By Matthew Rothschild on August 10, 2010

Boy, are they thin-skinned over at the White House!

And rather than aim their ire at the Republicans, who want Obama to fail, they’re going after their progressive critics, who want him to succeed.

This perverse defensiveness first surfaced in February when Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called some progressives “fucking retarded” for considering running attack ads against conservative Democrats who were dragging their feet on health care reform.

Now, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has let loose, too. In an interview with the Hill, Gibbs went after what he called “the professional left.”

“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality,” he said, adding: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

Well, as a member of the “professional left,” I’d be delighted to have Dennis Kucinich president. But it’s not the role of progressives to be “satisfied” with any president. It’s the role of progressives to stand up for principles.

And let’s look at cases.

On the three biggest issues of his Administration—the economy, health care, and the war in Afghanistan—Obama has either settled short or made disastrous choices.

On the economy, he lowballed the stimulus, even after being advised by Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman (and the great progressive economist Dean Baker) that unemployment would remain between 9 and 10 percent for more than a year unless he put more federal spending into the economy. Obama also failed to extract meaningful concessions (such as a foreclosure moratorium) from the banks when he had them at his mercy.

On health care, he treated progressives as chumps, taking Medicare For All off the table and only toying with the idea of a public option. As a result, there is no cost control in place, and untrustworthy insurance companies are running the show.

Then on the war in Afghanistan, he has tripled—tripled!—the number of U.S. troops there. Had Bush done that, progressives would have been in the streets by the hundreds of thousands.

On other issues, Obama has also been a huge disappointment, none more so than on civil liberties.

“On a range of issues including accountability for torture, detention of terrorism suspects, and use of lethal force against civilians, there is a very real danger that the Obama administration will enshrine permanently within the law policies and practices that were widely considered extreme and unlawful during the Bush administration,” the ACLU recently noted in a report entitled “Establishing a New Normal.”

On the environment, he did not push hard at Copenhagen for an enforceable agreement to curb global warming. And three weeks before the BP spill, he reversed an earlier position and with exquisitely bad timing came out for offshore drilling.

Ideologically, he has failed to make a consistent case that what we’re facing today is the bankruptcy of the free market model. He has failed to explain, time and again, why we e need more regulation and more deficit spending. In fact, he has foolishly called for cutting the deficit. And he did himself no favor by praising the CEOs of the largest banks for giving themselves bonuses: “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth,” he said, pathetically.

Yes, he’s done some good things:

--Signing the Lilly Ledbetter Law, making it easier for women to sue for sex discrimination on the job

--Renouncing torture

--Lifting the global gag rule on family planning overseas

--Endorsing the U.N. declaration on gay rights

--Lifting the ban on immigrants with HIV

--Moving toward jettisoning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

--Allowing women in the military to have the morning after pill

--Giving transgender persons in the federal workplace protection against discrimination

--Giving partnership benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees

--Endorsing stem-cell research

--Downplaying the war on drugs

--Not prosecuting medical marijuana

--Allowing states to have higher carbon standards than the federal government

--Having the EPA classify carbon dioxide as a health hazard

--Promoting alternative energy and mass transit

--Supporting workers’ right to organize

--Canceling the F-22

--Canceling missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic

--Getting private lenders out of the student loan industry

--Giving immigrants the right to counsel in hearings

--Shutting down a prison in Texas housing immigrant children

--Negotiating he new START treaty with Russia

--Expanding children’s health care

--Expanding Medicaid for single men

--Prohibiting discrimination against people with preexisting conditions.

These aren’t nothing.

And yes, being President is a tough job at any time, and he inherited a huge mess, and his Republican opponents are acting in the most childish and irresponsible and obdurate way.

But it’s the job Obama sought. And it’s the job that millions of Americans voted him in to do, on a huge promise of hope, change, and jobs.

He has not come close to delivering on that promise. He has not met the challenges boldly. He has not given most Americans tangible improvements in their lives. And he’s failed to do so because he’s been afraid to act—and to be perceived as—a real progressive.

Robert Gibbs should be grateful that progressives aren’t even more critical of Obama.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his article “The Universal Meaning of Nagasaki.”

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter

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I’m at my third American Exchange Legislative Council (ALEC) conference, this time in Dallas, and on my first day,...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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