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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.

What, if anything, is the matter with Obama? This is a question that sharply divides progressives today, the central front on what has become known as the “Obama Wars.”

The Obama Wars can be vicious – they're often reminiscent of the 2008 primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In online communities, the conflict pits “Obamabots,” whose mindless fealty to Our Dear Leader renders them incapable of independent thought, and “emo-progs,” members of the “professional left” whose lust for attacking the administration and refusal to give it credit for its accomplishments will only discourage Democratic voters and ultimately usher in a Bachmann presidency and a Supreme Court packed with far-right activist judges.

Such is the reality when, two years after a campaign promising hope and change swept our nation's first black president into office, our political system is still completely screwed up and the country remains mired in a long depression.

Sadly, the debate over Obama's role in this mess is marked by numerous straw-men and red herrings, because much of it is a battle of counterfactuals. For example, I personally believe that if Democrats began legislative fights from an unabashedly progressive proposal, rather than from what's perceived to be the center, we would end up with better outcomes. But that's an untested belief – at least in my time -- and I'm humble enough to acknowledge that I can't say with any certainty that offering proposals from further to the left wouldn't have backfired.

Take another example: the filibuster. We can all agree it has  been abused in an  unprecedented fashion since Obama came to power. Obama has been criticized for not calling on Congress to reform it ( until after the 2010 midterms), and it's entirely possible that if he had gone to the mat for changing the way the Senate does business, we'd have seen it happen. But members of the upper chamber have always fiercely protected their privileges, and Democrats know they'll be in the minority again. The Democratic caucus is  divided on the idea, and Harry Reid has sent mixed messages about whether he supports changing the rules. A lot of people seem very certain that if Obama had pushed for reforming the filibuster it would have happened, or that even if Obama had pushed for it, the leadership in the Senate had no interest in giving up what they viewed as their minority rights. Again, that's a debate over counterfactuals.

Obama's presidency, it seems, serves as a proxy for larger debates about how best to acquire and exercise power, the nature of our political discourse, and larger questions about the effectiveness of Democratic electoral politics. Consider some of the arguments behind the arguments over Obama – and the degree to which progressives are talking past one another.

Psychologist Drew Westen recently penned a  lengthy op-ed in the New York Times taking Obama to task for not articulating a progressive vision for America. Westen argued that after the financial crash, “there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.”

Westen wanted to hear Obama state explicitly that the crash “was not a natural disaster.” He envisioned a speech in which Obama told the American people that the disaster “was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures.”

It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”

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