Obama's Progressive Mirage Has Faded

The left is disillusioned.


Progressive America is crestfallen. It had hoped for better things from President Obama, and he has not delivered.

Obama is the "Inaction Hero," writes John Dickerson in Slate, who detects a "lack of ardor" in the Oval Office. He laments that "the president seems content with tending the store." In The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne looks plaintively for "More Hope in Year Six?" In National Journal, Norman Ornstein explains "How Obama Can Save His Presidency (Or Not)." In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes about "The Decline and Fall of 'Hope and Change.' "

The disillusionment extends beyond the punditocracy: In Chicago, community activist Mark Carter advises Obama to "just quit. Because if this is what you call helping us, then just stop helping us."

How times change.

Six years ago Obama was greeted as a messiah. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described him as "the country's hope, the kind of promising, intelligent leader who comes along perhaps once in a generation." To the Toledo Blade, he was comparable to Lincoln, JFK, and FDR. The Los Angeles Times described him as "a constitutional scholar" who "has articulated a respect for the rule of law and the limited power of the executive." The Detroit Free Press considered him "a disciple of the pay-as-you-go approach to federal spending that helped produce a budget surplus in the '90s." NBC's Tom Brokaw compared his inauguration to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, when "the streets were filled with joy. … People have been waiting for this moment."

Obama did not exactly try to modulate expectations with humility. His coronation as Democratic nominee, he said at the time, marked the moment "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Honeymoons fade, and every hero becomes a bore at last. Obama has fallen to Earth with a harder thump than most.

Granted, between the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov and the Edward Snowden revelations, the president had a rough year in 2013. But this gloss treats Obama like the poor schlimazel who goes to a restaurant and gets a lapful of soup from the waiter. It ignores his complicity in his own misfortune. The Obamacare website was his administration's handiwork — as were other failed aspects of the law. Edward Snowden would have had much less to leak if the president had put an end to dragnet domestic surveillance, as he had promised to do.

Some of the president's defenders have tried to portray him as the victim of an intransigent Republican Congress. Republicans have indeed been unhelpful. Yet the president can do a great deal without Congress. The NSA is an executive agency, after all. It answers to him — or ought to. By the same token, it is not Republicans' fault that Obama has created the most secretive administration in memory and prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined. It is not Republicans' fault that he has violated his own expressed standards for military intervention abroad. It is not their fault he became what a writer for Salon has called "a civil libertarian's nightmare: a supposedly liberal president who instead has expanded and fortified many of the Bush administration's worst policies."

In any event, Obama was supposed to transcend partisanship: "More than any other candidate, I could bridge some of the partisan, racial and religious divides in this country that prevent us from getting things done," he told the Houston Chronicle in 2007. "Washington is broken," he said the next year. "My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works."

That certainly went well, didn't it?

The exospheric expectations for Obama seem odd for progressives, who tend to prefer "people's history" — history as the tide of mass movements, history as "history from below" — over great-man theories in which transcendent individuals steer the course of the world.

The dashing of those expectations also ought to serve as a cautionary tale. The vast gulf between the imagined Obama presidency and the actual Obama presidency should leave progressives wondering what a future Democrat might do in the Oval Office. Do they really expect another president to govern more liberally? To show more regard for the Constitution, for civil liberties, for executive restraint? Do they think some other Democrat could surpass Obama?

Apparently so. Though for now she says she will not run, Elizabeth Warren has become the new Obama. "Liberals are fawning over Warren," observes The Washington Post. According to The New Republic, she inspires "an almost evangelical passion." The Daily Beast says she is "a candidate who can inspire passion and embody fundamental change." And so on.

Like a mirage in the desert, the great liberal hope always lies just over the horizon. Yes, this one has been a great disappointment. But next time! Next time …

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.