I've just finished reading Gary Dorrien's new book: The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective. First, I'm happy to report that his book covers very different ground than mine, Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, which comes out in July. Whew.
But back to the subject at hand. The book includes a relatively brief but interesting look at Obama's pre-White House career and life as well as some discussion of the intellectual context from which the president's political worldview emerged. For the most part, however, Dorrien focuses on the policy challenges Obama has faced in the White House, and comes to the conclusion that his is a presidency that progressives can and should get behind. The author has chapters on TARP and the financial crisis, health care, foreign policy, and one that looks at the battles over budgets and regulating the banks, before a final chapter that examines "What Kind of Country" Obama and his Republican opponents envision respectively.
Dorrien is disappointed, without question, in some of the things that Obama has done rhetorically and strategically, and offers some strong criticisms of the President from his left. The author is particularly critical of Obama's handling of the debt ceiling crisis.
Nevertheless, Dorrien believes that progressives make a mistake if they write Obama off as having not accomplished very much, or if they allow themselves to feel so "betrayed" by the direction they see the administration having taken, compared to where they thought Obama would go when he first took office, that they decide his reelection isn't worth fighting for.
On the second point, Dorrien does an excellent job cataloguing just how radical the Republican party has been on policy grounds during the Obama presidency. He also explores in detail the smear campaigns waged by various figures on the right (a familar litany, but one worth being reminded of).
On Obama himself, Dorrien characterizes him as:
"a pragmatic, liberal-leaning centrist who prizes collaboration and accommodation....(snip) He advocates, and exemplifies, the communitarian approach of pulling people together to advance the common good."Dorrien is well aware of the criticisms leveled at Obama by those to his left, and even agrees with some of them to a degree. But he reminds his progressive readers, the people at whom this book's argument is aimed, of exactly what Obama has already accomplished in the first three years of his presidency (just after the jump):
1) The U.S. no longer tortures those in its custody, nor does the CIA continue to operate secret prisons.
2) Obama traded Bush's unilateralism for multilateralism in foreign affairs.
3) Obama reached out to the Muslim world in a manner that that Dorrien calls "historic."
4) Obama put a floor under an economy headed into a depression and a deflationary spiral.
5) Obama passed a middle-class tax cut bigger than any since the 1980s, which included an increase in the earned income tax credit, and significantly increased spending on infrastructure, housing, job training, renewable/clean energy, education, and scientific research.
6) The U.S. automobile industry, thriving today, would likely not exist were it not for Obama's actions to put government money into GM and Chrysler.
7) Obama increased the reach of S-CHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
8) Also on health care: insurance companies can no longer deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions nor can they drop people from coverage after they fall ill or need care. Additionally, the ACA (assuming it is allowed to take effect) will drastically decrease the number of uninsured Americans. And those are just the biggest points.
9) Obama signed new regulations on the financial industry (Dodd-Frank) which, among other things, made transparent most trades of derivatives, mandating that they be traded on an open exchange that is subject to real regulation. And, the law created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a tremendous step forward for consumers.
10) American troops have left Iraq.
11) Obama "helped to inspire, and adeptly responded to" the Arab Spring.
12) Obama got Bin Laden and helped the Libyan rebels overthrow Qaddafi.
13) Obama ended "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and now gays and lesbians can serve openly in the U.S. military.
14) Obama ordered the Justice Department to stop defending in court the Defense of Marriage Act.
15) Obama blocked numerous Republican attempts to end all federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
16) Obama changed immigration policy so that the federal government no longer deports illegal immigrants who have no criminal record, and has taken steps to make immigration policy more friendly to LGBT immigrants and their partners.
Not bad. Off the top of my head, one more thing Obama has done since Dorrien's book went to press was to ensure that virtually all American women will have insurance coverage for contraception. Much to Rush Limbaugh's chagrin.
Dorrien's list certainly makes one think. He makes an excellent point when he reminds us that the stimulus bill actually contained seven different elements (see #5 in the list above) that in and of themselves represent a package of progressive legislation more impressive than that passed by any other president save FDR and LBJ. The author argues that this package of legislation "did more to help the working poor than any bill in two decades."
Obama, Dorrien maintains, is not perfect by any means, and has made a number of missteps that prevented him from achieving even as much as he might have wanted to in terms of progressive policies. However, the author emphasizes the political constraints the President has faced, noting especially the lack of a "significant political Left." Dorrien hopes that the emergence of Occupy Wall Street will help/push Obama to win more significant progressive achievements in his second term.
In addition examining to the progressive achievements Obama has already won, Dorrien makes the following case in his concluding paragraph:
Obama still has an essentially progressive vision of the presidency that he wants to have. He is still the most compelling human being to reach the White House in decades. And he is still a figure of singular promise in American politics. To fulfill that promise, he has to overcome his own cautious, accommodating temperament, and progressives have to believe it is still possible."This book is not a fawning, worshipful recounting of Obama's first three years as President. Not by a long shot. Because Dorrien does not hold back on criticizing areas where he sees Obama having fallen short, his conclusion emanates all the more forcefully. The author wants the president to do more, no question about it. But Dorrien (and, presumably, Obama as well) wants progressives to recognize just how much has already been done, and to sign on to make sure that even more gets done after 2012.
Although I don't agree with every word Dorrien has written, I think this book makes a powerful overall argument.
6:19 AM PT: And thanks for the recommends that put this on the rec list!