Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment. As Mario Cuomo famously observed, candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Still, Obama supporters have been asked to swallow some painfully "prosaic" compromises. In order to pass his healthcare legislation, for instance, Obama was required to specifically repudiate his pledge to prochoice voters to "make preserving women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority as president." That promise apparently was lost in the same drawer as his insistence that "any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange...including a public option." Labor unions were among his most fervent and dedicated foot soldiers, as well as the key to any likely progressive renaissance, and many were no doubt inspired by his pledge "to fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act." Yet that bill appears deader than Jimmy Hoffa. Environmentalists were no doubt steeled through the frigid days of New Hampshire canvassing by Obama's promise that he would "set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming—an 80 percent reduction by 2050." That goal appears to have gone up the chimney in thick black smoke. And remember when Obama promised, right before the election, to "put in place the common-sense regulations and rules of the road I've been calling for since March—rules that will keep our market free, fair and honest; rules that will restore accountability and responsibility in our corporate boardrooms"? Neither, apparently, does he. Indeed, if one examines the gamut of legislation passed and executive orders issued that relate to the promises made by candidate Obama, one can only wince at the slightly hyperbolic joke made by late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped that the president's goal appeared to be to "finally deliver on the campaign promises made by John McCain."
None of us know what lies in the president's heart. It's possible that he fooled gullible progressives during the election into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill. An awful lot of progressives, including two I happen to know who sport Nobel Prizes on their shelves, feel this way, and their perspective cannot be completely discounted. The Beltway view of Obama, meanwhile, posits just the opposite. According to that view—insistently repeated, for instance, by the Wall Street Journal's nonpartisan, nonideological news columnist Gerald Seib—the president's problem is that he and his allies in the Democratic Party "just overplayed their hand in the last year and a half, moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction." (Obama's biggest mistake, seconded The Atlantic Monthly's Clive Crook, was his failure to "repudiate the left" and "make it [his] enemy." And Newt Gingrich, speaking from what is actually considered by these same Beltway types to be the responsible center of the Republican Party, calls Obama "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" as he urges his minions to resist the president's "secular, socialist machine."
Personally, I tend more toward the view expressed by the young, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, that Obama is a "liberal who's always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer." During the presidential campaign Obama bravely praised Ronald Reagan for putting forth bold ideas that "changed the trajectory of American politics." But as president he has chosen to work for whatever deal might already be on the table, relying instead on the philosophy of one of his early Chicago mentors, Denny Jacobs, who told Obama biographer David Remnick, "Sometimes you can't get the whole hog, so you take the ham sandwich."
But the truth, dear reader, is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination. Nor are the strategic mistakes made by the Obama team really all that crucial, except perhaps at the margins of any given policy. The far more important fact, for progressive purposes, is simply this: the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us.
Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign.
The American political system is nothing if not complicated, and so too are the reasons for its dysfunction. Some are endemic to our constitutional regime and all but impossible to address save by the extremely cumbersome (and profoundly unlikely) prospect of amending the Constitution. Others are the result of a corrupt capital culture that likes it that way and has little incentive to change. Many are the result of the peculiar commercial and ideological structure of our media, which not only frame our political debate but also determine which issues will be addressed. A few are purely functions of the politics of the moment or just bad luck. If we really mean to change things, instead of just complaining about them, it would behoove us to figure out which of these choke points can be opened up and which cannot. For if our politicians cannot keep the promises they make as candidates, then our commitment to democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise; it resembles a democratic process at great distance but mocks its genuine intentions in substance. I go into great detail about these phenomena in my article "Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now" at TheNation.com, but below is a précis.