what hard looks like

Remember on Inauguration Day, when fans of Barack Obama felt admiration for the new president as a person–mixed with a foreboding sense that things would soon become difficult for him? That’s the sense I felt on the National Mall last January. But what did people imagine that “difficult” would look like? Did they think that poor Barack would have to stay up late every night working on legislation? Or that he would consistently propose policies that we support and be criticized by people we abhor?

If those were our thoughts, we were naive about politics and American society. Governing under difficult conditions means exactly the kind of compromise and negotiation that we see today–that’s what “hard” means. I’ve been critical of the administration, and I will gradually raise my bar of expectations over the coming years. Criticism is appropriate–helpful, even. But if anything disappoints me, it is not the choices of the administration. It is the sense that we were entitled to be handed “change” by the new president after we had finished our job by electing him last November. He always said quite the opposite–that the burden was going to fall on us.

I keep hearing friends and colleagues shake their heads in disappointment that the president has let us down. I want to shake them and shout, “What have you done lately?” I’m sorry, but I missed the millions of liberals marching though Washington to demand a single-payer health system. I noticed the tea party protesters, the insurance lobbyists, and Fox News. I watched public support for health care reform fall to the low thirties in recent surveys. I have not seen much counter-pressure. True, Organizing for America has been weak so far–but since when did liberals count on an incumbent president to organize a grassroots advocacy effort to put pressure on himself from the left? That’s our job.

These are the specific policies that most seem to disappoint the left:

  • The health reform bill, which Howard Dean and others are saying should be scuttled. It’s a compromise, and the process of legislative negotiation is ugly to watch. Joe Lieberman should be ashamed of himself, and the filibuster should be overturned. But this bill will be the most ambitious piece of progressive legislation since the 1960s, representing $900 billion in subsidies for lower-income people, paid by upper-income people, along with significant regulatory reforms. To pass this through a fractious body of 535 members while under unrelenting corporate pressure, during a recession, after the public has been asked to bail out banks and car companies, is an almost unbelievable achievement. The public option was, in my view, always an ideological proxy issue and not an important reform for disadvantaged Americans.
  • The stimulus, which Paul Krugman and others argue should have been much bigger. An economist will also tell you–if you’re stranded on a desert island with canned goods–to assume that you have a can-opener. In the real world, the government has only actually spent 30% of the appropriated stimulus funds so far. The feds don’t have a magical ability to push money out the door. I am not convinced that faster stimulus spending would have been possible.
  • Afghanistan, which many people are analogizing to Vietnam. The first point to note is that the president campaigned with a consistent commitment to “winning” in Afghanistan–so he has hardly betrayed his voters. The second point is that the available choices are all unpalatable. If we retain the current level of troops, we and the Afghans will just bleed slowly. If we withdraw, there will be a nightmare, in humanitarian as well as security terms. I am pessimistic about the surge, but I acknowledge that it creates the chance for some kind of multilateral deal before we leave.
  • Wall Street reform, which strikes liberals as thoroughly inadequate. Maybe so, but Congress now seems poised to pass comprehensive financial reform legislation. That’s not easy to accomplish given the “privileged position of business,” especially in a weak economy.
  • Human rights and civil liberties, on which the administration’s policies seem too close to its predecessor’s. There is definitely ground for criticism here. But Guantanamo is emerging as a symbol of failure, and that reinforces my view that Obama’s leftist critics are naive. What are we supposed to do–open the doors of Guantanamo and let the prisoners go wherever they want? Said Ali al-Shihri was released and is now leading Al Qaeda’s deadly efforts in Yemen. We cannot try people in criminal court if they are basically prisoners of war. And we can’t repatriate them if their home countries are likely to torture and execute them. Of course, Guantanamo must be closed, but it is better to do this carefully and right than quickly.

Again, my point is not that the administration is amazingly admirable or that Barack Obama should be our personal hero. My point is that nobody can accomplish “change” for us. There are plenty of ways to engage, and if you don’t use at least one of them, you have no business complaining.

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