Among the unfortunate consequences of the petulant White House sniping against the “professional left” is the fact that it has produced an understandable “circle the wagons” reaction and discouraged greater critical self-examination within the left itself. To a large degree, left assertions of the general form “if Obama had taken a more progressive stance on issue X, he would be more popular today” have tended to be accepted as largely self-evident rather than being subject to careful critical scrutiny.
Yet, even when viewed entirely from within a progressive-left perspective, there is an important inconsistency in this kind of critique of Obama’s political strategy – one which needs to be taken very seriously because this kind of critique will become a central part of the intra-Democratic debate after the November elections.
The inconsistency lies in the following:
On the one hand, left-wing critics of Obama are the most prompt and emphatic to reject the idyllic “civics book” vision of American political life as one big Norman Rockwell town meeting – an egalitarian utopia where every voter is equal and no individual has disproportionate power. On contrary left critics will invariably be the first to agree that the dominant social institutions in America — big business and the military primary among them — have massive, indeed, near-decisive power and influence in American politics and invariably use this power to tilt the playing field in their favor.
Yet when these same left critics turn to evaluate Obama’s political strategy, the constraints that this disproportionate power imposes on Obama’s choices are rarely cited as a critical or even dominant factor in his strategic decisions. On the contrary, it is striking to note how much of the left critique of Obama’s strategic choices is essentially psychological – Obama’s less-than-progressive decisions are most frequently attributed to his being too “timid”, “conservative”, “conciliatory”, “gullible in his choice of advisors” , “trapped in the D.C. beltway culture”, “afraid to stand up to powerful interests” or “unwilling to keep his campaign promises” – a mode of analysis which suggests that he actually has had essentially complete freedom to choose his degree of radicalism.
Rarely is explicit consideration given to possibility that Obama’s caution might be a calculated response to the threat of retaliation from major social institutions. Obviously, any particular concession Obama might make because of such a concern could still be judged to be a strategic mistake, but the left critique generally does not even try to distinguish between a concession motivated by concern about potential retaliation and a concession offered because of actual agreement with a conservative position. There is generally no clear conceptual distinction made between a strategic concession and a “sell-out.” All of the former are automatically defined as also the latter.
This leads to a very specific class of inconsistent arguments. Left critiques of Obama often argue that a more progressive or radical stance on some particular issue would have increased Obama’s political popularity but do not simultaneously evaluate the potential setbacks to his agenda that might have resulted if this same stance also provoked retaliation by the dominant social institutions
As a matter of both basic logic and political strategy, this is simply an inconsistent way of thinking. It is comparable to a military commander arguing for the potential benefits of a particular attack if it succeeds but omitting any mention of the potential risks if it fails.
Let us look specifically at the two major cases – Obama’s strategy with regard to big business and the military
In the case of economic policy, the standard left argument is that a more “populist”, anti-Wall Street stance would almost certainly have gained Obama far greater popular support than the “insider,” Lawrence Summers/Tim Geithner designed strategy he followed. But these same critiques do not simultaneously consider the profound setback to his health care reform and financial reform agenda that might have resulted had a more radical strategy provoked an early and vicious turn against him by the business community.
In the first several months of Obama’s administration, this threat was often ignored because Obama’s high, “honeymoon period” approval ratings appeared to preclude any extreme attack on him by the business community. Today, however, the potential danger that actually existed at that time is obvious. Since the passage of the financial reform bill this spring, important leaders in business community have unleashed an extraordinary series of quite literally hysterical attacks on Obama – comparing his actions to everything from the German invasion of Poland to the destruction of capitalism and “the rule of law.” This has been backed up by a massive flow of corporate donations to the Republican opposition and to frequent quite unambiguous assertions that many major corporations will withhold new investment because of their dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies (such as returning high-bracket tax rates to the level of the 1990’s).
Had Obama begun his administration with a more radical approach — prompting business to launch these kinds of attacks in February or March of 2009 — it would have made passing even the limited stimulus bill far more difficult and almost certainly would have prevented the formation of the corporate and institutional coalition that was required to pass health care reform. Had business purchased anti-administration “issue” advertisements year and a half ago using only 20% of the money that it has channeled into anti-Democratic TV spots this summer and fall the resulting furor would have turbocharged both the early Tea Party movement and the Republican opposition so powerfully that the health care reform and financial reform bills would probably never have made it to the floor of the House and Senate.
The choice of a more radical approach in early months of the Obama administration would therefore not have been without any cost. It is possible to argue that the benefits might have outweighed those costs, but not that such costs were non-existent.
The same logic applies to Obama’s strategy with regard to the military. Many on the left criticized Obama for going along with General Petraeus’ and McChrystals’ demands for a major troop increase in Afghanistan but these critiques did not seriously analyze What Bob Woodward’s book now makes obvious – that if Obama had flatly refused Petraeus and McChrystal’s demands in either March or July of 2009, Petraeus would almost certainly have tendered his resignation, creating a major, paralyzing crisis for the presidency.
A Petraeus resignation in March or July 2009 would have generated immediate calls for Obama’s impeachment and probably provoked a complete Republican paralysis of normal government operations, even beyond the level of sabotage in which they have engaged. The health care and financial reform bills would almost certainly have been scuttled before they were even fully drafted.
Again, the choice of a more radical approach in the early months of the Obama administration would not have been without cost. It is possible to argue that the benefits might have outweighed those costs, but not that such costs would have been non-existent.
Let’s be clear. The issue being raised here is not that Obama necessarily made the right strategic choices on these issues – it can be argued that he did not. Nor is the argument that the loss of health care reform and financial reform would have been absolutely inevitable results of his taking more radical stances – it is possible (though improbable) that both programs could still have been enacted. Rather, the issue being raised is that any discussion of political strategy that wishes to be taken as intellectually serious must systematically evaluate both the risks and rewards of any particular strategy in a consistent and balanced way and not simply assert the potential benefits of more radical strategies while ignoring their potential costs.
This returns us to the basic logical inconsistency at the larger scale of the overall left perspective. If social institutions are indeed powerful and dominant enough to derail Obama’s agenda, then ignoring the constraints they impose on Obama’s political strategy is wrong. On the other hand, if the dominant social institutions are not actually that powerful, then a key part of the left critique of American society is wrong. It is logically inconsistent to assert the central importance of social institutions at the level of basic social analysis and then not systematically analyze the constraints they impose on a president when evaluating political strategy.
From the beginning of Obama’s presidency, The Democratic Strategist has consistently argued that it was impossible to judge his political strategy without taking the potential resistance of the major social institutions into account. As one article in February of 2009 – one month after his inauguration – noted:
Obama’s political strategy takes serious account of social institutions and social
classes in a way that standard American political commentary does not. In the
academic journals political analysis is based on the image of isolated individuals rationally choosing their most preferred options. For most campaign managers and other
political professionals, politics begins and ends with winning 50.1% on Election Day.
But the challenge of achieving major social reforms that Obama has chosen as his goal is profoundly more complex and multifaceted. It requires recognition of the power of social institutions and the influence of pivotal social groups. It requires coherent political strategies to deal with these realities rather than simply leaving them out of the analysis.
The article went on to evaluate the possibility that Obama’s relatively cautious approach might nonetheless “leave too much on the table” — which was and still is an entirely reasonable subject for debate. But what is not reasonable is to conduct a discussion that does not even explicitly recognize and attempt to define the constraints imposed by the dominant social institutions. Among ideological conservatives and narrow-minded political technicians this disregard for the power of the major social institutions is not surprising. But in a serious left-wing critique it is – as Dr. Spock used to say — simply not logical.
Note: In left-wing intellectual jargon, the popular term of art for describing the influence of the dominant social institutions is to call them “hegemonic,” the short definition of which is “so completely dominant that people can’t imagine any alternative.” This is a definition that is actually not unreasonable as a description of the position of big business and the military in American society (The long definition of the word hegemonic, on the other hand, is more than anything else, very — very – long — and, as a practical matter, ultimately comes down to more or less the same thing).