David Coates

Will Obama disappoint? Probably. Should that surprise us? Probably Not

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

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.

6 Responses to “Will Obama disappoint? Probably. Should that surprise us? Probably Not”

  1. yankee2 says:

    Basically, private corporate interests are so deeply (sufficiently, from their perspective) invested in American government, that it is impossible to make progressive change. In other words, enough legislators and administrators are so deeply committed to Capitalism, i.e. sold out to it, so thoroughly bought off, that socially responsible policy and legislation are impossible.

    Well before “Citizens United,” the corporate world has had its tentacles deep inside government. The American campaign system, having been made costly, makes politicians dependent on corporate sources for campaign finance support, to whom they then becomes indebted. If politicians play ball, they’ll be funded for the next election, if not… All the senior politicians, Congressmen, Cabinet members, and elected officials play this game well. As a result, a few thousand corporations get their way, most of the time, against the interests of 320,000,000 REAL Americans.

    And THAT is what Obama is up against. In my more lucid moments, I think that he is sincere. I think he DOES get it, as far as justice goes, and he DOES want to help the Middle Class. But it does not look like he’s got the balls to go up against an establishment that is so thoroughly stacked against his reforms. Against an establishment which will use any means to win power. Who does? I certainly hope there is a way, but we’ve already let Corporatism virtually take over the entire government, and now they won’t give it back.

    There has to be a way. I think that before much else can be accomplished, now, it will be essential to repeal “Citizens United,” and reverse legislation that gives corporations American citizen status. I think THAT should be Mr. Obama’s first order of business. Then he should seek campaign finance reform, with the intention of EXCLUDING corporations from involvement in the Democratic process. Perhaps then, we might eventually enjoy having elected officials who actually serve and respond to the needs of REAL, flesh and blood American citizens, first and foremost.

    And I think the Mr. Obama and all Democrats must learn to “play dirty,” something which the GOP and the Right are experts in (in fact it seems like they seldom win by any other means). We have at least to anticipate dirty tricks from the other side, and have strategic responses ready to neutralize them. We have to be prepared to play hardball, and to pull out all the stops, as necessary.

    We Progressives have to learn, not just to give it a good old college try, but to play to WIN.

  2. frisbieinstein says:

    > 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.

    So, you are saying a progressive can only be elected out of desperation? I don’t see how the 1960 election of President Kennedy fits in with that.

  3. wjfaust says:

    Actually, we would be better off letting the R’s run things. We will crash sooner and we might have at least some chance of rebuilding from the rubble. As it is, the D’s will just nibble us to death. By the time they crash the system, the planet will literally be toast. The sooner we get started the better.

  4. Raymond Emerson says:

    As Harry Truman campaigned he told people that if they didn’t send him a democratic congress he could do nothing. The same is still true. If the voters would clean out the republicans and the blue dog democrats at the next election, things would change. Without this the progressive movement is destined to failure.

  5. Urgelt says:

    I’m feeling more than a little exasperated by Prof. Coates’ explanation. Because although it all sounds nicely logical and brilliantly theoretical, it bears no real relationship to the state of politics in the US at all.

    It ignores the facts.

    Here is a fact for you: very, very few national politicians can get the money they need to present a candidacy to the public unless they are catering to corporate interests.

    If they attempt it without corporate money in their pockets, they will be outspent and held in near-total silence by the media.

    President Obama is no exception to this rule. The only real difference between him and his Republican rivals is rhetorical: Obama and the Democrats speak of political principles which are loathsome to the Republicans, and vice-versa. But when it comes to policies, the differences are usually insubstantial.

    The FDA is still run by appointees and advisors drawn from the industries it regulates. Ditto for Treasury and Wall Street. Defense contractors supply DoD leadership. On and on it goes.

    You want to know what produces this crushing sense of disappointment among progressives? It’s not what Prof. Coates says it is – the result of necessary compromises with the structures of power, which waters down the reforms progressive desire.

    It’s a little more venal than that. Progressives are disappointed that once again, rhetorical flourishes have fooled us into voting for a continuation of corruption on a scale never before seen in human history. We understand that it is corruption that will bring America to its knees, not terrorists. We are looking for a way to obtain honest government in time to stave off disaster. We are frustrated because we have no idea how to do it; honest men and women are almost entirely locked out. We are frustrated because every politician who glibly promises us change while filling his wallet at the corporate trough – which is then more than replenished with taxpayer money, of course – is lying through his teeth.

    We are frustrated because our democracy has become a corporate kleptocracy, and we don’t know how to get it back.

    The Health Care bills languishing on desks in Congress are prime examples of this corruption. They will do little to reign in health care costs, which are, you understand, the product of monopoly and near-monopoly market power in health care, drug and insurance industries. These are monopolies unrestrained by any serious government regulatory oversight, so naturally they gouge us. The bills don’t change this lamentable state of affairs in any significant way.

    The health care crisis was brought to us by corruption, nothing else. We used to regulate monopoly pricing, you know. Now, not so much. It’s a price-gouging free-for-all, and it is one because corruption in government has made it so.

    Political science is a worthy discipline. But if it is unable to call corruption when it sees it, its value to the society it serves is sadly diminished.

  6. reklama w internecie says:

    I like reading a post that will make people think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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