Are Obama's critics really that "dumb"?

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

20 January 2012

The cover of the current issue of Newsweek, featuring Sullivan's piece

Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek article defending President Obama against criticism from both the left and the right has garnered much attention — in large part due to the pugnacious cover title, “Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?” that the editors decided to slap on the piece. Sullivan’s own words are controversial, if less inflammatory:

It’s not that I don’t understand the critiques of Barack Obama from the enraged right and the demoralized left. It’s that I don’t even recognize their description of Obama’s first term in any way. The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong.

Here, I’d like to focus primarily on the criticism of Obama coming from members of his own party. Sullivan is correct that Obama’s list of accomplishments is far more substantial than many on the left give him credit for. To a large extent, Obama's perceived failures have been the result of unrealistic expectations. I was attending a left-leaning college in Minnesota at the time of his election, and many classmates seemed ready to summit Mount Rushmore, chisel in hand, and carve Obama’s likeness right alongside Washington and Lincoln. Many, myself included to some degree, blurred the line between the historical significance of his election and what he could realistically achieve as president. And, as Sullivan points out, Obama never promised to be the “left wing crusader” that some had hoped for.

Still, it’s not as if Obama played no role whatsoever in creating this hype. He billed himself as a transformative figure who wanted to reform a “broke system.” Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig commented in a recent interview that Obama emphasised during his campaign “that the current system made it impossible to solve problems in a way that advanced the interests of either the left or the right,” but in his first term he’s seemed entirely content to “work within the current framework” rather than address its flaws. I can understand the frustration of those who saw the Obama presidency as the chance not simply to enact certain policy proposals, but to at least try and change the way Washington works.

Sullivan also explains that critics have mischaracterised and misinterpreted Obama’s political strategy:

To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.

The article acknowledges that this strategy takes time, but says Obama has stuck with it, and it has proved increasingly successful. I agree with parts of this argument, but it strikes me as a little too flattering. Much of Obama’s first term has been the journey of a talented but still relatively unseasoned politician trying to find his voice and style of leadership. For example, on health care reform Obama seemed content to lead from beyond and let Congress move the bill along without his help. This strategy did not prove especially successful, and eventually the administration had to pivot towards a new approach. Obama’s changing role in the process seemed more the result of trial and error than any sort of precocious game plan.

Finally, Sullivan may be right that what matters to Obama “is what he can get done not what he can take credit for,” but a president, especially one who is up for re-election in ten months, needs to able to communicate his accomplishments and vision to the American public. A recent New York Times poll shows that independents have soured on Obama and voters do not have a clear idea of what he wants to achieve in his second term. Sullivan has made his argument for why Obama’s re-election remains as “essential for this country’s future as his original election in 2008”; it remains to be seen if Obama can effectively make the same case to the American public.

Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Barack Obama, Election 2008, Election 2012, Electionwatch, Newsweek, Why Are Obamas Critics So Dumb

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6:50 PM on Mon 23 January 2012

Very insightful and reasonable, well written article

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