Many progressive pundits seem to be stuck in the past. They expect Obama to be another Bill Clinton. Even before the inauguration he was accused of being the next DLC conservative Democratic sell-out after every hint of compromise or attempt at consensus building.
They don't get it. They don't understand Obama's approach because they're expecting a repeat of something more familiar.
Finally, I saw an article by someone who does get it. James Warren, writing for the Atlantic, explains Obama in context of his background in the Illinois State Senate and as a "deal-making community organizer." I've always viewed Obama through the same lens and I suspect that's why I'm very rarely surprised by anything he does.
And, as you watch him, be reminded of his informative pre-law school days as a community organizer in Chicago. Recall how they inspired both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin to openly mock the term "community organizer" at the 2008 Republican National Convention, with the former New York mayor unable to contain derisive giggling as he openly wondered what the term stood for.
Well, it stands for giving power to the powerless. But, for Obama, it also meant a strategic set of notions about finding mutual agreement among people with the most divergent of motivations, according to Obama mentors whom I know from back then and David Maraniss, the journalist-author now working on an Obama biography.
He describes Obama as taking a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to making progress, which incidentally, is how Saul Alinsky describes his own approach in the community organizing favorite, "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals."
The column gives several examples of Obama's work as an Illinois State Senator. The Illinois Senate drives me up the wall. The pace of progress always feels slow. And anything positive is often lumped in with something negative to appease lobbyists from the other side. But, over time they've done some impressive things like ending the death penalty, passing same sex civil unions, and creating a renewable energy portfolio standard. So, it doesn't surprise me when I see Obama attempt a similar approach at the national level.
He comes from a background which assumes that taking what you can get and fighting for more next year isn't considered a failure. Neither is getting people together for a solution that most can be happy with as long as progress is being made.
Let's look at health care as an example. Many bloggers choose to ignore that the U.S. Senate rejected the public option and that a single-payer system had even less support in Congress. It's less complicated to simply blame Obama for caving.
Yes, he compromised to get less than he wanted, but a bill was passed. The bill included a provision that will allow states to set up a single payer system. The first state which does so will serve as a model and pave the way for a national single payer system down the road. Obama compromised in a way that provides a foundation for continued progress.
Compare that to Bill Clinton, who adopted Republican agenda items (like welfare reform and telecom consolidation) and pushed House Democrats to the right. Obama has continued to make strong arguments for progressive principles and keeps pushing for more even after being forced to compromise with Congress. That's the difference between Clinton's third-way politics and Obama's pragmatic progressivism.
Clinton stopped pushing for universal health care after his '93 defeat. The Democratic Party spent the next decade talking about limited goals like prescription drugs for seniors. In contrast, Obama kept pushing to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy after being forced to compromise last year.
In another example, the Senate refused to vote on a cap-and-trade bill and Obama may share part of the blame for not pushing them harder. But, he didn't abandon the issue. This year he came back with a plan to divert oil industry subsidies to clean energy investments, while EPA simultaneously moves forward with new regulation on coal and CO2. He continues to push for the priorities he campaigned on even after faced with setbacks.
Obama's approach isn't evidence that he's a center-right or conservative President as I've seen him described by left pundits and bloggers. It's a difference of tactics, not ideology.
Undoubtedly, Obama needs to be pushed to do better. But, the comparisons to Clintonian third-way politics and broad-brushed denunciations don't add to the pressure or contribute to an understanding of what's really going on.
I'm afraid that too many on the left have been beaten down by decades of little or no progress. Losing has become part of their ideological identity to the extent that compromise is interpreted as failure . Progressives must learn to define success in ways other than losing righteously. There's a rising generation of progressives who aren't overburdened with cynicism and they're determined to get something done.