Thomas Frank has an interesting column in Salon that typifies the cynical view of Obama by speculating what his Presidential library might look like.
Republicans in Congress want to make sure President Obama takes the blame for their obstruction. Thomas Frank helps them out by presenting the Jed Bartlett version of the Presidency. On the TV show West Wing, President Bartlett can accomplish anything by pounding on his desk and giving an inspiring speech. It's a romantic, but childishly unrealistic version of how government works. When Republicans obstruct, according to this view of the Presidency, we should pin the blame on Obama for not being an imaginary character on television.
After some mind reading about Obama's bad intentions, Frank recommends:
In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress.
Actually, Obama has done both of those things. He has relentlessly campaigned for a second stimulus jobs bill and has talked about economic issues from a progressive viewpoint non-stop.
When politicians say something conservative, Fox and talk radio act as an echo-chamber. It helps those ideas spread and become accepted as mainstream. When Obama says something progressive, much of the cynical pundit left help the corporate press by ignoring it. The progressive blogosphere often acts as a muffler on good, progressive statements by Obama instead of an echo-chamber. I haven't figured out how it helps advance progressive ideas to ignore when a sitting President espouses them.
For example, has anyone noticed how many times Obama called to end oil industry subsidies, including in major addresses to Congress? Probably not, since most progressive pundits have joined the corporate-owned press in ignoring those calls.
We've had another President in the same situation as Obama who did exactly what Frank suggests: Harry Truman. President Truman advanced an aggressive civil rights and economic agenda that would have made him one of the most successful Presidents in American history, rivaling FDR. Few people know about that agenda because almost all of it was blocked by an obstructionist Republican Congress. We remember Truman's accomplishments that didn't require Congressional action isntead, like desegregating the military.
“Give 'em Hell” Harry gave speeches more aggressively partisan than Obama. He coined the term “Do-nothing Congress.” When Republicans published a reasonable agenda in their convention platform, Truman called a special session of Congress to demand they pass it. What a great stunt! It's just what Thomas Frank is calling for. And none of it worked. The Constitution still places severe limits on Presidential power when people elect a lousy Congress.
The big problem with Frank's essay is that, by identifying the wrong problem, he points us toward the wrong solution. The implication is that we need to look for a better Presidential savior who will make change happen by giving just the right fist-pounding speeches. That's a fruitless, counterproductive expectation.
Two important things separated this time in history from the eras that passed the Great Society programs and the New Deal. FDR and LBJ had two things Obama doesn't:
1) A super-majority in Congress.
2) Aggressive mass movements pressuring Congress and the President to do more.
Those are two things in our power to change. Obama almost had those two factors during his first two years and managed to pass the largest expansion of the safety net since LBJ, and the largest regulation of the financial sector since the New Deal.
As much as Obama has done to disappointment me, I've been even more disappointed that over the past six years too much of the progressive punditry and blogosphere have:
1) Obsessed over Obama while failing to put much pressure on Congress, and
2) Not spent as much effort building and highlighting people's movements that can deliver change.
We still have some slim chance this year of delivering a better Congress and building stronger mass movements. What we'll end up with if we do is a much better President. It's a course of action that will produce progress.
What won't produce progress is searching for Jed Bartlett. Hillary Clinton won't produce easy change for us. Neither will Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. There's no one we can elect President who will deliver what Thomas Frank is asking for unless we provide that President with those other two factors.
If Frank wants another system of government that gives far more power to the chief executive, he's welcome to argue for it. In my view, giving too much power to one person rarely goes well for very long.
In 2008 Obama repeatedly said that real change would take more than voting for him as President. He said change comes from the bottom up. That it will take a movement. That's true for Obama and anyone else we might elect as President. If Frank had listened to those speeches he might not be so disillusioned that Obama didn't turn out to be what he never promised to be.
The biggest mistake the progressive movement can make would be failing to learn the right lessons from the Obama Presidency by searching for the next Presidential Savior who will inevitably disappoint us as well. Putting all of our hopes and expectations into the office of the Presidency will never accomplish our goals. It will only produce a long line of Harry Trumans who never live up to their potential.