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Why Obama is Still a Major Force for Progressive Politics

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With his family by his side, Barack Obama is s...

By Ben Cohen: Last week, a great deal of posting time on The Daily Banter was spent discussing how productive it was to attack President Obama from the Left. Bob Cesca, Chez Pazienza and myself wrote about Glenn Greenwald, criticizing him for his incessant attacks on President highlighting the somewhat serious division within the Progressive movement. Over the weekend, a youtube video of one of President Obama's Professor's from Havard surfaced, where he offered a scathing attack on the President and his failure to support progressive policy in America, and urged people not to vote for him this winter. The video, helped spread by a Greenwald tweet, perfectly encapsulates the debate we've been having and merits a serious response.

The Huffington Post has compiled a list of Professor Roberto Unger's major points on President Obama:

  • "His policy is financial confidence and food stamps."

  • "He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices."

  • "He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money."

  • "He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice."

  • "He has reduced justice to charity."

  • "He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight."

  • "He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle."

I do not consider myself a die hard supporter of the President, and I think Unger's critique is generally quite accurate. From a truly progressive point of view, the Obama Presidency has been a failure as most of his policies have, at best, pulled America back to the Clinton years. The 1990's saw welfare reform, the repeal of Glass Steagal, and the onslaught of neoliberalism at an unprecedented scale. While Obama promised a great deal of change before being elected, he got into office and immediately moderated his rhetoric and did not fight for progressive policy he had advocated.

However, I think you can subscribe to the idea that President Obama has done everything and more that his old Professor accuses him of, and is also the greatest force for progressive politics in America today. Not an easy task, but bear with me.

Every President elected to office in the United States automatically becomes a criminal. They are running a government responsible for decimating the Native American population, enslaving African Americans and then denying them their civil rights, going to war in Vietnam, much of Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other largely defenseless countries, economically strangling much of the third world (and the American poor) through punitive economic measures, destroying the environment through subsidizing the oil industry and refusing to adhere to carbon emission reduction agreements, enabling the insurance industry to deny people health care, etc etc etc.

To entertain the notion that a President could change all this in 4-8 years is simply ridiculous, particularly given the fact that the structure of the US government is designed to make change extremely difficult. Unger and Greenwald's critique of President Obama and his part in all this might be accurate, but it doesn't really mean much in the real world. Obama entered office to a government deeply corrupted by the financial industry,  completely beholden to the military industrial complex and every other special interest you could think of, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the brink of economic collapse. On top of that, he faced a Republican Party determined to destroy him at all costs, even at the expense of the country itself.

Obama has had to navigate all of this while faced with a frightened population manipulated by the Republicans and the media into believing he is a radical Muslim socialist. To be frank, getting anything mildly progressive done has taken an inhuman amount of will and perseverance, and it is crazy not to give the President credit for his significant accomplishments. Let's take college education for example. Here's a list of the Obama administrations accomplishments thus far:


  2. Enacted largest reform of student aid in 40 years. ref, ref

  3. Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. ref

  4. Established President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability to assist in financial education for all Americans. ref, ref, ref


  6. Increased funding for land-grant college. ref

  7. Provided means for students struggling to make college loan payments to refinance. ref


  9. Expanded Pell grants for low-income students. ref

  10. Expanded Pell grant pool by eliminating private lender subsidies for student loans. ref

  11. Section curators: ^ejoyce ^Kroth

The above may not be enough for the likes of Roberto Unger or Glenn Greenwald, but they make a difference to hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom would not actually go to college if it were not for the reforms made by the Obama administration.

I think you have to hold two world views in your head at the same time, and recognize that both can be valid. I'm not discrediting Unger and Greenwald's assessment of Obama Presidency - I'm just saying it isn't complete. Holding two contradictory positions is a difficult thing to do because it ultimately leads to vagueness and a great deal of moral ambiguity. But we live in a complex world and by doing so you are acknowledging that problems related to human society are inherently complicated and difficult to analyze from a black and white perspective.

President Obama is becoming highly adept at playing the political game, as witnessed by his sudden announcement Friday that he was stopping the deportation of young illegal immigrants - a bold move that achieves a progressive outcome and puts the Republicans on the back foot (Romney wants the Latino vote so can't attack the President too vociferously). Obama is a strategic thinker and plans for long term outcome rather than short term victory - a pattern everyone should have picked up on from his 2008 Presidential campaign. His political victories seemingly come from nowhere, and opponents are left confounded as to how he's managed it.

As the author of 'The 48 Laws of Power' Robert Greene argues, he's the first Democrat in decades to exhibit these leadership qualities, and to get rid of him because he hasn't followed the exact wishes of left wing bloggers and academics would be a very serious mistake. It is true that in tangible terms, Obama may only be pulling the country back to the Clinton years, but to anyone who lived under the Bush years (and I did), it's a major, major accomplishment. Mitt Romney wants a repeat of the Bush Presidency, and keeping him out of office is essential if progressive outcomes are to be achieved in the near future.

If that is not an argument that President Obama is still a serious force for progressive politics in America, I don't  know what is.

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