obama actually was the socialist the tea parties believe him to be to be somewhat disappointed.
But most of the tension, I take it, is about tactics: Obama and his progressive critics have different views of what is possible and how to get it done. Temperamentally – whether naturally or deliberately I’m not sure – he’s calm, unexpressive, and patient to a degree that seems almost preternatural in our political culture, which if it were a person would be a drama queen with ADHD. Those less calm and patient than he is can find that unnerving.
I’m especially happy to see Sullivan, who has spoken loudly on behalf of the impatient on the one set of issues where he takes the strongly progressive side, acknowledge that Obama’s approach to gay rights is racking up a string of successes. And Sullivan captures in a phrase what I take to be Obama’s central virtue: “a lethal and patient strength.”
As between Obama’s critics and us Obamabots, the differences take on an additional dimension: how to deal with the (necessarily imperfect) leadership of one’s own political grouping. Given the pressures on any President to compromise, there needs to be some counter-pressure to stand firm. To some extent, that sort of pressure can even be helpful to a President in dealing with the other side: a militant labor movement no doubt helped FDR in dealing with Republicans and conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill. But here I’d sharply distinguish between policy criticism and personal abuse: calling your guy a wimp or a sell-out is almost never helpful.
This is only partly a disagreement about tactics: mostly it comes from a much deeper place. Some people want to believe the best about their leaders; others think the can only demonstrate their capacity for independent thought by denouncing the powers that be.
Now Sullivan is a reasonable conservative rather than a liberal, and Cole is a refugee from conservatism. So you could think of their support as what Obama would be getting from intelligent and thoughtful conservative Republicans, if such entities still existed. But Tomasky is a card-carrying progressive. And he sees more or less what I see: a President with deeply progressive goals and values, who is doing a pretty damned good job in an insanely difficult environment, and who deserves – in the face of the insane hatred coming at him from the wingnut-dominated Republican Party – mostly full-throated support.
That doesn’t mean keeping silent about, for example, the cave-in on impunity for torture. But it does mean acknowledging the difference between the Bush Administration’s eagerness to cover up its own war crimes and crimes against humanity and the Obama Administration’s (regrettable) acquiescence in the political and operational realities that would make prosecutions difficult and costly.
The narcissism of small differences is a powerful force in politics; the side that gives in to it less tends to win. This year, and two years from now, it’s important that it be our side.