Editor’s Note: Each week, we cross-post an excerpt of Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com.
When Barack Obama embarked on what most political insiders saw as an audacious campaign for the presidency, the question was whether a newly-elected senator from Illinois could entice Democrats to consider a contender other than a former first lady who proposed to be the first woman president and a former nominee for vice president who was saying important things about the growing economic divide in America. What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left—professional and amateur—that the one leading candidate who had expressed blunt opposition to the war in Iraq before it began had shown better judgment than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.
So it was that an exercise in political purism by the broad left put Obama on the path to the presidency. Now that Obama is president, however, his press secretary derides the "professional left" for being too pure in its demands on the White House. In point of fact, Robert Gibbs is wrong; at the most critical point in President Obama’s tenure so far—when Congress was deciding how to vote on a health-care bill that Republicans predicted would be his "Waterloo"—the most left-wing members of Congress and their allies (professional and amateur) across America rallied to support a measure that was deeply disappointing to many of them.
But that is not enough for Gibbs.
It is staggeringly simplistic for Gibbs to blame the "professional left" for the slew of troubles this White House currently confronts as much as seems to have. The left isn’t responsible for the administration’s insufficient response to the economic and social challenges the financial crisis has posed. The left isn’t responsible for a dysfunctional system that allows the minority party to obstruct with impunity—and special interests and big corporate money to dictate legislative policy. Nor is the left responsible for the fact that a majority of Americans no longer believe the Afghanistan war is worth fighting.
As historian Michael Kazin likes to say, "If the left were not somewhat unhappy with Barack Obama, it would not be much of a left." Maybe Gibbs needs a history lesson on the relationship of the left to presidential administrations. Both FDR and LBJ, for example, had to respond to insurgencies on their left—labor and civil-rights movements—and in so doing were pushed to adopt bold progressive reforms.