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Will Bunch, Host:
It’s the debate you’ve been hearing almost since that day 25 months ago when President Barack Obama first took the oath of office and became the 44th president. It rages in political clubs and in taprooms and coffee houses and most frequently in cyberspace – anywhere in America that liberal voices like to gather.
Is Obama a true believer in the great progressive causes that have animated our last century, who also happens to be a political realist who knows when to take when he can get, and has thus given voters half-a-loaf – better than no loaf, right? – on a string of key issues from stimulating the economy to health care reform to cleaning up Wall Street? Or is Obama’s cautious approach really indicative of the fact that he’s a center-right corporatist who deceived starry-eyed liberal voters even as he packed his administration with Wall Street insiders and inside-the-Beltway types with no interest in real reform?
Now here comes Eric Alterman, a defining liberal voice of the last 15 years, to tell you that you’re not even debating the right question.
Late last year, Alterman published an epic magazine piece for The Nation called “Kabuki Democracy” that sought in one fell swoop to redefine the debate over why Obama has not delivered the goods – at least not in the way his biggest supporters were hoping – that he promised America in his epic 2008 campaign. Not only were we asking the wrong questions, Alterman argued, but we weren’t even looking in the right direction.
Now Alterman has expanded the premise into a full-length book – Kabuki Democracy: The System Vs. Barack Obama, published in paperback by Nation Books. The core of Alterman’s argument can be boiled down to this – that Obama’s failures and limited successes have nothing to do with his liberal bona fides, that in 2011 even a political leader with the spiritual fire of a Martin Luther King and the backroom savvy of Lyndon Johnson cannot deliver meaningful change in the toxic air of Washington.
In other words, even if Obama had fully used the bully pulpit of the White House to deliver liberal fire and brimstone, he would have been thwarted by an entrenched system in which campaign dollars and high-flying lobbyists have corrupted lawmakers from both parties, in which antiquated rules give a handful of legislators (particularly from small Republican-dominated states) the power to easily thwart change, and in which the media has drifted too far to the right to describe what’s really happening.
Make no mistake – Alterman is hard on Democrats, especially the milquetoast variety who wander the halls of Congress. Rep. Anthony Weiner notes wanly – and correctly – that typically “Democrats come to a knife fight with library books.” And the author argues persuasively that Obama – no matter what you’ve concluded about his core political beliefs – has failed miserably on his campaign promise to use the Oval Office to inspire Americans in a style – albeit not with identical policies – similar to Ronald Reagan. The political selling of the 2009 stimulus package – especially a considerable tax cut for working Americans that almost nobody seemed to know about – stands out as an epic fail. But even if Obama had done the right thing in these areas, with congressional Democrats standing firmly behind him, Alterman makes a persuasive case that the corporate interests and their well-heeled lobbyists, the Wall Street insiders and a clueless mainstream media with the right-wing veneer of Fox News would have meant that it would have only made a marginal difference.
Who better to deliver this message? It is Alterman, after all, who almost single-handedly planted the flag for a notion of a “so-called liberal media,” or SCLM, with his groundbreaking 2003 book that was called, appropriately enough, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. The critique of the modern media landscape that Alterman – currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY School of Journalism, and a contributor to numerous liberal publications and think tanks – established is still a driving force in today’s debate over the role of Fox News and other right-wing scale tippers. He also published seminal books on the fundamental dishonesty of the George W. Bush administration, and if that hasn’t convinced you of his innate goodness, this should: He is also an authority on the Boss, Bruce Springsteen!
But the issue at hand is how can liberals achieve glory days? The fault, Alterman argues, is not in our star, Barack Obama, but in ourselves. Real change involves getting Big Money out of politics, strengthening labor, overhauling legal immigration, removing the bars to voter participation, and encouraging new forms of media and media criticism – and that won’t come from the White House, but from the people. That won’t be easy – the same powerful foes who have held back Obama would seek to crush these measures as well. But as the people’s protests against mindless Tea Party government grow in Wisconsin with each passing day, we see the glimmer of hope of how it can happen. We’re lucky that Alterman already has a roadmap for the rest of the journey.