Will Obama disappoint? Probably. Should that surprise us? Probably Not
When judging the Obama administration, both now and in 2012, there is (and will be) some virtue in remembering that progressive governments, both here and abroad, are always in some sense a disappointment to their more committed supporters. One trick for mental health is to remember how much better they are, even as they disappoint us, than their conservative alternative would be. The other is to work diligently to make sure that they don’t disappoint too much.
Why do they always disappoint?
They disappoint partly because on entering office they always inherit a poison chalice. They always come into power facing great problems that are tough to solve. That is why they are elected. Normally, voters turn to them in sufficient numbers only when their conservative opponents have been thoroughly discredited by the failure to do the same thing. But the electoral coalition that progressive parties mobilize in the pursuit of office, and the governing coalition they are obliged to use when in office, are never quite of the same order. The electoral coalition they mobilize is invariably made up of outsiders – the powerless, the people, the ones requiring change. But when elected, progressive administrations have to govern through existing centers of power. They become insiders. They have to work with privileged elites embedded in the system whose problems brought them to power in the first place. Conservative administrations rarely have problems governing as insiders. Progressive administrations invariably do.
Inevitably, progressive governments face push-back from within the very structures they are supposed to change. Unless they are very determined, and unless they can find a way of harnessing the power of their electoral coalition when in office, such governments inevitably find that over time their capacity to effect change diminishes. They come in high on promise and go out low on performance. This happens everywhere: even in the parliamentary systems of Western Europe. Look at the looming fate of the UK’s New Labour Government, poised as it currently is for heavy electoral defeat. So full of hope in 1997, so full of despair now, a tragedy in the making.
Disappointment is even more likely to happen in a presidential system of the kind we operate here. For presidential systems bring new institutional barriers into play. The separation of powers slows government down, creates independent sources of legislation that have to be coordinated, and embeds procedural rules that make even simple majorities insufficient for governance. Progressive politics requires strong political parties that stick together, but the US governmental system fragments political parties; it makes it almost impossible to impose central discipline on elected representatives absorbed in almost constant election cycles and with their own capacity to introduce bills. Even very determined presidents only ever get one or two major pieces of legislation onto the statute book. And in any case the forces of the left in the contemporary United States are weaker in reality than they seem in appearance. The Democratic Party is but a loose coalition of interests – progressive in name only – full of blue dogs; and its current leader, though clearly possessed of progressive values, is no socialist firebrand by European standards. We do well to remember that the whole center of political gravity in the US is so far to the right these days that someone demonized here by people like Tom Tancredo as a dogmatic socialist would fit easily into the center-right parties of Germany and France. Progressive forces are much less potent in the US than they first appear, and the political landscape on which they must battle has a built-in conservative gradient that is extraordinarily hard to climb.
So progressive politics in the US is necessarily particularly tough. It requires a disproportionate amount of effort to achieve even a modest (and messy) result; and even a modest result is a considerable achievement, given the odds stacked against fundamental change in any form. But as a committed progressive, I can see no immediate alternative to the making of that effort over and over again – to pushing back repeatedly and determinably against the conservatives who are now so dangerously re-energized before us –to pushing back with every argument and example at our disposal. Nor can I see any short-term alternative to focusing that push-back on the keeping of a Democrat, particularly this Democrat, in the White House; because the alternative – a President Palin perhaps – is simply too awful to contemplate. As I say, one trick for staying sane is to pressure the administration to meet as many of its progressive commitments as possible, but the other is to keep permanently in mind the political leadership that we might get if that pressure fails!
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.