At a closed-door White House meeting this month, President Barack Obama justified his repeated concessions to the Right as necessitated by its success over three decades in selling Ronald Reagan's anti-government message to broad sectors of the American public.
The National Journal reported that Obama met with liberal economists Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Alan Blinder and Robert Reich on Dec. 7, just hours before a press conference at which the President criticized his liberal "base" for taking "sanctimonious" and "purist" positions rather than making the compromises required to help Americans in the real world.
In both venues, Obama defended his deal with Republicans on extending George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich as necessary to gain Republican support for extended unemployment benefits and for tax breaks to boost the economy and help working- and middle-class Americans.
However, at the earlier White House meeting, Obama told the economists that he felt handcuffed by the Right's ability to rally Americans on behalf of Reagan's "government-is-the-problem" message. "It was hard to change the narrative after 30 years" of Republican repetition about the evils of big government, one participant quoted Obama as saying.
"He seemed to be looking for a way to reassure the base" about where his heart really was on these questions, said the participant who spoke anonymously. "Or maybe it was just to reassure himself."
The comment suggests that Obama understands the political dilemma facing the nation at a time when action by the federal government is the only feasible way to confront monumental problems, such as rebuilding the country's decaying infrastructure, spurring job growth in environmental and other fields, and reversing the concentration of wealth at the top.
Obama feels hemmed in by a political dynamic shaped by a media/political system dominated by Reagan's anti-government orthodoxy.
That Obama complains about his powerlessness in the face of this dynamic could be another wake-up call to American progressives that they cannot continue their decades-old neglect of media and think tanks, that they finally must engage the Right in what it calls "the war of ideas."
Since the 1970s, it has been the prevailing view on the Left that media should be a much lower priority than, say, "local organizing," a view encapsulated in the slogan, "think globally, act locally."
What the Left has consistently failed to do is to make even a modest effort to match the Right in its outreach to the American people. Not only did the Left in the 1970s throw away what was then its lead in media and think tanks, but it has generally ignored the worsening crisis brought on by the Right's massive investment in messaging.
Even as recently as this year, wealthy progressives chose to pull the plug on Air America Radio, rather than invest the money and talent necessary to make it a counterpoint to the Right's dominance of the AM radio dial.
Many on the Left have felt that it is the responsibility of politicians and journalists to take on the propagandists and political warriors of the Right whatever the personal costs. That attitude, however, has caused many pols and reporters to opt for the avoidance of risk. [For more on this history, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Left's Media Miscalculation."]
The AWOL Obama
Obama generally has fit into the mold of a risk-avoidance pol. Despite his protestations that he is eager for a debate on Reaganism and its trickle-down economics, he has shown little stomach for such a fight. Indeed, when he's had the chance, Obama has followed the timid pattern of most national Democrats in finding excuses to praise Ronald Reagan.
One of my early concerns about Obama came in January 2008 when he went out of his way in an interview with Nevada's Reno Gazette-Journal to hail Reagan as a transformational president in contrast to Bill Clinton, the husband of Obama's then-rival Hillary Clinton.
"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said.