I find it hard to believe that you’d be seeing this level of right-of-center enthusiasm if Obama had postponed cap-and-trade, avoided taking over GM, compromised more significantly on the stimulus, and taken the incremental route to health insurance expansion that Reihan Salam discusses here.Really? Are you sure, Mr. Douthat? Because considering the amount of "Obama is gleefully bringing us to the end of the world!1!11!!1!!" expressed in some corners of the cable news channels and in the blogosphere, and how that has continually happened since the man first began making real headway in the polls en route to becoming president, I call bullshite on this. I'm not going to say that all of the right-of-center enthusiasm is due to race; I think a lot of it is due to fear of The Other - the same thing that made John Kennedy a suspicious figure in 1960.
In other words, what is energizing the Right and the Far Far On the Fringes Right isn't the fact that Obama is a liberal. It is that they perceive him to be an Ultra Liberal, one step behind being a socialist, Marxist, atheist; the truth of the matter is that Obama is left-of-center, but far more interested in reaching centrist solutions than he is in making the world in his Liberal image. The man is a compromiser. That is the reason the single payer proponents didn't even get a seat at the table when the healthcare discussion began. That is the reason he has tried to woo people like Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe. That is the reason he chose to simply bail out the banks, instead of using their teetering as the reason to break them into smaller entities; or initializing a government take over as liberaler economists like Simon Johnson (formerly of the IMF and current blogger at The Baseline Scenario) said was the only solution not guaranteed to fail (he later admitted his error on This American Life, after being called on it by one Adam Davidson). This could just be a crafty political move; but in truth, I think Obama hangs by the adage that the best solution is the one that leaves everyone at the table a bit grouchy.
So, what is energizing the Right isn't Obama, but the specter of an Obama that doesn't truly exist. For a long time now, I've pretty much thought that since Obama is going to be seen as Liberaller than the Liberalist Liberal by swaths of those on the right and those who just don't like him very much (unless the reason for not liking him lies in the fact that he isn't, actually, Liberaller than the Liberalist Liberal), he should have just gone hog wild and been that liberal hero of which the left has often dreamt. But that just isn't who he is; or, at the very least, it isn't how he has chosen to govern. And really, Mr. Douthat, if you think that Obama's liberalish impulses are what is causing the huge upswell on the Right, how do you explain this:
What’s really killing the Democrats, and what’s likely to hurt them the most come next November, is the growing enthusiasm gap — and its implications for candidate recruitment, fundraising, turnout, and all the rest.
If Obama really was the liberal candidate the left had dreamed of and the Right is using as a boogeyman, then there would be no enthusiasm gap. The progressive base would be just as enthusiastic about getting out the vote as the right is now. The problem is, again, that Obama just isn't that guy. He was never that guy. He is a capable guy; an inspiring guy; a guy who has acted as a change agent just by being elected, due to his heritage. I'll bet dollars to donuts he's going to be a great president. But he isn't the liberal's dream. And so, the liberal, knowing this, isn't too excited. The progressive isn't going to get comprehensive banking reform; isn't going to get a Public Option; isn't going to get a dismantling of a broken healthcare system; isn't going to get supports for the middle class; isn't going to get a bill that doesn't start out already compromised; is upset by the Stupack-Pitts Amendment; and is pissed that Don't Ask, Don't Tell still has not been repealed.
Obama's problem isn't that he is too liberal or isn't liberal enough - though I would definitely prefer if the man were to enact policies that were inherently more liberal, myself. It is how the world perceived him, and how part of that world perceives him still.
Obama's problem isn't that he is too liberal and if he'd only moved incrementally, he wouldn't have a backlash. It is that people like Sarah Palin are the idols of the Right; and their prescriptions tend to be, "Do nothing. Wait. Repeat".
Obama's problem is that the only people who seem to be riding high right now are those in banking, when the conventional wisdom is that banking is what brought the world to its economic knees, when banks are still foreclosing on houses and turning ordinary people out into the streets.
Mr. Douthat, you say,
I think it would behoove liberals to give serious consideration to the more direct explanation — namely, that some of the anti-Obama backlash has to do with Americans discovering, after an enormous Democratic sweep, that they preferred liberalism much more in theory than in practice.I say, helping maintain the status quo, in terms of the banks especially, isn't a particularly liberal philosophy. You say some of the anti-Obama backlash is due to people figuring out they don't really like liberalism. I say the anti-Obama backlash is because the guy didn't turn out to be the messiah. I say, the anti-Obama backlash is because ordinary people still don't feel as if their interests are being served, and yet they see bankers walking away with million dollar bonuses. And what they see is the status quo in politics, the status quo on Wall Street, and the status quo in the big firms where the hot shots make the money. And the only people who are not reaching that status quo is what they see as the ordinary citizen.
Democrats were swept into Congress as much because they weren't Republicans as because they were Democrats. Democrats had to prove, and prove quickly, they were different than the Republicans, that they weren't beholden to the same moneyed interests, that they could make a difference and that they would make a difference for the average citizen. Democrats are, I'm sad to say, failing that test. More than not liking big proposals, I'm willing to wager the ordinary American citizen doesn't like big proposals that dawdle in the halls of Congress, not getting passed and then becoming progressively worse until they pass with absolutely no one happy, or just fade away.
But really, Obama's real problem, the real reason there is an enthusiasm gap, is because it is frickin' hard to govern. Especially when the other side won't play. And so, it is infinitely easier to work up enthusiasm when your side is out of power - because you don't have to make compromises and can tell tales about how much better your side would be handling things without having to offer proof. Meanwhile, the other side is stuck actively making and eating the head cheese. Which, honestly, is much, much harder to be happy about.