Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obama is the Champion of What?

That President Obama has some of his lowest poll numbers yet this morning is not the sky falling. Many presidents experience similar numbers in their first years. The troubling number is that more respondents are now against the health care bill than for it. These numbers do not represent a conservative fantasy of everyone rallying to the side of the Teabaggers. The low numbers in general, but particularly the numbers on the health care legislation, reflect the fact that the president has lost the left. When the public option is not in, when expansion of Medicare is not in, there ceases to be enough real reform to make the bill seem worthwhile. This is a mistake: even a watered-down package of legislation would be a step in an incremental move in the right direction.

But that's not what I want to write about today. I want to stick with this issue of where the progressive left is with Obama. Granting that even just a few points of the poll number slippage is owing to left-leaning opponents of the final bill pulling off, the overall numbers are still close enough that that would make a big difference. At a minimum it's certain that the president would have some number higher than what he's got now if he had the Democratic base galvanized, which he does not, and that that number wouldn't be so bad relative to other administrations. Bottom line: this White House would be doing better politically if it were further to the left. The current failure is to be not radical enough.

Demographics are on the Democrats' side, and the country is coming off of a long conservative cycle. Democrats and liberal voters felt that they'd been being beat up on by the Republicans for a long time. They wanted someone who was more pugalistic, a fighter. That was the energy that Howard Dean tapped into. The electorate in general is not as doctrinaire as the various chattering classes. Ronald Reagan wasn't elected in 1980 by a nation won over to conservative philosophy, he was elected by a nation that wanted to change the channel. He presented real change (of the kind he favored) as just that, a change (what the public wanted).

That was a time when voters were realigning themselves, and now is also such a time. There are insurgent currents on the right with which progressives might make common cause. It is the (much smaller) left, after all, that has forever been opposed to corporate dictat, or to wanton environmental destruction, or to massive military operations conducted globally, in perpetuity. But these are also preoccupations of the populist, Christian, middle class element of Republican voters who are so restive today. Obama at his most politically successful could be stripping those voters away like a bear getting at the honey.

But he's not doing that right now because he is coming off as just another yes man to corporate interests and just another yes man to the Pentagon. We know what he said during the campaign: health care for all, and an end to the two wars. That's what he envisioned, he said so time and again. So it was somebody else who told him that he couldn't do public health insurance, and it was somebody else who told him he couldn't withdraw US combat troops from South Asia. Who's your daddy, Barack?

Peggy Noonan, of whom I am not a fan notwithstanding her fine Irishness, did say something on MSNBC this morning that struck me as maybe uncomfortably true: she pointed out that in her experience as a columnist, most national political leaders have die-hard adherents who will angrily rally, showering hostile e-mails on any pundit who lobs criticisms at their champion. She said she didn't see that fierce core of Obama supporters.

A champion must be a champion to some people, but a champion must also be a champion of some cause. With Reagan people felt that they knew what he stood for. They weren't necessarily as committed to conservatism as he was, or even very committed at all. It was the trust that he created by a sense that he was grounded, that he would always move in a predictable direction that was governed by his own judgement come what may. Obama needs to project that aura of leadership now. A leader has to be leading somewhere. This president will see his fortunes rise when he moves to the left, as counter-intuitive as that may sound to some. You heard it here eighty-zillionth.