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Obama: Is Disappointment or Disillusionment Justified?

If Obama and the Democrats are unable to usher in real, lasting change, the greatest tragedy will be the loss of faith amongst my generation and others in our ability to help shape the country.

Some members of Obama’s base have expressed concerns about his commitment to change, in particular his commitment to bi-partisanship despite GOP intransigence. Liberal columnists from the New York Times, Bob Herbert, and Frank Rich are two recent examples. One means of assessing opinion at the grassroots level is to examine comments submitted on-line on this topic.


On the Huffington Post, Drew Westen published “Change We Can Believe In: Feelings Toward the Administration,” reporting on such “rumblings” from people he says are far from “raving liberals.”

I would encourage Obama supporters and critics alike to listen to the perspectives shown in these comments. As people committed to constructive social change, we need to find a way forward—together—in our mutual commitment to such progress.

This essay will briefly note some of the major political issues of concern to these respondents, and also touch on some of the major themes mentioned. The report also has some “back and forth” dialogue using quotations of participants, to give the reader a sense of the tone and content of the conversation.

Political Issues
One major issue that permeated this discussion involved the economy, especially around the issue of the bailouts of banks. Obama’s signing on to a bill that allowed the credit card industry lead-time to “adjust” to the situation of new legislation was also discussed. Responses noted that consumers, homeowners, and others were not given similar lead-time to adjust to foreclosures and other financial difficulties they faced. Since the author introduced these topics, the discussion would be expected to focus on such issues. The responses, however, appear to have hit home with readers.

Lack of consideration of single-payer health care by Obama was also mentioned. Other issues that raised alarm bells included his inability or unwillingness to reverse many of Bush’s policies, notably on illegal wiretaps, accountability for torture and detention, the slow pace of withdrawal from Iraq, and other security and military issues. Others said that his selection of Pastor Rick Warren at his inauguration, the retention of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and other issues about gays were also of concern.

Obama Supporters
A major theme on this thread involved Obama’s strong commitment to bi-partisanship. Many observers correctly noted that Obama had made precisely this call for bi-partisanship a central part of his campaign. Much of his appeal was, in fact, due to his pledge to work for all Americans, seeing beyond the nation as “Red State or Blue state.” He ran as a conciliator, a negotiator, and therefore there was a mandate for him to be bi-partisan. Some felt he should continue to do so, thus giving people a chance to see that “an adult” can govern effectively, even in the face of GOP intransigence. On the other hand, this view was also countered by the author’s view: “The American people did not vote for ‘bipartisan’ solutions that split the difference between the failed ideology of the last eight years…and the change that the President and the super-majorities they elected in both houses of Congress promised.” Some readers concurred that: “Enough is enough,” especially when the GOP was not reciprocating.

For Obama supporters, a major theme centered—acrimoniously—on the issue of critics not giving Obama time to do his job. They expressed outrage that some supporters would become so discouraged after his being in office only seven months, seeing some critics as “whiners,” as demanding “instant gratification,” and even as being secret Republicans. They noted that Obama himself emphasized repeatedly that change would take time and that change would be hard. Added another: “I believe his intelligence matters…even our greatest presidents started out struggling to find their footing …and faced what seemed like difficult moments requiring immense change…Obama has the character to ultimately do that too…at least it IS a presidency of potential, still.”

Finally, there was a strong emphasis on the view that it is foolish or worse to do anything other than support Obama. Failing to do so would only leave open an opportunity for the GOP. As one supporter commented in fluent sarcasm:

“Let’s vote out the most progressive president we’ve had…[so that] the GOP will convince everybody that he was voted out because he was too liberal, and that we would end up back in the horror that is the unmitigated stupidity, cupidity, and elitism of GOP control. Really, what a terrific idea, if you’re a Republican.”

Added an independent: “ Some people on the left of these boards..have NO IDEA how many Republicans and independents supported Obama, whose votes made the difference in most states.,, Support him. He needs us. We won’t get another like him in a long time if this doesn’t work out.”

Obama’s Critics
There is a fault line between two groups of Obama supporters: (1) those who believed in him and whose hopes and expectations were generally high and (2 those who were determined to give him a chance and/or vote out the GOP, regardless.

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For disappointed hopefuls, with respect to the role of criticism and party loyalty, some noted that Democrats, unlike the GOP, do think independently and that dissent still can and should exist in the party. “One can realize that McCain/Palin would have been much, much worse and still be disappointed that the emperor had no clothes.” As for giving Obama time to make changes, one person commented that the issue is not about time but about “failing to go in the right direction.” Thus, in contrast to his usual cautious, pragmatic, and incrementalist style, Obama can be both decisive and fast moving [but in a direction the commentator did not like], as noted below:

“He did do [one thing] right now…he gave all our money to the banks…He is either inept or corrupt…Name anyone who would give their money to a banker without an agreement in advance. Anyone. Nobody is that stupid.”

Others also noted they were “not expecting miracles” either: “I simply expected truth, transparency, and a little spine.” And another independent noted:

“It would be nice to think that health care reform can be accomplished by both parties (the adults) working together toward a common goal. But that ain’t gonna happen. Too many of them are owned by lobbyists and special interests that aren’t working for us… I hope Obama takes off the kid gloves…I have my fingers crossed that Obama is going to insist on the public option.”

Progressives on the post, who did not have very high expectations of Obama in the first place, also weighed in:

“You could kind of see this coming……all politicians use rhetoric and promises to get elected [but] if you look at Obama’s actual policies, he is a centrist liberal. Just because he knew that going into the Iraq war was based on lies…does not make him an anti-war candidate…He said on the campaign trail that he didn’t think single payer would work unless we were starting from scratch,,.he never said he would overturn the Patriot Act or Bush’s executive orders. We did not listen: we heard what we wanted to hear. Given all that, I am disappointed in the lack of transparency and the lack of torture prosecution. But we need to remember that we elected a community organizer, a professor, a conciliator, a negotiator. We did not elect a progressive, and we need to be realistic about that.” [Emphasis added].

For those on the left, one major disappointment cited was the loss of a potential opportunity for a bold leader who would [in this view] have been able to usher in an era of change had he rallied the American people by standing up to the special interests instead of “working the angles” or by playing defense. Instead of “channeling populist anger and partisan rage against the Republicans who had bankrupted the country and destroyed the livelihoods and savings of millions of Americans” he played it safe, seeking compromise, conciliation, and triangulation. These proponents argue that he could have had majorities on his side—a least over time—if he followed this path.

“Most Americans—72 percent—say returning the unused portion of the $787 billion dollar stimulus to taxpayers would do more to boost the economy than having the government spend it. Majorities of Democrats (59 percent), Republicans (87 percent) and independents (70 percent) think the money should be returned to taxpayers.” [The source of this quotation was not cited- Ed.]

Another person commented: “70% of the country was on his side and yet he panders to the other 30%. It tells me that who is behind the curtain pulling the strings isn’t Obama but Obama’s boss and he probably looks a lot like a cross between Rupert Murdoch/Mitch McConnell/Lou Dobbs.”

In conclusion, here is one comment from a younger voter that reflects the possible stakes in the outcome:

“[I]f Obama and the Democrats are unable to usher in real, lasting change, the greatest tragedy will be the loss of faith amongst my generation and others in our ability to help shape the country. I know that when I donated my time, my money and my energy to the Obama campaign, I did so out of a sincere belief that he was a man capable of making tough decisions and standing up to the large, special interest groups that fill the coffers of Congress. Was I foolish in that belief? I certainly hope not.”

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker active with interfaith groups in Culver City and with the Social Action/Social Justice Council of the National Association of Social Workers.