Thomas Frank’s new interview with Cornel West in Salon harnesses West’s quotability for a grabby headline: Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” That idea—of Obama, the counterfeit progressive—clearly resonates with many on the left, Frank included. To the extent that he guides the interview at all, it’s by nodding along with West and teeing him up for easy critiques: “What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans?” The end result is unfortunate, because a more demanding interviewer might have achieved what I take to be the piece’s goal: helping readers understand the failure of a more aggressive left-wing agenda in the Obama years. What the piece reveals instead, presumably by accident, are the failures of the left’s critique of Obama.
Left-wing criticisms of Obama get their traction by appealing to a sense of stagnancy: progress seems to have halted, if it’s not actually in reverse. This argument, valid to a point, is extended in the interview beyond all plausibility. West accuses Obama of “a Wall Street presidency” without any reference to Dodd-Frank, which seems finally to be working. He complains that “the torturers go free,” which (I agree!) is a fair argument–but which becomes unfair when the Administration’s steps against torture are totally omitted. West accuses Obama of faking concern about inequality, and claims that for his inner circle, “poverty is not even an afterthought.” This is a particularly ill-timed charge, in light of the recent Times piece showing that in his first term, Obama requested and received more money for the poor than any Democrat in 50 years (including LBJ). His antipoverty spending dwarfs that of other liberal presidents even when controlling for the Great Recession and spending levels overall, and it reduced the poverty rate in 2012 by nearly 13 points. And if you can believe it, nobody in the interview even so much as mentions health-care reform.
So, yes, it’s true that if you ignore all of his progressive accomplishments, Obama doesn’t seem to have any progressive accomplishments. That could be chalked up to a gloomy attitude, or forgetfulness, or maybe just laziness: The details of health-care policy and financial regulation may be technical and dry, but they’re important. It’s easy to become detached from these day-to-day details, especially if you spend your time thinking about bigger issues.
What’s less forgivable, if you spend your time thinking hard about politics, is critiquing political leaders while refusing to take seriously the choices they have to make. West tosses off a line about Obama’s “drone presidency,” which is a common refrain among left-wing critics. Now, drone warfare is awful. It’s legally ambiguous at best. It further aggrandizes executive power. It creates massive psychological distress among the populations of target areas. It’s been used against American citizens, which is troubling to say the least. But it is also one of a series of miserable options presented by the problem of violent extremists operating freely in the lawless regions of countries like Pakistan. As a matter of policy, the United States could decide to leave such extremists, and such regions, alone. Or it could choose to fight them with a massive deployment of soldiers. In light of recent history, neither option recommends itself. Drone warfare, for all its flaws, is an attempt to respond to a very real security issue without the troop deployment that Obama has tended to resist in his presidency. In its breezy moralism, West’s criticism doesn’t just ignore the difference between a drone strike and a ground invasion; it proceeds as though the underlying problem simply didn’t exist.
When the critique isn’t saddled with this determined obliviousness to context, it proceeds through basic, unchallenged factual errors. West claims that the Administration “won’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian children,” which is misleading at best. He says that “the Obama Administration has been silent,” “completely silent,” about police actions in Ferguson, which is false. These claims would sound downright bizarre to anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last month. Frank not only says nothing in response; he works in one of his own, wondering why Obama, after six years, still “persists” in “the search for the Grand Bargain.” To ask this question is to ignore every single major development in the budget battles for at least the last two years. Whatever foolish offers Obama made while negotiating over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, he had learned his lesson by the last presidential campaign, and the obvious reality now is that the Grand Bargain is dead, dead, dead. Obama stopped “persisting” in his search years ago. When not trading in these kinds of dubious accusations, the interview lapses into something approaching name-calling. At one point, West tells Frank that when it comes to Obama, “it’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin.” Astonishingly, Frank does not ask him to elaborate on this, leaving interpretation up to the reader.
This presidency has seen failures, but very few of them can be explained through a dramatic narrative in which everything depends on the tragically-flawed Barack Obama, Sellout. Frank and West are impressed by the big crowds Obama drew in 2008, and West absurdly claims that “he had the country in the palm of his hand in terms of progressive possibilities”—failing to mention (again!) the words “Tea Party.” Obama’s inability to be the President progressives wanted is a real problem. His Administration, while largely successful, may nonetheless leave behind shortcomings that could haunt not only the progressive movement, but the country, for decades to come. But this a problem of progressive leadership in general, not of Barack Obama. And there’s not the slimmest hope of solving it until we stop ignoring history, stop congratulating each other for our moral purity, and start taking seriously the dilemmas of governing.