Sunday, 25 September 2011

Barack Obama and those Liberal Democrats

Being a Democrat supporter recently has probably involved much gritting of teeth, a certain degree of anger, and at times, a sense of bewilderment.

Many believe that President Obama has been too ready to cave in (or “reach a compromise,” if you prefer) to the demands of the Republican Party, as they themselves, infected by a virulent strain of extremist politics, otherwise known as the Tea Party, become dragged further and further to the right, and away from the more moderate mainstream.
There was at least some comfort to his liberal base on Monday, with President Obama’s call for a "Buffet Tax" which would see earners of over $1m being taxed at a higher rate, and the clamping down on loopholes, which currently sees some of the wealthiest Americans paying a lower rate of tax than the considerably less well off.
But this policy proposal has come off the back of some pretty dispiriting headlines if you find yourself aligned to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Firstly, last year, they would have had to witness Barack Obama agreeing to extend deep tax cuts for wealthy middle-class Americans, an initiative first introduced under the previous Bush administration and due to come to an end last December, until Obama’s intervention.
One could reasonably argue that the ‘Buffet Tax’ has been used as a way to nullify the effects of this.
Then came Obama’s deal this summer to end the US debt crisis. It involved (after heavy bargaining and eventual Republican agreement) committing the country to raising its debt ceiling, whist slashing public spending by a mouth-watering $2.5tn over the next 10 years, much of it expected to come from welfare benefits.
What the economist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, described at the time as ‘an abject surrender,’ on the part of the president. Going further, he added that:
 “…Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats.”
MoveOn, a progressive grass-roots organization, boasting 5 million members, called the deal “grotesquely immoral.” Michael Tomasky, a leading liberal commentator, believed this to be: “…the lowest moment of Obama’s presidency,” without him getting a single concession in return. Tomasky asked whether:
“…just as Bush and Rove helped revived liberalism, it now seems plausible that Obama is ushering in a conservative era.
And just a few weeks ago, Obama delivered a huge snub to environmentalists by postponing [until 2013 at least] new rules on tackling air pollution, as put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency. Rules, which would have:
“…saved up to 12,000 lives [by 2020] and 2.5 million working days and school days lost to the toxic effect of ozone on American lungs each year.”
A move which had MoveOn’s executive director, Justin Reuben, wondering:
“…how they can ever work for President Obama’s reelection, or make the case for him to their neighbors, when he does something like this, after extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and giving in to tea party demands on the debt deal. This is a decision we'd expect from George W Bush.”
There are then the various opinion polls which reflect liberal frustrations. One, jointly carried out in July, by The Washington Post and ABC News found worrying levels of disengagement among liberals, with those who approved of Obama’s handling of the economy falling dramatically from 53% in 2010 to just 31%. Concern over his record on jobs creation was also cited.
Obama’s capitulation to the right, especially over the way he handled the debt ceiling, is an often heard criticism.

As viewed from the outside, it is puzzling to know why, rather than confronting, exposing and taking on his opponents, in particular the Tea Party – a group which would be dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe movement in many other countries - he seems to have pandered to them, continuously giving them the upper hand, and in the process, making himself look weak.
The film maker, Michael Moore, pertinently argues that:
“…each time the president moves to the right, he picks up no votes and loses many.”
This seems to sum up what many Obama supporters have been thinking. The need to look bipartisan on certain crucial issues, and try to appeal to a more moderate America, hasn’t won him many more plaudits, especially amongst independents. A New York Times/CBS News poll out last week showed that 59% of this critical electoral group still disapprove of his performance.
A key to resurrecting some of this support may lie in a shift to the left. An intriguing CNN poll released over the summer found Obama’s approval rating down to 45%, with 54% disapproving of his record in office. But, as CNN’s Polling Director Keating Holland explains:
“…drill down into that number and you'll see signs of a stirring discontent on the left. Thirty-eight percent say they disapprove because President Obama has been too liberal, but 13 percent say they disapprove of Obama because he has not been liberal enough - nearly double what it was in May, when the question was last asked, and the first time that number has hit double digits in Obama's presidency."
Putting it another way, of the almost one in four Americans who disapprove of Obama attribute this to him not being liberal enough. This should make sobering reading for the president.
It is probably surprising that despite the feelings of betrayal, and in contradiction to other polls carried out, Obama can still manage to command huge loyalty amongst liberals.
A Gallup poll last month found, despite everything, 72% of Democrats still backing him, significantly higher than the country as a whole, and rising to 83% amongst those who identify themselves as both liberal and Democratic.
There must be a belief amongst some that the president hopes he has done enough to convince the public that he is able to appeal to a wider audience, not just Democrats, and seek compromise wherever necessary. That he is able to move beyond party politics when the national interest demands it.
The hope must be that Obama is able to cling on for that second term, and free from the shackles of reelection, he is able to get on with pursuing a more progressive agenda.
According to Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, Obama should have no worries about re-energising his followers ahead of next year’s general election:
"He will have a base problem until the time when an opponent emerges, and then 90 percent of the problem will disappear...[and] people will consider the opponent and then he'll look awfully good."
For liberals the world over, let’s hope he is right.

An edited version of this article was first published by Liberal Conspiracy on Saturday 24 September 2011

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