A passionate plea

A PASSIONATE PLEA…. President Obama sat down with Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner and Eric Bates two weeks ago, chatting for an hour and a quarter for a new cover story. The discussion covered a lot of ground, and led to some fascinating exchanges on subjects ranging from Fox News to Tea Partiers, health care to global warming.

But the comments that ultimately may generate the most interest were the last ones. Obama had brought the interview to a close and left the Oval Office, but then quickly returned to make a “closing remark” that Wenner said was delivered “with intensity and passion.”

“One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

“The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.

“Everybody out there has to be thinking about what’s at stake in this election and if they want to move forward over the next two years or six years or 10 years on key issues like climate change, key issues like how we restore a sense of equity and optimism to middle-class families who have seen their incomes decline by five percent over the last decade. If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money’s coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

“We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.

“If you’re serious, now’s exactly the time that people have to step up.”

It probably won’t surprise regular readers to learn that I find this pretty compelling. Regardless, it raises an opportunity to make a distinction between different kinds of center-left critics of the president.

Kevin Drum notes, “If you’re, say, Glenn Greenwald, I wouldn’t expect you to buy Obama’s defense at all. All of us have multiple interests, but if your primary concern is with civil liberties and the national security state, then the problem isn’t that Obama hasn’t done enough, it’s that his policies have been actively damaging. There’s just no reason why you should be especially excited about either his administration or the continuation of the Democratic Party in power.”

Right. Glenn not only has a legitimate beef, I honestly can’t think of anyone who’s offered a persuasive argument to counter Glenn’s criticism. I don’t know, however, how large a group of voters we’re talking about that disapproves of the president based primarily (but not exclusively) on concerns over the national security state.

I’d argue that if Glenn’s contingent represents one group of the disaffected, the other two general groups of center-left critics are (2) those who believe the president’s accomplishments have been inadequate; and (3) those who are struggling badly in this economy, and expected conditions to be better than they are under Obama.

For those in the “inadequate” camp, the president’s pitch may or may not be persuasive, but I think it should be. We talked recently about the accomplishments of the last 21 months, so I won’t rehash the list again, but I continue to believe it’s a record that’s as impressive as anything we’ve seen in modern times. What’s more, I’m not at all convinced it was within the president’s power to make these milestone breakthroughs any stronger. The accomplishments can and should go further, but for the Democratic base, that should mean getting more engaged, not less.

Reaching that final group seems to be a tougher sell. The administration’s economic policies have made a huge difference, but the status quo is still woefully unacceptable. It’s not necessarily up to the president alone to grab hold of the economy and make it better, but there have been missteps and the frustration is understandable.

I suppose the pitch Democrats can make to these voters is: it can and will get worse if Republicans win, and would have been much worse had the GOP gotten its way. Obama has taken steps to get us on the right track, and conditions have slowly improved, but the surest way to stop the progress, the argument goes, is to hand the GOP power and encourage Republicans to pursue their discredited economic agenda.

Or, as Kevin concluded, “And the alternative? Well, if the prospect of ripping apart healthcare reform, shutting down the government, deep sixing START, slashing social spending, and reliving the glory days of investigations over Christmas card lists isn’t enough to get you motivated, I guess I’m not sure what is.”