Memo to Obama-crush liberals: he’s just not that into you

Now that he’s lined up a conservative cabinet, Obama’s supporters are in disbelief and denial.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

The American presidential election saw the liberal-left fall for Barack Obama big time. Obama Girl was not the only one to have a crush on him (1). So-called ‘progressives’ hummed along with and other celebrities singing ‘Yes We Can’ (2). They bought ‘Barack My World’ t-shirts. And on election night, they cried along with those gathering in Chicago’s Grant Park.

The liberal-left was not alone in getting swept up in the Obama victory. Millions did (and not just in America). So much so that the emotional response to his win has become an object of psychological study. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, and his students hooked up subjects during Obama’s victory speech and watched their nervous systems go off the charts. Keltner says the reaction is a collective case of ‘elevation’ – a term coined by another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia – which is a type of transcendence that stimulates ‘a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat’ (3).

I’m no psychologist, but it sounds like Keltner and Haidt have been listening to too much U2. And, if they want to keep their fingers on the collective emotional pulse, I think they are going to have to come up with a new term for the experience of coming down hard from the ‘elevation’ high, because that’s what the liberal-left is going through right now.

Everything was going so well. A decisive victory. The first African-American president. An end to the Bush years. Looking forward to celebrating the inauguration on 20 January (maybe even head to Washington, without an invite to a ball but, you know, just to be there on the Mall). But then Barack had to go and spoil it all by picking his cabinet members.

Only about four weeks after the election, and the liberal-left was now feeling a new range of emotions, from confusion to disillusion to who knows what, trying to work out how it could be that their hero could have selected such centrist and even right-wing figures to the leading advisory roles in his administration – with not a ‘progressive’ in sight. To make it even more galling, these picks were being widely referred to as ‘the best and brightest’ (what, were they implying that progressives are neither?).

Immediately after the election, giddy liberals played a parlour game of which great president will Obama be most like. Maybe like Lincoln. Wouldn’t that be historical symmetry – the man who freed the slaves and the first black president? Or maybe like the liberal grand-daddy FDR – because Obama will need to introduce his own New Deal (this time with a green twist, of course).

But with his cabinet selections, Obama appeared to the liberal-left as the man who ushered in a backdoor Clinton Restoration. Not only Hillary herself as secretary of state, but scores of other former cabinet members, including Larry Summers – the man who helped deregulate Wall Street in the 1990s – who was now picked for the key National Economic Council role. What about Obama’s damning criticisms of the ‘eight years of the Clintons’? His claim that Hillary’s experience internationally amounted to ‘who [she] had tea with’? What happened to the need to get over ‘the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation’?

Sceptical liberals could at least console themselves that Obama would bring needed ‘change’ from the evil Bush administration – but wait, now they couldn’t even say that! The liberal-left not only has to deal with all the Clinton re-treads; they also have to face the fact that there will be holdovers from the Bush regime in critical roles. Robert Gates, the executor of the Iraq war, will stay on as defence secretary. And the top economic position of treasury secretary goes to Timothy Geithner, who was once registered as a Republican and now calls himself independent, and who has already been working closely with the Bush administration secretary, Henry Paulson, on the bailout package. Obama even reached back to the Reagan years and chose 81-year-old Paul Volcker to be an economic adviser (when Obama said he wanted experience, I guess that included finding someone who actually lived during the Great Depression). ‘Continuity we can believe in’, as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it (4).

The possibility that Obama won’t return their crush has sent liberals reeling. They can be found at various points on the seven stages of grief, starting with the first; shock and disbelief. Chris Bowers at the OpenLeft website says, ‘I really don’t want to be pessimistic about the new Obama administration’, but the lack of change reflected in the appointments ‘makes me dizzy and nauseous’ (5).

Other liberals are stuck on another stage of grief – denial. They believe that the cabinet selections are just a political cover to make radical changes more palatable. David Corn of Mother Jones writes: ‘My hunch is that Obama has made a calculation. In constructing his administration, he has decided not to create a (liberal) Washington counter-establishment. Instead, he’s fashioning a bipartisan, centrist-loaded version of the Washington establishment to carry out his policies, which do tilt to the left.’ (6) And over at the Huffington Post, Max Bergmann tries hard to put forward ‘a progressive case for Gates’ (7). As Obama’s adviser Oprah likes to say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Perhaps these liberals need some close friends to stage an intervention, and break the news that Barack just isn’t that into them. Obama never promised to introduce a liberal-left agenda. His voting record in Congress was rated by the National Journal as one of the most liberal, but it was very similar to Hillary Clinton’s and other Democrats’ records. He was forthright about escalating the war in Afghanistan, keeping forces in Iraq and unilaterally invading Pakistan. He repeatedly said that he supported a market economy.

But during the election contest, liberals didn’t want to listen to anything having to do with actual policy (nor did Obama dwell too much on those fine points either). They preferred to project their own hopes on to Obama. And when Obama won, they let the significant symbolic achievement of the first black president roll over into a broader view that Obama and his regime would install liberal-left change.

At the same time, conservatives have had their own illusions in Obama, and they also have been taken back by the Obama cabinet picks. During the election they portrayed him as a wild-eyed Marxist, intent on imposing socialism via the White House. Now they too are in disbelief. Fred Barnes speculates that maybe, just maybe, Obama is a ‘secret centrist’: ‘He’s pragmatic (so far) in one direction – rightward. Who knew?’ (8) Michael Gerson also says Obama is a ‘closet centrist’, and he approves: ‘Obama is doing something marvellously right: he is disappointing the ideologues.’ (9) And it appears that others on the right might be starting to have their own crush on Obama. Mona Charen, in a blog entry titled ‘Is this conservative dreaming?’, writes that ‘the news has been so shockingly welcome that I’m almost afraid to remark on it for fear of breaking the spell… [the appointments are] enough to keep some of us smiling at a time when we were expecting to be in deep anguish.’ (10)

But Obama cannot be understood in left-right terms. Even labelling him a centrist is inaccurate, given that politics isn’t structured in the same polarised left-right dichotomy as in the past. Obama will not bring a clear ideological perspective with him to the White House; even the ‘Third Way’ sounds too ideological for him. Instead, Obama is stockpiling ‘experts’ and seems to believe that technical competence is the way forward. Indeed, one of the reasons that he has had to turn to former cabinet members is because he himself does not represent a new movement or rising section of the Democratic Party. Given that he ran for office as an individual above the party, he doesn’t have representatives from leadership councils, think tanks or any other institutions to take with him to Washington (not even, it seems, very many Chicago machine politicos).

The commentators who view Obama as a ‘centrist’ are closest to the truth, but they too have been exaggerating the significance of the Obama cabinet picks. Time and again, we hear phrases like ‘the best and the brightest’ or ‘a team of all-stars’. Yet those using the ‘best and brightest’ phrase must not have actually read David Halberstam’s book of that name, since he meant it in an ironic way, as these types were responsible for the Vietnam debacle. Likewise, commentators seem to have a short memory about the George W Bush selections in 2001: vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell were also considered ‘all-stars’ at that time.

The fact is that we won’t really know how the Obama administration will rule until it takes office. The cabinet selections do suggest more continuity with prior administrations than some of his supporters like to admit. But, given the speed at which events are moving, Obama is likely to be different to Clinton and Bush, if only because his challenges are different. The real question is not whether Obama will be ‘left’, ‘centre’ or ‘right’, but whether he has an ambitious response to meet what seems to be an economic crisis of historic proportions (while at the same time, trying to prosecute wars on multiple fronts, among other objectives). The liberal-left – or anyone with illusions in Obama – will have to get over him if they want to understand the true significance of this new era of Obama politics.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) More than 12 million people have viewed the Obama Girl video on YouTube. See here.

(2) See video here.

(3) Obama in Your Heart, Slate, 3 December 2008

(4) Continuity we can believe in, New York Times, 2 December 2008

(5) More Obama appointment news, OpenLeft, 21 November 2008

(6) This wasn’t quite the change we pictured, Washington Post, 7 December 2008

(7) A progressive case for Gates, Huffington Post, 1 December 2008

(8) The Obama Jolt: Is Barack a Secret Centrist?, Weekly Standard, 8 December 2008

(9) Closet Centrist, Washington Post, 3 December 2008

(10) Is this conservative dreaming?, Washington Times, 4 December 2008

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Topics USA


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