I found it “over the top.” What? The reactions among the liberal, progressive and left (lpl) commentariat to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ criticism of the “professional left” for its negativity toward the Obama administration.

And here’s why!

First of all, what goes around comes around. Let’s face it – lpls have been very critical of the new president, sometimes stridently so. And even where he has won important political victories (health care legislation) or staked out a positive position on a controversial issue (defense of religious freedom in connection with the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero), he has caught hell. So not to expect some blowback from the administration is naïve or presumptuous. Is there anyone who doesn’t blow off steam from time to time?

But some of the responses to Gibbs’ remarks verge on paternalism: the notion that you – Obama – are in the White House because we put you there and therefore … (you get the gist). An illustration of this is Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel’s Aug. 15 blog post (and Nation writer John Nichols’ post too). In what otherwise is a very insightful article (most of her posts are), she writes:

When Barack Obama embarked [on] … an audacious campaign for the presidency, the question was whether a newly-elected senator from Illinois could entice Democrats to consider a contender other than a former first lady … What ultimately won him the Democratic nomination in 2008 was a decision by the principled left [my italics] – professional and amateur – that the one leading candidate who had expressed blunt opposition to the war in Iraq before it began had shown better judgment than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.”

She continues:

“So it was that an exercise in political purism by the broad left put Obama on the path to the presidency. “

Really? The lpls made the difference? Were decisive? Put Obama on the path to the presidency?

Of course, the lpls did make a huge contribution to Obama’s victory in the primaries and the general elections.

But to claim more suggests a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship of the left to this administration and the broader movement, the dynamics of the 2008 elections, how change happens, and what it will take to make a fundamental turn in political direction.

It is also unwarranted self-congratulation.

A stronger case for being the decisive element in 2008 could be made by the labor movement or the African American people or young people or Obama himself. But actually, the game changer was a united people’s coalition, inspired by candidate Obama, that powered his successful path to the nomination and presidency.

Gibbs may be guilty of overstatement, but smart people will cull the grain of truth from his remarks. Too often the lpls, as he correctly suggests, are inclined to judge President Obama abstracted from the context in which he governs.

Insufficiently factored in is the considerable power of right-wing extremism, the influence of the corporate class and the class character of the capitalist state, the anachronistic practices of Congress that allow a minority to frustrate majority rule and popular democracy, the conservative pressures from within the Democratic Party and Obama’s Cabinet, and, importantly, the inadequate scope and intensity of the popular upsurge, compared to the 1930s and 1960s.

The president doesn’t govern in a vacuum. Every word he says and everything he does will be filtered, spun, and turned inside out by his opponents, and at times his friends. The lpls don’t carry that burden.

His political calculus has to anticipate how the American people of every political persuasion will react to his words and to what degree they will make him vulnerable to the inevitable attacks from the extreme right. His constituency includes the citizens of Lubbock and Sioux City as much as the citizens of New York and San Francisco.

It is almost an article of faith in left and progressive circles that the American people in their majority are ready to embrace left positions if only the president articulated them, if only he campaigned for them. If he says it, “they will come.”

Implied is that the left has a much better read on the public mood than the administration does. But do we? Are the American people, if given the green light by the president, ready, if not to storm the barricades, then at least to fight for radical reforms?

I don’t believe it is that easy. It strikes me as not so much naïve as simply wrong to make such a claim. It misreads where people are at, what they are ready to fight for, what they are up against, and what it takes to move them to higher ground.

Three decades of right-wing ideology – a nasty variant of capitalist ideology that individualizes social problems and blames the victim, fractures any sense of human solidarity, extols the free market, disdains the notion of economic, social, and political rights, and is steeped in racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia – has had a profoundly corrosive effect on popular thinking.

Today’s much talked about “enthusiasm gap” reflects, it is said, people’s frustration with Congress and the administration, but it also expresses a shift in mass consciousness in a democratic/progressive direction that is uneven, lacks sufficient depth of understanding on issues of class and race, and has yet to fully shed important elements of right-wing ideology.

My suspicion is that the country is neither center-left nor center-right. Both categories are too static, not dialectical enough. Popular opinion is more capricious, mercurial, and unpredictable than too many of us allow for. At any given moment progressive and even radical ideas can give way to backward thinking, and vice versa.

What people are thinking depends on the issue(s) and event(s) – sometimes unforeseen (9/11 and the financial meltdown, for example), on which side is able to frame the discussion and grab the political momentum, on the overall political atmosphere, and, not least, on their own experience. All this constantly shapes and reshapes mass thinking in unexpected ways.

Taking Gibbs to the woodshed for a verbal thrashing is easy. Much more – a thousand times more – difficult is the task of expanding, deepening and sustaining the movement that elected this president two years ago. I’m not against parsing the words and actions of the administration, although it should be done in a constructive and unifying way. But it can’t substitute for uniting a broad people’s movement into collective action. 

We need such a coalition now and going forward.



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time socialist and activist living in New York. He served as the national chairperson of the Communist Party from 2000 to 2014. Previously, he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine. He blogs at SamWebb.org.