With all due respect to my dear friend Chris Bowers (may your broken arm heal quickly), I do not believe he understands the true nature of the criticism OpenLeft receives for their negativism towards Barack Obama. Bowers keeps writing posts about that criticism and continues to use the same defenses against that criticism. But it is all wildly off the mark.
The critique of OpenLeft isn’t that they are negative, but that they are using the wrong analytical frameworks and, thus, are coming to the wrong conclusions. It’s hard to generalize about a blog that has several different front-pagers with different worldviews, but if there is a commonality to OpenLeft it is a tendency to focus like a laser on the spoken or written word. I don’t want to characterize or reduce their analysis to liberal orthodoxy, but that is the lens thru which almost all OpenLeft’s analysis is done. Articles and transcripts are parsed, and wherever something is found that clashes with liberal orthodoxy, the result is an angry, concerned, or panicky post that seeks to explain why the deviation is a major threat or huge warning sign.
This is the wrong analytical framework for the times, although that might seem counterintuitive considering Barack Obama’s unique oratorical skills. But Obama’s unique genius is precisely his ability to use language to inspire a generation of supporters and disarm would-be opponents. The meaning of Obama’s words is not found in their literal meaning, but in the ways those words are received by their intended audiences. When Obama speaks to a right-leaning editorial board about his admiration for Ronald Reagan’s transformative presidency, he isn’t signaling that he wants to emulate Reagan’s policies. When he talks to the Washington Post editorial board about the importance of entitlement reform he is recognizing the Post’s interest and concern about the issue and showing them respect, not signaling that he will privatize Social Security. When he tells the Blue Dogs that they will be invited to hold a conference on fiscal responsibility, he’s telling them that they are an important part of the party and the conversation, not suggesting that he will suddenly adopt Pay-Go principles. When Obama says something gracious about George W. Bush he is keeping the Republicans from gaining some new rallying point, not telling us that he thinks Bush is truly a good man.
Obama uses language to unite people and to disarm them. If he occasionally says something true but harsh, he quickly apologizes. More often, he gives his ideological opponents the rhetorical benefit of the doubt. He shows people and their ideas respect…often more respect than they deserve. He studiously avoids creating lightning rods that can serve as oppositional organizing points. He reaches out to evangelicals, to the Republican leadership, to conservative commentators, to right-wing Democrats.
In the process of doing these things, he inevitably neglects to pander to those whom he most agrees with. Progressive criticism strengthens Obama precisely because it makes him look more centrist. He has succeeded in staking out the broadest middle we’ve seen in memory. He hasn’t changed any of his commitments (at least, not in any fundamental way) that he campaigned on, but he has blunted all criticism from the center and the center-right. This was the goal all along. Some call it moving the Overton Window. What was once considered radical (e.g., revisiting national health care, allowing gays to serve openly in the military) is now considered acceptable. Now we argue about the timing, not the substance.
The conditions in the country are dictating a leftward movement in the Overton Window, but the old opponents are still there opposing us. The goal is to rally the supporters and to disorganize and disarm the opposition. The goal of Obama’s rhetoric is not primarily to convince people of the merits of his policies, but to build support for them and weaken any obstacles to their implementation.
This is a style of governance that is suitable to the power structure in Washington that currently skews heavily in the Democrats’ direction. Where Bill Clinton faced a divided Democratic Party and a powerful Republican opposition, Barack Obama faces a largely united Democratic Party and a weak and confused Republican opposition. Obama’s primary goal is to avoid providing the Republicans any ideological rallying point around which they can reconstitute themselves. He can afford to be incredibly magnanimous without undermining his position of strength.
Over the last two decades of Democratic ideological weakness, the intellectual left has developed a theory that their policies are actually popular but do not carry the day because they are not framed correctly. The idea is that it is immensely important to never reinforce your opponent’s way of framing the issues. For advocates of this view, Obama’s proclivity for rhetorical generosity isn’t just worrisome, it’s dangerous. They are convinced above all that is it bad strategy. But they’re also half-convinced that it’s bad faith. Politicians, after all, should say what they mean. And they should say it in the most efficient framework.
Obama doesn’t believe this. He knows the power of words better than any politician we’ve seen since Reagan, but he doesn’t use words the way that George Lakoff would advocate. Obama uses words to inspire and disarm, but he uses organization to change the power of his arguments. Obama didn’t win a single primary because his message on health care or education was framed better than Hillary Clinton’s. He won because he organized better than Clinton did. And that is how he will seek to win support for his policies in Washington.
Obama uses rhetoric to make people feel comfortable with his leadership and judgment, and he uses organization to win his battles. But OpenLeft has been analyzing Obama’s actions almost exclusively by looking at his words alone. They look at his words, but they miss their purpose, if not always their meaning. There is a whole level of meaning in Obama’s words that transcends literalism without exactly being contradictory.
What Obama has done with his words, he has extended to his appointments. He used his appointments to disarm his opponents and would-be opponents. He brought the Clinton faction inside. He brought the moderate Republicans inside. He brought the labor unions inside. He brought Wall Street inside. Obama now has the trust and support of all but the far left and the far right, and that is about as much support as anyone can hope to have as they start their administration.
The critique of OpenLeft hasn’t been that they are wrong to advocate for progressive policies and appointments, or to be vigilant about seeing that Obama keep his promises. The critique certainly isn’t that they should shed their honesty in favor of support. The critique is that the negativity is based on bad analysis and a lack of understanding of how Obama wields and builds political power.