Should Liberals be Giving Obama A Break? Part III
Posted by Michael Cohen
In response to my call for the left to lay off the criticism of Obama, Shadi Hamid makes the following observation:
The Left wants to feel that Obama is on their side, fighting for what they believe on, independent of whether or not that leads to tangible policy/legislative successes. If he can't deliver, fine, but at least put in some effort and say it like you mean it (see public option). Do I have a strong opinion on the public option, as a policy? No. Do I know anyone who has a strong opinion on the public option, as policy? Maybe, but only a few. Do I know anyone who has a strong opinion on the public option, as a signal and as an idea? Yes.
I really like Shadi and I agree with much of what he writes on the Middle East, but I think this is just wrong on a number of levels. The notion that signals or dog whistles to the left should be more important than actual accomplishments (like passing legislation that provides health insurance for 30 million Americans) is crazy to me. By this notion, Obama should have fought for the public option - as a signal to the left - even if it risked undermining the entire effort at comprehensive health care reform.
While I suppose this would have made some folks happy, what would that have meant for actual Americans suffering from lack of health insurance? Every years tens of thousands of Americans die because they don't have health insurance. Those are the people the the left quite reasonably claims they are fighting for - the notion that their needs should be secondary to the "signal" that would be sent to liberals by fighting for a public option is borderline amoral. For Shadi to say that failure is "fine" . . . well actually that's not fine.
I supported Barack Obama, not because I cared one iota for the public option, but because I thought Obama would be able to pass important progressive legislation, which is exactly what he did in husbanding all of his political capital to pass comprehensive health care reform. I would be willing to venture that the vast majority of people who voted for Obama could care less about the public option; I'm pretty positive that is true of the 40 million Americans who currently don't have health insurance.
That there are folks on the left who dismiss Obama's accomplishment because he didn't fight hard enough for a public option (which had no chance of passing and in the grander scheme of things wouldn't have made a huge difference) shows how out of touch they may actually be with own constituency. Indeed it is striking that Shadi is standing on principle over an issue (the public option) that he acknowledges he doesn't have a strong, informed opinion about.
We sometimes seem to forget sometimes that politics is not an end in itself. Winning an election only matters so far as how you utilize the political power you've gained to affect public policy decision-making. If you're a progressive it's about using the power government to help those who need a helping hand or correct inefficiencies in the free market. That's what this imperfect health care legislation has done.
To achieve that goal there are compromises that must be made along the way. For liberals to not acknowledge that reality or give short shrift to accomplishments that help working and middle class Americans because they don't line up perfectly with their ideological preferences . . . well that just strikes me as a rather naive way to think about American politics.
(Let me also add, for the record, that none of this is meant to suggest that left should not hold Obama's feet to the fire when he screws up or fails to adhere to progressive values. My blogging on Afghanistan is a testament to that belief. We should and we must criticize - nothing could be worse than if the left become cheerleaders for the Administration. But we must also acknowledge and praise victories and temper our criticism with an acknowledgment of basic political realities).