The Obama Question

We have been asking off and on in this space for a year now whether liberalism/progressivism has better long-term prospects with the defeat of Barack Obama this November. Disciplining centrist Republicans is the method right-wingers used to move first their party and then this country rightward. The converse idea, that Democratic politicians who reject or undo core principles or legislative achievements, should also face discipline from the Left, which we have from time to time considered, is best put by Harvard Law School professor Robert Unger (who taught Obama in law school). Unger says the Left will be better off defeating Obama. We will have to consider this more carefully as November creeps closer:

Does the American left have the stomach for this discussion?


    • Art & History
    • June 18th, 2012

    Nice droning speech. Political reality? Unger gives new meaning to Ivory Tower. So Obama does not walk on water; in fact he is a Chicago politician! Throw the bum out and vote for Romney!?

  1. It’s a little bit worse than not walking on water. No President since FDR was given a blank slate like Obama was handed. He had political capital a plenty and a filibuster proof Senate for most of the first 2 years. He had the American people behind him to solve the near Depression. What did he do? In the name of “bipartisanship” he loaded the stimulus with useless tax breaks to please Republicans. He allowed the banks to recover at leisure without requiring they lend. He failed to relentlessly explain how the crisis was started and how re-regulation was necessary. What did he get in return? Not one GOP vote and the united opposition of a reactionary movement.

    As a national security President, he is on par with W. As a union protector, he was AWOL.

    Now it is true that the Supreme Court would be a disaster if Romney were elected. But FDR had an equally bad court. The difference is that FDR had backbone. I’m afraid “our” guy has very little. Maybe he never was “our” guy. Look at appointments like Rahm, Gibbs, Summers, Geitner, Gates, Lahood.

    Progressives need to find a leader. It is not enough to have someone who wants to “split the baby.” As I keep saying, “splitting the baby” was a threat by Solomon to get the right answer; it never was a working governing philosophy.

    But as I wrote, as November gets closer the question that will have to be answered will be: Will the future of the country be better served by a temporary set-back? In other words, can we afford the rightward drift of this administration and party or should we roll up our sleeves and start from scratch now? Four more years of Obama is not going to produce a liberal successor.

    We have to acknowledged that our Party is hopelessly corrupted and on the wrong track. The question is does Obama help or hurt putting the movement back on track?

  2. By the way, Marilyn, Robert Unger from “my” Cambridge institution is nor more ivory tower than Noam Chomsky at your Cambridge institution.

    • Art & History
    • June 19th, 2012

    Maybe that’s my problem – – both are my institutions, but give me Chomsky any day, for logic, heart, and showing up at the demo, debate, trial, international skirmish, etc.

    No argument that the left is in tatters, and in fact needs to be totally redefined. Money, or irrational identification with the monied classes, has become the flesh eating bacterium causing a frightened middle class to vote against its own best interests. And causing the blue collar ranks to sign on to the Tea Party, creationism, birtherism, etc., while the Republicans pull the strings and laugh at them.

    We can see, now, that Obama had to make some god-awful deals, agreements and affiliations to get elected. But really, didn’t we let ourselves slip into the clarity and comfort of a ” glorious cause” mindset working to get him elected, few questions asked? And, “non, je ne regrette rien.”

    Re-inventing the left does not have to include allowing Romney to win any office ever again.

  3. When I referred to “my” versus “your” Cambridge institutions, I was specifically referring to the Law School and not the whole university as “my” institution. And in the Harvard Law School Unger is a towering figure. You could say that about him in all legal education. There is probably not a more respected Philosopher of Jurisprudence than Unger. (Possibly, Ronald Dworkin. But Dworkin deals with a more specialized area.)

    But I’ll go beyond that. Unger is perhaps the most important theoretician of the Left since Engel. Certainly more so than Marcuse. And who else since then has analyzed the premises of what the Left wants better than he? Chomsky is certainly worth respect, and his instincts on policy matters are sound, but he really isn’t a philosopher of a movement.

    In any event, you are quite right. If the question were simply, Do we want to elect Mitt Romney? The answer would be simple. But the question is: Is it the sole duty of the Left to support the least bad candidate of the two parties? Put another way: Would we be happy if the Left were able to keep a Democrat like, say, Bill Clinton in office all the time? (That is, he or one like him would always defeat the “worse” Republican running against him.) Would this be enough for the Left? Would we be happy if we had the guy who dismantled welfare in the more humane way? What would Marian Wright Edelman have to say about that? You can pick any of numerous issues that Clinton temporized on, particularly in his second term. The question is the same. (And the cumulative effect makes it a harder question.)

    If that is not enough, and yet the Democratic Party is structured in such a way that we will only have Center-Right candidates who are slightly to the left of the Republican, what are we supposed to do? Grin and bear it? Doesn’t there come a time that the product of this machine shows that there is something wrong with the machine and that the machine has to be fixed? And how do we do that if we keep supporting the result of that machine? (Of course a large part of what went wrong happened when Clinton made an entente with Wall Street, opening its cash to the party, and taking its representatives, like Larry Summers, as neo-liberal policy makers who would do things like agree to repeal Glass-Steagall. It’s not just W who was responsible for the Financial Crisis, it is also Clinton. And yet Obama took those very neo-liberal advisers. Is he so committed to compromise that he has no independent place to stand?)

    I suspect that we have all acted on this intuition at least partially. We are not giving as much money or working the phones like we did in 2008. But if the only question is beating Romney then we should be working just as hard, regardless how disappointing Obama was (or who caused the misunderstanding).

    I’m not saying — yet — that Obama is where the Left should draw a line in the sand. But it is not a ridiculous issue. We know it will be distasteful. Unger acknowledges that there will be costs. But at some point, we must draw a line, otherwise the Left will have no purpose but to offer a slightly more liberal version of what the GOP dictates.

    I’ll post some more organized thoughts a bit later. Right now, I’m waiting with bated breath over how the Supreme Court will justify subverting the political process in its decision on Health Care.

      • Art & History
      • June 20th, 2012

      Knew Unger when he was still Roberto.

  1. January 14th, 2013

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