The president's progressive critics blame him for continuing and expanding upon his Republican predecessor's policies. His supporters point to the obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress. What can Barack Obama do? He's being stymied at every turn.
If Obama had wanted to pursue a progressive agenda--banning foreclosures, jailing bankers, closing Guantanamo, stopping the wars, pushing for the public option he promised in his health care plan--he could have. Yet he chose not to. But now that Congress is controlled by a Republican Party in thrall to its radical-right Tea Party faction, it is indeed true that Obama can't get routine judicial appointments approved, much less navigate the passage of legislation. Oh-so-conveniently, Obama has turned into a liberal-come-lately. Where was his proposed Buffett Rule in 2009, when it might have stood a chance of passage when the Democrats had a sizeable majority in Congress?
Responding to fall 2011 polls that indicated softening support among the younger and more liberal voters who form the Democratic base, Obama's re-election strategists began rolling out speeches inflected with Occupy-inspired rhetoric about class warfare and trying to make sure all Americans "get a fair shot." But that's all it is: talk. And small talk at that.
Instead of introducing major legislation, the White House plans to spend 2012 issuing presidential orders about symbolic, minor issues. Repeating Clinton-era triangulation and micro-mini issues doesn't look like a smart re-election strategy.
Of course, Obama may prevail. Mitt Romney is an extraordinarily weak opponent.
For progressives and leftists, however, the main point is that Obama never tries to move the mainstream of ideological discourse to the left. Obama has been mostly silent on the biggest issue of our time: income inequality and the rapid growth of the American underclass. He hasn't said much about the environment or climate change, the most serious problem we face.
It isn't hard to imagine a president launching media-friendly crusades against poverty or global warming. FDR and LBJ did it, touring the country, appointing high-profile commissions and inviting prominent guests to the White House to draw attention to issues they cared about. In 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez invited flood victims to move into his presidential palace. Seven years after Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are still waiting for help. What if Obama opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to a homeless family? The media couldn't ignore a PR stunt like that.
Obama has mostly shunned the time-honored strategy of trapping your opposition by forcing them vote against your popular ideas. In 2009, for example, it would have been smarter politics--and better governance--to push for real socialized medicine, or at least Obamacare with the public option he promised. He would either have wound up with a dazzling triumph or a glorious defeat.
Liberals don't blame Obama for not winning. They blame him for not trying. When he does crazy things like authorizing the assassinations of U.S. citizens without trial, progressives have to ask themselves: Is this guy kowtowing to the Right? Or is he one of them?