A few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow appeared on Charlie Rose and announced that conservatives weren’t the only ones disenchanted with Barack Obama. "The President has disappointed the left," she said. Rose asked her to be more specific – on what exactly? "I would say on the war, on healthcare, on economic [policy]… on civil liberties and on civil rights," Maddow said.
That’s pretty deep disappointment. But if it’s true, it begs the question of what, exactly, constitutes "the left." Certainly not most Democrats, 90 percent of whom approve of Obama’s job performance (that’s from the latest Quinnipiac survey; other polls have recorded even higher figures). Or most African-Americans, among whom Obama’s approval rating is 94 percent. Or most Hispanics, 70 percent of whom think Obama is doing a fine job. Or most voters under thirty-five.
Maddow, presumably, was referring to a much smaller cohort of self-identified (white) progressives: people who favor a single-payer universal health-care system, have attended antiwar demonstrations, believe catastrophic global warming is imminent, support shutting down Guantanamo immediately, champion full equality for gays and lesbians, and perhaps supported John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary before finally coming around to Obama.
I know a number of such people (they’re not hard to find in New York City), and, since watching Maddow’s appearance on Charlie Rose, I’ve shared Maddow’s assessment of Obama with some of them and asked whether they agreed with it. Nearly all have said they did not, quite a number sharply and angrily. "That’s absurd!" one exclaimed. "Ridiculous," said another. What explains this? I think there are three reasons:
(1) Progressives and left-leaning Democrats (if not self-identified radicals who want the system overthrown) are in an overwhelmingly pragmatic mood, notwithstanding the wide-eyed idealism that supposedly swept Obama into office. They see the auto industry collapsing, the financial system melting down, Pakistan imploding, Iran imploding, jobs disappearing. These are big, complicated problems that do not seem amenable to easy solutions or quick ideological fixes. The fact that Obama has been confronted with so many problems all at once naturally makes people sympathize with the sheer difficulty of the challenge facing him.
(2) The legacy of the Bush era. Eight years of colossal ineptitude and corruption is not easily forgotten. Whatever progressives may think of a specific Obama policy or initiative, they remember what it was like to have a President who consistently insulted their intelligence and seemed completely out of his depth on just about every issue imaginable. Those who don’t remember this got a useful reminder recently from Sarah Palin.
(3) The likeability of Obama. Obama is not an ideological leftist, clearly, but nobody who has listened to his speech on race or his speech in Cairo can doubt his moral seriousness, his thoughtfulness, his uncanny ability to strike the right tone even when (precisely when) addressing freighted, divisive issues. Rachel Maddow told Charlie Rose she was a policy person, but many progressives understandably see their country’s first African-American President as a unique, in many ways transformative figure, and I suspect the vast majority find themselves rooting for Obama – and appreciating him – even when they don’t fully agree with what he’s saying.