Obama, Left Behind

What does it mean when progressives turn against the president?


Boy, this "Obama Derangement Syndrome" really has gotten out of hand. Why, just this past week the decreasingly popular president has been called a "bald-faced liar," "an executive who can't bring himself to lead," and even an "Uncle Tom."

And that's just by liberals.

The progressive crack-up, before Obama even reaches the end of his first year, has been an awesome and occasionally humorous sight to see. Undead '60s warhorse Tom Hayden got the ball rolling in early December with his dramatic announcement in The Nation that, with the president's decision to increase troop levels, "It's time to strip the Obama sticker off my car."

Liberal historian Garry Wills joined the anguished chorus. "My wife and I had maxed out in donations for him. Our children had been ardent for his cause," Wills wrote. "And now he betrays us."

Obama's intention to double down in Central Asia was no secret in 2008—it's right there on his campaign Web site: "Barack Obama will refocus our efforts on Afghanistan. He has a comprehensive strategy to succeed in Afghanistan with at least two more US combat brigades."

But the Democrat's strongest supporters had their eyes glued on the twin prize of repudiating George W. Bush and electing the nation's first black president. Intra-party policy disagreements just weren't a part of the conversation.

That began to change with the steady drip of minor disappointments early in the new administration: delaying closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, writing a brief in support of the odious Defense of Marriage Act, ridiculing questions about legalizing marijuana, promiscuously invoking state secrets privileges, breaking campaign promises about transparency, and so on.

Meanwhile, with the economy continuing to spit blood, liberals became increasingly aware of—and irritated by—what libertarians could have told them all along: You can't credibly claim to be cracking down on Wall Street "fat cats" in one breath while in the other shoveling hundreds of billions into their pockets and letting industry insiders write financial policy.

The bailouts have never been popular among any political grouping, and the cognitive dissonance they represent can only be tuned out for so long. As H.L. Mencken wannabe Matt Taibbi put it in the subtitle of a recent controversial Rolling Stone piece, "The president has packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders intent on turning the bailout into an all-out giveaway."

But the real dealbreaker for many progressives was a health care reform package that lacks a public option, blocks the importation of cheap drugs from Canada, doesn't expand Medicare, and forces Americans to purchase plans from hated insurance companies. That spurred consumer crusader Ralph Nader last week to call Obama "an Uncle Tom groveling before the demands of the corporations that are running our country."

Less hysterical but no less disappointed was former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who wrote in the Washington Post Thursday that "Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform."

When finding themselves on the opposing side of the president's policy, his former admirers on the left are discovering something that the right has known for a while now: Obama will look you in the eye and lie. When the president said last week that "every health care economist out there" agrees that the reform package includes "whatever ideas exist in terms of bending the cost curve," it wasn't just free marketeers who cried foul.

"You know it is a lie," thundered health care writer Jon Walker at the popular progressive Web site FireDogLake. "The PhRMA lobbyists you cut the secret deal they know it is a lie, health care reform experts know it is a lie, and the American people should know it is a lie."

For those of us who don't necessarily take their policy cues from Ralph Nader or FireDogLake, it's tempting to just sit back and laugh at the festival of left-on-left recriminations. These guys are like Elin Nordegren with a golf club, swinging away at yet another betrayal.

But let's also give some credit where it's due. Conservatives didn't get around to hating on George W. Bush until after he'd safely been elected to a second term. There weren't many tea parties in the streets 14 months ago, when the 43rd president rushed through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, on the heels of an eight-year spending and regulatory binge (including vast new medical entitlements) the likes of which hadn't been seen since Lyndon Johnson. No one eats their own like the Democratic Party. No one does blind loyalty like the Republicans. At least up until now.

Yet there are lessons we can all learn from Obama's lost year. Chief among them is the insight that when you project all your hopes, desires, and even fears onto a Rorschach test of a politician—whether Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, or otherwise—not only are you bound to be disappointed, you might just deserve it, too. Government officials use force and the threat thereof to impact our lives, not always (or even most of the time) for the better, so it behooves all citizens to get over their schoolyard crushes and figure out just what their objects of political desire plan to do with all that power.

Besides, the sooner the whole country learns the rhetorical tricks of this president—the false "false choices," the phony economic consensuses, the brazen refusal to acknowledge broken promises—the better we'll all be at assessing the wisdom of his policies. Surely the aesthetics of Tom Hayden's car is a small price to pay for some long-overdue skepticism.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. A version of this article originally appeared in the New York Post.