Hope Deferred

Will Obama save American liberalism—or bury it?

The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism | By Roger Hodge | Harper | 272 pages, $25.99

In July 2009, that far-off era when our forty-fourth president was still broadly popular and the Tea Party was just beginning to capture the media’s attention, Harper’s Magazine published an essay by the novelist and journalist Kevin Baker titled “Barack Hoover Obama.” Since then, explanations for the sense of disappointment and consternation with which many liberals—or at least, many liberals in the elite media—have come to view the Obama presidency have spread like fungus. The president isn’t connecting with the public; he has trapped himself in a “legislative box”; he is “losing the battle for the middle class.” Still, Baker’s trenchant article was among the first liberal critiques of Obama. And as we slog through an extended period of ten-percent unemployment with no end in sight, it also appears to be among the most prescient.

Herbert Hoover, Baker wrote, was a good and accomplished man and a clear-eyed politician. What doomed him was a failure of imagination. A striver who had flourished in America’s nascent meritocracy, Hoover put his faith in solutions that were principled, technocratic, and terribly insufficient to the time. It took the entitled aristocrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his “hodgepodge of ideologies” to begin to steer a course out of the Depression—and to form “the core of twentieth-century American liberalism.” What we need, insisted Baker, is another FDR. Yet Obama was turning out to be another Hoover.

At the time Baker’s essay was published, the editor in chief of Harper’s was Roger Hodge, who was abruptly relieved of his post earlier this year. Now Hodge offers his own, quite different, account of the liberal disillusionment occasioned by the Obama administration. In The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, Hodge argues, with impressive erudition and occasional rhetorical pretension, that the problem is not that Obama has failed. Instead, we read, the president has all too often succeeded—because “Obama did not come to save American liberalism; he came to bury it.”

This might seem an odd claim to make about a man who, whatever his faults, has presided over the passage of laws guaranteeing universal access to health care, reasserting some modicum of regulation over Wall Street, and preserving women’s rights to sue for equal pay. Hodge gets around those obstacles in part by devoting relatively little time to the particulars of Obama’s record as president. Large sections of this slim volume are given over to the political debates of the late eighteenth century and the 1990s, neither of which intimately involved Obama. Another section is devoted to a detailed deconstruction of his campaign biography, The Audacity of Hope.

Mostly, though, Hodge justifies this claim by offering a different ideal of liberalism. The version championed by FDR was rooted in the idea that the government has a responsibility to improve the lives of its citizens, especially those who are uniquely vulnerable. For Hodge, this impulse (along with liberal imperatives that become fully articulated only later, like environmental protection and equal rights for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities) is a fine thing—but it is also a secondary concern. The core liberal virtue, Hodge writes, is not “freedom of choice” and the provision of opportunity, but “freedom as non-domination” and the right to participate as a citizen in a republican system. And the author’s iconic liberal hero is not FDR or LBJ, but James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution.

In certain contexts, this framework is powerful. Hodge’s attack is strongest when he focuses on Obama’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing, assertions of executive power in the name of national security. The author lambastes the administration’s claim that it can target for extrajudicial killing the American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has become an influential Al Qaeda-affiliated operative from his base in Yemen. In late September, well after The Mendacity of Hope went to press, the administration asserted that its unprecedented decision should not be subject to judicial review, because a court hearing would reveal state secrets. Against this backdrop, Hodge’s citation of Madison’s warning—“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”—rings true.

In the context of domestic policy debates, though, Hodge’s quest for a liberalism that stems from a “coherent political philosophy” (no hodgepodge of ideologies here) is far less persuasive. During last year’s battle over health care reform, liberals endlessly bickered about whether the deal on the table—a jerry-rigged tax/subsidize/regulate contraption that reinforced many pillars of the existing, inadequate system—offered enough material benefit to enough people to be worth taking. Hodge acknowledges the debate just long enough to dismiss the idea that there might be any benefit at all. The bill, he writes, was “best understood as a private health-industry bailout.” Later he adds:

A basic premise of the republican form of government is our agreement to submit to law that we arrive at publicly, through a legitimate deliberative process. The illegitimate bargains on which ObamaCare is premised manifestly fail to meet this standard.

It’s not much of a step from there to holding up placards declaring that health care reform is tyranny, too. Indeed, in the book’s closing pages, Hodge tells his liberal readers that “the Tea Partiers are not wrong to be angry with Obama,” and that they should forge alliances with “self-styled conservatives and rightist libertarians like Ron Paul” against big business and its minions in both political parties. (Unsurprisingly, one of the glowing blurbs on the book jacket is from Naomi Wolf, who has also touted the Tea Party’s alleged fascism-fighting potential.)

Hodge’s rigorous liberalism turns out to be rigidly Manichean. His view of American history resembles something out of Tolkien: the embattled, outnumbered Madisonians against the autocratic orcs, who fight under the banner of that Federalist witch-king, Alexander Hamilton. This leads to some painfully overwrought prose: “What we are left with today, with the ascendancy of the Archangel Obama, is the Triumph of the Hamiltonian Will.” More to the point, it leads Hodge to neglect some of the political decisions that most immediately affect the lives of actual people.

Hodge goes on at great length about the pernicious consequences of corporate clout, and excoriates Obama for not doing more to check the influence of the finance sector in particular. The pervasive power of money in politics is a fine thing to rail against, and Obama and his advisors can fairly be faulted for their cozy relationship with Wall Street. But skilled, practical politicians find ways to navigate the maze of lucre, sometimes benefiting from it, sometimes advancing goals that are opposed to it. Hodge, convinced that politics as practiced in America is irretrievably corrupt, has little use for, and little interest in, this process.

For all its focus on the evils of high finance, The Mendacity of Hope has surprisingly little to say about the current economic crisis, or the administration’s response. Meanwhile, the most pressing problem of the moment is that fifteen million Americans are out of work, six million of them for six months or more.

Obama didn’t create that problem, and he can’t fix it on his own. But neither has he done all that he could. He asked Congress to approve a smaller stimulus package than his economic advisors said was necessary. He reappointed a Federal Reserve chairman who has only haltingly pursued monetary expansion that might create jobs. And he let key seats on the Fed go unfilled, then said little as the Senate dawdled in approving them. On this front, his is a record that, despite the demurrals from Hodge and Baker, is better than Hoover’s. But to date, it falls far, far short of FDR’s.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.