Various commentators have now discovered, to their apparent amazement, that President-elect Obama is not a leftist. As the dryly astute NYT columnist Gail Collins observed last summer, has no one been audacious enough to have been listening to what Obama was saying all along? In what fantasy world was he ever a leftist? And on whose planet did he suggest for a moment that he would govern from any location but the center?
After all, on what was – before the crash – the biggest domestic policy issue of them all – health care – Obama's proposal was to the right of both Clinton and Edwards, and to the right in a way carefully calculated to appeal to fiscal moderates, by eschewing a call for an individual mandate. There is no way in hell that health care access and financing could ever be universal without a mandate that every individual be part of the system, and everyone – I'm sure including Obama – knows it. In other words, Obama never endorsed universal health care.
Now bloggers at The Nation and elsewhere are carping about why there is no one yet to appear among his nominees who would push policy from the left. Did these people really, actually believe that Obama was promising anything except what he is now delivering? Others are upset that Obama's lopsided electoral vote will bleed into centrism, rather than the mandate for more radical action that it "really" is.
Let us review.
There is a difference between an historic candidacy and a transformational election. Obama's victory was historic in the most inspiring, deeply moving way. He is an extraordinary political leader, not least because he succeeded in calling on America's highest ideals and mobilized millions in the process. To a nation numbed by eight years of greed and arrogance, his candidacy offered the chance to come home to the principles that America, at its best, represents. It was brilliant and incredible and healing.
In the process, the left saw in Obama a reflection and vindication of themselves. And indeed, it has been what is left of the left that has resisted Bushism most strongly, has fought for civil rights most consistently, has opposed imperialist adventurism and desecration of constitutional democracy most powerfully. Obama sounded all those themes. But it is a marker of how far to the right American politics has drifted that the zone of battle for eight years has been focused on questions that never should have been at issue – questions like pre-emptive war, the loss of habeas corpus, the adoption of torture as official U.S. policy, the massive transfer of greater wealth to the wealthy, and the evisceration of the middle class.
Candidate Obama proclaimed that his was not a campaign of left versus right, but of new versus old. Leftists heard the words but failed to realize that they were as much a part of the "old" as traditional conservatives were. Obama ran as a candidate who could invoke idealism, but who promised to govern as a problem-solver. He promised to end the war in Iraq, but also to ramp up the force necessary to win the war in Afghanistan. Many people who voted for him seemed to have heard only the part of what he was saying that they wanted to hear.
As Joan Didion said at a recent New York City Public Library event, a lot of progressives drank the Kool-Aid. But not Obama. Read his book, for heaven's sake; this was not a stealth campaign.
That's why the noise about how many Clinton administration veterans he's appointing rings hollow to me. You would need a microscope to find any substantial difference between his and Senator Clinton's policy positions during the primary campaign (except for health care). At the beginning of the last Democratic administration, the MSM howling was over how President Clinton was insisting on diversity rather than experience in his appointments. Now Obama has a wealth of talented and experienced people – including tons who are not white men – to choose from. This is bad? The notion that they should be tainted by the fact that they will know exactly how to move the levers to get things done is slightly dotty.
So no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus when it comes to social justice. If we want to move the framework of American politics so that progressive positions become the accepted norm, it's going to require much more sustained and intelligent pressure than what is necessary to elect one person, even if that victory is historic. My own favorite motto, borrowed from Michael Harrington, is that I always want to be on the left wing of the possible. Succeeding in that on a mass scale would mark a genuine transformation.
In the meantime, we have just elected a truly remarkable man as President. That's a lot to be thankful for.