Perhaps there is something in the soul of Democrats, scarred by the stolen election of 2000 and a close loss in 2004, that anticipates setback. Call it Battered Liberal Syndrome. This time, it’s not electoral defeat Democrats fear, but a devaluation of last November’s victory, a scenario in which progressive policy is undermined and Democratic dreams are once again deferred.
A number of liberal bloggers and columnists, most notably the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, worry, hint or state outright that Obama appears to be selling his mandate short. Their indictment of the stimulus—or recovery plan, as Obama prefers to call it—is that the plan is both less efficient and less fair because it includes tax cuts. Then there’s Obama’s reluctance to pledge to investigate and prosecute a wide array of misconduct in the Bush administration. Obama is reproved for his resolve to focus on the future, not the past. At the least, dissenters on the left insist, he should establish a truth finding panel, with subpoena power, to rake through the Bush detritus and expose it to the world.
I decline to join these pessimistic premonitions, this wallowing in disappointment before Obama’s presidency has even begun. Obama will read and respect criticism coming from progressive precincts; after all, he promptly invited Krugman to offer ideas on the stimulus. But he’ll continue to reach out to the other side too, from dinner at George Will’s house to conferences with Congressional Republicans.
I’m convinced Obama’s right to pursue the politics of change in his own remarkable fashion. Americans are fearful, but they yearn to be hopeful; that’s why they voted for Obama. They want solutions, not ideological battle. His stratospheric approval rating as transition yields to inauguration suggests how far he has moved beyond his Election Day majority and how effectively he has harnessed the public will. This could be a powerful force for advancing his agenda—and he’s not going to jeopardize it by letting his presidency be cast in partisan terms.
That doesn’t mean he’s not progressive; he clearly is. But like FDR and JFK, he’s also pragmatic. He knows that an inquisition into Bush & Co.’s alleged crimes would divide the public square, suck up political oxygen and constrict his potential base of support in Congress. If there’s a specific allegation that must be pursued, so be it. But better to close Guantanamo, ban torture, and reinvigorate Constitutional guarantees—and yes, move on—than to engage in psychic satisfaction at the price of America’s future.
That’s why Obama includes tax cuts in the stimulus: He wants a victory that crosses party lines, not a reprise of Bill Clinton’s 1993 economic plan, which passed the Congress without a single Republican vote. Obama views his recovery plan as the start of his legislative success, not the end. Krugman and others have a fair point about the greater efficiency of spending versus tax cuts; but it’s a classic case of the perfect as enemy of the good. Obama wants the best stimulus he can muster. But he won’t put it through the eye of an ideological needle.
That same pragmatism will guide each successive stage of what will prove to be a bold agenda. Obama will not duplicate Clinton’s mistake of delaying health care. He will move to enact it before the summer is out. He will listen to business as well as progressives, Republicans as well as Democrats; his transition team and Ted Kennedy’s staff have been doing so for months now.
The final product may not be everybody’s ideal; but this President is less interested in making a point than in taking the historic step of establishing health care as a right rather than a privilege. Of course, not every Republican—or Democrat—will vote for the legislation; but it will pass precisely because Obama is casting beyond his own party for support.
Listening has its limits. When it comes to energy and global warming, for example, there’s not much to be learned from climate change deniers like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. So Obama will advance legislation without the faintest Inhofe imprint.
Everyone assumes that partisanship ultimately will reassert itself—in a year or two, or certainly four. Differences will remain and debating them will always be the essence of democracy; the sense of a new dawn may fade. Yet maybe there is a chance we’ll see change here, too—that the political clashes of the future will be more respectful, less angry, more open to finding common ground. For the moment, the incoming president has marginalized fevered agitators like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. Today, Obama speaks for America in part because he respects and responds to voices across the American spectrum. At times, this may discomfort progressives. The end result, however, may be a cure for Battered Liberal Syndrome. It may also usher in a new, if imperfect, progressive era.