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Left Owes a Very Big Thank You to Robert Gibbs | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Left Owes a Very Big Thank You to Robert Gibbs

Progressives should, of course, thank White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for the small favor of distinguishing the Obama administration from the left.

In what he admitted was an "inartful" diatribe, the press secretary unleashed on lefties who have objected to Obama's many compromises on economic and social issues and, above all, with regard to the expansion of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

The "professional left," claimed Gibbs, is just a complaint club that will only "be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality." (If we are deferring to reality, it is probably worth noting that very few people on the left propose Pentagon "elimination," although many of them agree with Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul on the need to address the abuses and excesses in defense budgets.)

Gibbs hit with the left with what he apparently thought was his best shot: "They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president."

Gibbs seemed to be dismissing Kucinich, the anti-war congressman, veteran economic populist and two-time contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, as an example of the extremity within the Democratic camp.

What Gibbs forgot, of course, was that Kucinich played a pivotal role in advancing Obama's candidacy for the presidency. On the day of the 2008 Democratic caucuses in Iowa, Kucinich told his supporters that if they did not have a critical mass of backers at individual caucuses, they should throw in with Obama as the most viable progressive. That was a critical decision, since Obama only narrowly beat former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who was making a big play for liberal backing.

I saw the impact in downtown Dubuque, at the public library, where a group of Kucinich backers, recognizing that they were outnumbered, aligned with the Obama group and gave them the numbers they needed to dramatically overwhelm supporters of Edwards and Hillary Clinton. This happened at caucuses across Iowa. It is true that the Kucinich camp amounted to only two, three or perhaps four percent of the Democratic caucusgoers; but they played a critical role -- and that role benefited Obama.

Had Kucinich urged his backers to go with Edwards, it might well have changed the results to give the North Carolinian the advantage in the key caucuses -- perhaps even a narrow win of caucus night. That would have made it much harder -- perhaps impossible -- for Obama to position himself as the inevitable nominee.

This bit of history may be lost on Gibbs, as it may be on many in the administration. But they certainly ought to remember that Kucinich cast a critical vote this year for the health-care reform bill. The president needed that vote enough to call Kucinich and plead for it. And when Kucinich and I appeared on Ed Schultz's MSNBC show to discuss the congressman's choice, it was clear that he , and that he made a difficult choice because he wanted the Obama administration to maintain a measure of authority for future fights with the right.

Kucinich was not alone in making difficult choices. Plenty of progressives aligned with Obama at points where he needed them duirng the 2008 campaign and after he assumed the presidency. They have not been lockstep supporters, and that clearly frustrates Gibbs.

So be it.

Principle progressives should be at odds with the Obama administration on issues of principle: Afghanistan, marriage equality, renewing civil liberties protections and the economic justice agenda on which this White House has so frequently pulled its punches. On all of these issues, Obama and his aides have adopted stances too similar to those of former President George Bush and his aides.

Such references upset Gibbs. He says: "I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it’s crazy."

But, of course, it's not crazy.

Bush refused to listen to reason when it came to distant and unsuccessful occupations. Obama did the same with regard to Afghanistan.

Bush made nice noises about tolerance, but he accepted discrimination. Obama does the same when he refuses to commit to marriage equality.

Bush disregarded the constitution when it came to its explicit bars on spying on Americans, cruel and unusual punishment and a host of other concerns. Obama, despite his experience as a constitutional law instructor, has not begun to do enough to renew the federal government's acquaintance with the Bill of Rights.

Bush worried too much about what Wall Street, big banks and multinational corporations wanted. So does Obama, as his administration's compromises during the health-care reform and banking-reform debates make all too evident.

Does this make Obama another Bush? No, of course not.

But it does, despite what Gibbs says, make Obama more "like George Bush" than progressives, Democrats or the great mass of thinking Americans should accept.

So it is that, by emphasizing the differences that the left has with Obama, Gibbs has done the left more of a favor than he has Obama.

Just as sincere conservatives objected to much of what Bush did, sincere progressives should object to much of what Obama does. Indeed, they should do so more loudly, more aggressively and more consistently than they have up to this point.

Principles should trump partisanship and personality.

There are plenty of cheerleaders in politics -- from White House press secretaries to pundits and precinct captains.

What we need are more people who speak truth to power -- on the left and the right.

If the Obama administration is frustrated with, upset by and angry about the left speaking the truth that the United States needs a single-payer "Medicare for All" health system or that the Pentagon budget can and should be reduced, that's terrific.

This administration's agenda has suffered because of the compromises made by the president and his aides with Wall Street and Republicans on Capital Hill -- especially during the first stimulus fight but also during the bank reform fight. That has harmed people in the United States, just as the administration's choices with regard to Afghanistan have harmed some of the poorest and most disregarded people in the world.

If Obama and Robert Gibbs are feeling pressure from their left flank, if they are bothered enough to be griping and grumbling about it, that's good for the left, for America, for the world -- and, ultimately, for an Obama administration that needs to take the left as seriously as it does the right.

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