"Left Puritans" and Why I Will Continue to Defend President Obama

Yesterday, I crossposted my article from here about retail sales and the Obama jobs recovery.  It caused a bit of a stir in the comments there, it seems more than on the merits, about my use of the phrase "left puritans" in the first sentence.  Many seemed to take the phrase as referring to "the left" or progressives in general, even as I took pain to make the distinction clear.  So I thought I'd do a couple of "meta" things today.  I want to clear up what I mean when I use phrases like "left puritans" or "left ideologues" or the like.  Second, I want to make clear why I will continue to defend President Obama.

"Left Puritans"

First, "left puritans."  What do I mean by that?  I'll explain in a second, but first and foremost, it does not mean the entire political left or the progressive movement.  I am a progressive, and as far as ideology is concerned, a liberal that would like single payer health care, a carbon tax, universally available and fully funded reproductive choice, marriage equality, and so on.  I am also a pragmatist.  I know that one need not agree with me on everything, or even fully on a single issue for us to work together and make progress.

So what does "left puritans" mean?  It means people who are not simply on the left, but simply put, those who would obstruct or oppose progress - even some progress - because it did not meet a certain litmus test or it "didn't go far enough."  I have said it many times: in my view, one cannot call oneself progressive and then stand in the way of progress.  What I should not do, and what I will take care from now on not to do, is to call people left puritans or but refer to left puritan actions instead.

I also want to say this: there is a fundamental way the most ardent ideologues understand or view those of us who are pragmatists.  Most often, people view pragmatism to mean simply compromise.  That is not the case.  Pragmatists are not revolutionaries; that much is true.  But pragmatists do not compromise for compromise's sake, and we hold our principles as strongly as anyone.  As people who are not revolutionaries, we also understand the system within which legislative and political progress needs to be made.  In that system, in a body of legislators that represents all sorts of constituencies holding all sorts of opinions, pragmatic progressives believe that making some progress is more important than "drawing a line on the sand" and getting nothing at all.  Now, you can argue about just exactly how much give and take is required and if we "gave too much" on a certain piece of legislation, but at the end of the day, if something makes progress, our inclination is to support it.

The public option debate was a perfect example.  We can have another whole conversation disintegrate into whether or not it could have passed if the President did this or did that.  The health reform bill represented a paradigm shift in both the government's responsibility for health insurance for individuals, as well as in holding insurance companies accountable, with or without the public option (at least as it was constructed in the House passed version or subsequent versions).  But simply pushing for a public option did not make that action a left puritan action.  In fact, I'd say it was courageous.  But the action became left puritan as soon as one started opposing the passage of health reform without a public option.  The action became left puritan when Jane Hamsher went on Fox News, breaking her own vow, to try to stop this law.  The thought process behind it: damned be the 32 million Americans who would get insurance, damned be the community health center expansion, damned be the Medicaid expansion, damned be the closing of the donut hole in Medicare Part D, damn it all; we didn't get a public option, so tear down the whole thing.  That's left puritanism.

When we lose perspective of how something could affect the lives of people, and say it's not good enough on items A, B, or C, so reject it, that is not sound public policy.  Public policy is not about what "you gave" or what "they took" in the writing of a bill.  It's about whether progress is made at the end of the day.  If it is, progressive pragmatists will support it.  That is our way of showing our commitment to our values and principles: by making some progress, and continuing to push for more at the same time.

Why I will continue to defend President Obama

Over the past year, I have defended President Obama on many many things.  When it seemed that nearly everyone in the left blogosphere was loud, angry and pissed at the President, I have attempted to explain the benefits of his policies.  When there has been derision of the President, I have tried to stand up and fight back.  Why?  Two reasons: one, I am a policy wonk, and I actually like his policies.  But secondly, this president, I believe, more so than any in at least a generation, deserves our support as he navigates through extraordinarily difficult times - both in terms of what he had to deal with when a near-depression economy and a falling-apart country was handed to his leadership, and in terms of the unprecedented difficulty of being a black President in America.

My liking of his policies is no secret.  This is the President that, in less than two years time gave us historic and transformational policy achievements: health reform that eluded Presidents and Congresses for more than a half century, the most significant financial reform since the 1930s, the largest stimulus and the single largest investment in America's infrastructure (by the way, if Republican governors are giving up some rail money, we'd like it over here in California, please), women's workplace fairness, a hate crimes law that now includes protections for LGBT Americans, Pell grant expansions and student loan reform, credit card consumer protections, stabilizing the financial sector, an auto industry rescue and children's health insurance expansion to four million children.  I admire this president's tenacity and courage in stewarding these policies while all at the same time he has been winding down our war in Iraq and fixing the efforts in Afghanistan.

Let us not forget that this President took office at a time of grave crisis, and but for his leadership, and that of the Democratic Congress, the jump America took off the cliff would have continued.  I think we quickly forget how dangerous things were in late 2008, when 700,000 to 800,000 jobs were being lost a month, and the economy was in a panic.  We forget that turning that around in two years to 151,000 jobs created last month (and private sector jobs have grown all year) is no small task.  When we simply look at where we are, it looks bad.  But when we look at where we were, the turnaround is the result of a lot of hard work by the President.

On policy, by any objective measure, we have made tremendous progress.  Some will quibble, but I will say that we have made transformational progress.  Did it all come at a cost?  You bet it did.  It came at tremendous political cost.  It came against all odds and all the odds came together to pound against it, culminating with the Citizens United decision.  But knowing the odds, and knowing the risks, and knowing the threats, President Obama did it anyway.  He did it because it was the right thing to do.  He provided leadership for Democrats to use power while they had it.

And the odds did not stop at the unprecedented Republican obstructionism, or Citizens United-freed corporate propaganda.  It didn't even stop at astroturfing tea party groups.  It didn't stop at an economy in disarray or a country in chaos.  The odds went and knocked on his very citizenship.  Don't you think for a minute that fake questions about President Obama's citizenship were pulled out of thin air because he is a Democrat.  It was because he is black.  He's President while black.  There is no progressive or liberal who shouldn't understand this.  Just as America shattered a barrier by electing its first African American president, the undercurrent of racism got ready for the fight of its life.  Witch doctor?  Check.  Barack Obama as a pimp?  Check.  Claiming white slavery?  Check.  Questioning his religion?  Are you kidding - big check!

There was already a conservative wink and nod about how minorities take away white people's jobs and spots on colleges.  "They gave your job to an affirmative action case."  Now, a black man was taking the top job in the country - the threat to the white institutional power structure was immense.  The right wing didn't even wait till Obama's election to start beating that drum beat.  See Rush Limbaugh, et al.  And many, many people reacted to that threat without even recognizing that threat.  Latent, unrecognizable (even to self) racism is the worst kind.

Barack Obama is bearing the brunt not just of being the first black president but the first president belonging to a minority group - any minority group, (except for white men).  I know a little bit about being a minority in this country.  I love this country, and I am a deeply patriotic person.  I am also a person of color and gay.  It is often invisible, but the institutional racism is palpable.  Gay youth have been in the news of late as attention has been drawn to suicides.  From our education system to our prison system, institutional racism is pervasive.  It is no one person's fault, but much progress remains to be made in building inclusive (or even color blind) institutions.  Do you want to know how institutionalized racism is?  Plenty of liberals regard FDR as a liberal lion (as do I) - as well we should for all of his accomplishment for progressives - without even a hint of remembering that it was FDR who pursued one of the darkest moments of post-slavery America's racial history: the internment of Americans.  Americans of Japanese descent.  It doesn't even register in our lexicon when we talk about FDR's legacy.

It's not easy being black while President.  On top of having a policy havoc to lead us out of when he became president, President Obama also has to be President while black.  Right now, the media narrative on him is he is too calm and collected (God forbid we have a leader who is calm and collected while making decisions in a crisis).  If he gets visibly angry, how long before the media comes flying with "angry black man?"  Got an egg timer?

We can disagree with him, but Barack Obama has earned our loyalty, our respect and our support.  Respect is the most important of these, which is why I cannot stand - and will not stand - disrespectful articles and tirades thrown around in the traditional media or the web.  At least, he has earned mine.  Yes, by delivering on big policy initiatives and making tremendous progress.  But also by setting an example of leadership and conduct for people like me - the colored 20 somethings of America.  I will continue to proudly defend him because he has made progress, and because he embodies progress and what progressivism can accomplish.