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The Obama Wars: Why Do We Tear Each Other Apart Over Whether the President Is a Failure or Success?

The debate over Obama's role in the mess we're in is distracting progressives from the real fight.

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Chait said there's little evidence that rhetoric effects legislative outcomes, but the data he's talking about are based on short-term studies. But consider Zakaria's spiel about how confused Americans are about taxes and public spending. That is a result of a long and concerted effort to influence the discourse in this country. Reagan wasn't the first to say that government is by definition a problem, and can't offer solutions, but he articulated it well, again and again and again. It's a narrative that has been amplified by all corners of the conservative movement, and the idea that this thinking becoming widespread doesn't impact policy defies common sense.

In April, Obama gave a major deficit speech that won plaudits from many liberals because the president took a tough stance toward Republicans and drew sharp contrasts between his policies and those advanced by the Republicans. The speech did an excellent job setting the stage for the near-term debate that would follow in the lead-up to the 2012 elections – it was good politics. But I wrote that the address “was a catastrophe for progressives who argue that we need to grow our way out of the deficit by addressing the economic crisis pummeling 'Main Street.'” That wasn't a statement about the near-term politics; it spoke to the longer-term discourse in our political-economy.

So, this is actually a debate over whether one should do what one can within the political constraints of the day, or expend a lot of energy trying to move the political dialogue in one's preferred direction. In a New York Times article this week, an administration source was quoted saying, “It would be political folly to make the argument that government spending equals jobs.” That may be the case, but in this economic environment, it's also true. Does that attitude impact policy? According to the article, Obama's campaign guru, “David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want [Obama] to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.”

The Obama Wars are also a manifestation of people's expectations of his presidency, and here Obama and his campaign team bear some responsibility. Obama didn't promise to do what he could to dig the country out of eight years of disastrous Republican governance: he promised to change Washington – to usher in a new era of comity and reason -- and people believed him. They shouldn't have, because at the end of the day, progressives still faced any number of structural hurdles. Campaign cash still rules, our media still display a knee-jerk deference to whatever conventional wisdom is flying around the Beltway, and a small minority can still do a good job blocking legislation – the GOP's 41 votes in the Senate represented just 11 percent of the population.

Many progressives have been frustrated by Obama's tendency to blame Washington's “dysfunctional politics” for poor outcomes rather than naming the culprit – Republican obstructionism. This, like his foreign policy, should have come as no surprise – he was quite clear about his approach to political knife-fights from the beginning of the campaign. In fact, way back in early 2008, at the beginning of the primary campaign,  I wrote, “if Obama were to win the nomination, those desperate to see real change should hope that Barack Obama's touchy-feely message of hope and healing is nothing more than snappy campaign rhetoric.”

Obama's run as the candidate of "change" -- a nebulous slogan with huge appeal given the depth of the hole that Bush has dug over the last seven years. According to his campaign's narrative, Obama would not only change Washington, but he'd do it by bridging the gap between the Right and Left, healing long-festering wounds, bringing a polarized electorate together and uniting the country...

 
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