Reviewing Eric Alterman’s Kabuki Democracy (haven’t read it, loved the article on which it’s based) my former boss Bob Kuttner makes what is, I think, the most valid progressive criticism of Barack Obama: “He has governed as if his sole task were legislative.”
The reason I like this criticism is that I think it gives the White House its due. It’s not a conspiracy theory about how secretly Barack Obama and his team are right-wingers. And it explains how an administration can simultaneously have angered so many liberal intellectuals, passed so much liberal legislation, and garned such approval from the broad mass of self-identified Democrats. Simply put, presidents do do things besides legislating. Things like movement-building. Obama hasn’t done a lot to build the progressive “bench” for future judicial appointments, and he hasn’t given a lot of succor and validation to folks like Kuttner, Alterman, or Yours Truly, the foot-soldiers in the ideological battle. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to deny the existence of such a battle. It annoys me, and I think it’s moderately harmful over the longer-haul.
Ultimately, though, I join Alterman in being much less critical of Obama than Kuttner is because I’m not sure this really matters a great deal. You can see how a life-long legislator like Barack Obama would come to overrate the importance of legislating. But it’s pretty important! And you can also see how a life-long warrior in the battle of ideas could come to overrate the importance of having the president back him up.