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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does Obama Need a “Loyal Opposition” From the Left?

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was first published on February 13, 2009
The hot read in the progressive chattering classes today is an article for The New Republic by the always-estimable John Judis arguing that Barack Obama can’t achieve his goals without vibrant and popularly-based pressure from the Left to raise his progressive game.
His argument has predictably unleashed a lot of pent-up progressive angst about Obama’s “centrism” and “bipartisanship.” Some of it is very specific, like Ezra Klein’s suggestion, which galvanizes a very large number of scattered lefty blogospheric views, that Obama should have come into the “stimulus” debate with a much bigger figure, like maybe a trillion-and-a-half, anticipating the “centrist” reductions necessary to get the legislation through Congress and raising the final figure.
Other commentors on Judis’ hypothesis, like Glenn Greenwald, argue for a broader opposition to Obama, because, they think, he has little but contempt for progressive views:

Part of the political shrewdness of Obama has been that he’s been able to actually convince huge numbers of liberals that it’s a good thing when he ignores and even stomps on their political ideals, that it’s something they should celebrate and even be grateful for. Hordes of Obama-loving liberals are still marching around paying homage to the empty mantras of “pragmatism” and “post-partisan harmony” — the terms used to justify and even glorify Obama’s repudiation of their own political values.

To get back to Judis’ own argument, it’s important that he doesn’t seem to value the progressive-gabber allies that have found his article most attractive:

I think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry.

Judis goes on to critique the unions and Moveon.org as the progressive forces that need to support a Loyal Opposition From the Left, and to offer the immensely radical and (according to some interpretations) proto-fascist Share the Wealth and Townsend movements of the 1930s as historical precedents for the kind of constructive Left alternative that can keep Obama’s feet on the path of righteousness.
There’s not much doubt that Judis’ hypothesis is closely related to his fear that Obama, particularly on the internatioal finance front, simply isn’t getting the job done. As he said back in early January:

Obama is certainly right to abandon the “anything goes” mentality of the Bush administration and to promote an $800 billion stimulus program. But to reverse to current economic collapse, the new administration may have to go even farther than this in the direction of a fiscal equivalent of war and a new Bretton Woods.

In many respects, Judis is calling for a moblization of progressives to push Obama “to the Left” based on his assumption that Obama, like FDR in his first year, is going to fail in generating a major turnaround in the economy.
And I’d have to say that Judis’ prescription will only make sense if Obama indeed fails. You can’t really mobilize anything like a Huey Long or Francis Townsend “left opposition” to Obama short of a catastrophic economic failure that challenges the basic presumptions of American democracy.
Moreoever, the most viable left-populist opposition to Obama agenda is going to be about the financial bailouts, and the relative ability of Obama-Geithner to distinguish their efforts from those of their Republican predecessors. John Juds may have already decided they simply can’t do that; if they can, then the grassroots pro-Obama campaign that Judis implicitly abhors may actually make sense.
The broadest issue raised by Judis is the idea that Barack Obama needs a Left Opposition to position himself as the new “center.” I will mention without further commentary the rich irony of the idea that the liberals who so resented Bill Clinton’s alleged “triangulation” strategy are now begging Obama to triangulate them.
My own feeling is that Obama should continue to focus on commanding a majority of Americans in support of his presidency and his general agenda, and at the same time seek to lead and represent progressives, even if they don’t like every element of his strategy or policies. His whole political persona up until now has been to depict himself as a progressive who also reprents the “center” in American politics. The “left” can support him or (selectively) oppose him. But the idea that he can’t succeed without an obdurate Left Opposition that forces him, and the debate, to the Left, strikes me as both an extrapoliation of congressional politics into public opinion, and as an underestimation of Obama’s own political abilty to move national policy to “the left” on his own terms.

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