Dissent symposium: Obama One Year In

A mini-symposium has been posted over at Dissent magazine, weighing in on the initial hopes and subsequent disappointments of Obama’s first year in office. Below are some interesting tidbits.

Michael Walzer:

He brought with him a group of economic advisors and policy-makers who were committed to the restoration of the status quo ante—not to any radical reconstruction of the economic order. Had they been social democrats, rather than conventional liberals, they might have recognized the urgency of job creation and invested more heavily in it. But any more significant economic reconstruction was not a felt need in the country; there had been no political preparation for it; there was no movement mobilizing support for it and nothing like agreement on its necessity in Congress, not even among Democrats. The mere fact that we, on the left, wanted reconstruction is no reason to be disappointed that it didn’t happen. We are not entitled to get what we want, and we shouldn’t expect to get what we want until we convince a majority of our fellow citizens that they should want it too. And that we plainly haven’t done.

I am not disappointed that Obama has refused to summon up and then exploit a wave of populist fury. Populist politics is always more available to the right than to the left, and the anger it arouses tends to float freely from bankers to Jews to immigrants to “communists”—to all the standard objects of resentment. Our politics is different. We need to make the case for structural reform, build public support for it, and strengthen the intermediate associations—like unions and consumer groups—that can educate and mobilize their members.

Todd Gitlin:

Ideological overlap was a precondition for victory. But it was never as simple as Obama and his well-wishers said. A lot of Obama’s supporters were Progressives—not in the current sense, a euphemism for liberals, but in the original sense, from the early twentieth century. They wanted, in other words, the politics of high-minded, middle-class idealism: throw the rascals out, clean up corruption, put adversaries around the table and reason together. A lot also were populists, who combined a politics of sturdy, working-class virtue—fairness and less inequality—with a politics of resentment. Progressives are, in the main, insiders—professionals, used to being deferred to. Populists are, in the main, outsiders—amateurs, galvanized by emotional furies.

Obama has to play his other strong suits. He is a lucid explainer and an inspirational moralist. He needs to combine the two and go post-post-partisan. He can explain that choice to himself because he is an empiricist. (This is the upside of Progressivism.) You try an approach and you see what happens.  If playing nice doesn’t bring the necessary results, then you adjust accordingly. The way to adjust now is take a certain risk of looking like an angry black guy—but with a smile. He should welcome the hatred of the corrupt financial industry, the Republicans, and the Tea Party.

Nelson Lichtenstein:

The Administration/Congressional health care plan is messy and often contradictory, but in essence it also embodies a grand bargain—a sort of corporatist deal not unlike many of the great welfare state reforms we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society. No radical reform of the system is possible. There are too many institutional roadblocks, and there is too much culturally embedded fear of government, even before the “tea bag” eruption exacerbated such an impulse.

Of course, it is not only the particular causes that have demobilized the left; it is also all of the clever deals the Obama people struck with the banks, the wavering Democrats, and the health care interest groups that implied a promise not to mobilize left-wing opposition. This seems to have been the case in September 2009, in the wake of the tea party tantrums, when the prospect of a million person march on the Washington Mall by the left was in the offing, and the Obama people did nothing to encourage it (perhaps even urged against it).”

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