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Is Barack Obama Too Moderate For 2020 Democrats?

Who would have ever thought that in his post-presidency years, Barack Obama would take a hard turn to the right? But lately he’s earned praise from sharp-edged conservatives while getting the side-eye from progressives.

“Good for Obama. (Not sarcastic!)” tweeted Ann Coulter.

“What’s really nice to hear is Barack Obama standing up for our rights and our values of the First Amendment,” said Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren.

These comments came after Obama criticized the censorious attitude of some on the left, particularly on college campuses. “There is this sense sometimes of, ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’ and that’s enough,” he said. “That’s not bringing about change.”

This is the latest marker he has laid down between himself and the progressive wing of his party. At a closed-door meeting in March, The Washington Post reported, “Obama gently warned a group of freshman House Democrats Monday evening about the costs associated with some liberal ideas popular in their ranks.”

Out on the campaign trail, Joe Biden is unusual in playing up his ties to Obama. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, treat the last Democratic president as too nice and too cautious. They make it clear they intend to be far more aggressive in pushing drastic change.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have repudiated Obama, explicitly or implicitly, by endorsing single-payer, Medicare-style health care coverage — rather than an upgrade of his Affordable Care Act.

Sanders sounds nothing like Obama when he tweets, “Billionaires should not exist.” Warren’s favorite word, “fight,” serves to separate her from the conciliatory, unifying themes Obama often deployed. Julian Castro — who was, keep in mind, a member of Obama’s Cabinet — has attacked Biden over Obama’s immigration policies.

Whatever happened to the symbol of hope and change who became the darling of progressives as he challenged establishment candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008? When Obama won the nomination, liberals were thrilled; when he won the election, they were ecstatic. But today, he is increasingly seen as an under-ambitious compromiser who chased vainly after bipartisanship.

In fact, he is today what he was in 2008 and what he was in the White House: a moderate in temperament and tactics as well as policy. He hasn’t veered to the right, and he hasn’t migrated away from the left. He’s stayed in the middle of the road, where he was all along.

Conservatives routinely depicted Obama as a Saul Alinsky radical and an angry black militant, and some still do. The other day, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal likened his “polarizing governance” to that of Donald Trump, which is the equivalent of equating ginger ale with tequila. For all his restraint, Obama somehow drove right-wingers crazy.

They said his health insurance plan, modeled on that of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was “socialism.” When he expressed empathy for Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American killed by a white vigilante, writer Abigail Thernstrom said Obama “should be ashamed of his effort to stir America’s turbulent, dangerous racial waters.” When he reached a deal with Iran to block it from developing nuclear weapons, Republicans accused him of craven appeasement.

But Obama insisted on preserving a central role for private health insurance. Liberal economists regarded his 2009 stimulus package as far too small to overcome the Great Recession. He steadily reduced the federal budget deficit, and an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute pronounced him the “most frugal” president since Dwight Eisenhower.

Obama reminded whites of the harmful legacy of racism, but he also lamented the absence of fathers from many black families and exhorted African Americans to take “full responsibility for our own lives.” The deal with Iran would have blocked it from getting nuclear weapons for a decade or more.

His record is not one of a scheming Marxist or even a staunch lefty. It’s that of a sober moderate who sought practical solutions that could bridge partisan differences and yield concrete improvements.

It’s a stark contrast with what the country could expect from Sanders or Warren, who might actually live up to all the false fears once trumpeted about Obama. Republicans were eager to be rid of him, but in time, they may echo Tomi Lahren: “Just remember that we used to think Barack Obama was bad.”

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: President Barack Obama speaks during his last press conference at the White House in Washington, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Dumb Bigots Vs. Typical Liberals: The High Cost Of Political Tribalism

To many people, politics is essentially tribal, an Us vs. Them struggle between cartoon enemies. Scarce a day passes that my inbox doesn’t contain a message like this:

“I must be one of those deplorables that they talk about. By reading your column I figure you are wealthy, old money, college educated, but cannot turn a screwdriver, typical liberal, pro LGBT, gun-fearing, pro-abortion, everything that someone told you should be, so not to offend…If this country doesn’t get back to, God-fearing, gun-toting, conservatives, we’re going to be fighting are wars with pink camoed soldiers prancing around the battle field passing out flowers. Sorry if I offended you, just kidding fag.”

That’s comparatively civil; there are frequent threats. But never once to my face. So I treat such messages as unwitting guides to their authors’ fears. People who obsess about strangers’ sexual practices usually have something to hide.

But it’s not just right-wingers. Check out reader comments to a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times expressing empathy for loyal Trump voters in Oklahoma who stand to lose their health insurance, senior centers, job-training programs, etc. should the president’s draconian budget proposal be enacted. (Fat chance, but hold that thought.)

“Some of the loyalty,” Kristof wrote “seemed to be grounded in resentment at Democrats for mocking Trump voters as dumb bigots.” Offended readers denounced what one called “Kristof’s continuing delusional campaign that Trump voters need to be understood.”

Another thought “dumb bigots” an understatement: “Our country is being held hostage by resentful coal miners who are never going to get their black lung disease-causing jobs back. It’s being held hostage by undereducated, evidently opioid-addicted, underemployed white men across the Rust Belt…[and] by mean-spirited Religious Right fanatics who want to impose Christian Sharia law on the rest of us.”

Elsewhere, pundit Frank Rich contributed an essay to New York Magazine titled “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” The flamboyantly embittered scribe thinks it “a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.”

Precisely which Democrats empathize with Klansmen isn’t clear, but Rich’s personal animus couldn’t be clearer. “If we are free to loathe Trump,” he concludes “we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.”

Or, as Joseph Conrad wrote in a different context “Exterminate all the brutes.”

My problem with this tribal loathing is twofold: first, bedrock Americanism as explained to me by my working-stiff New Jersey father. “You’re no better than anybody else,” the old man would growl, “and NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.” If he stressed the last bit in reaction to the “Irish need not apply” signs of his youth, he also meant the first part. Me too.

Second, my experience of living most of my adult life in Arkansas, an historically “blue” state recently turned deepest “red” without changing its essential character very much at all. How Bill Clinton happened was that after 1968, when the state narrowly gave George Wallace (a cornpone Trump) its electoral votes, Democratic moderate Dale Bumpers saw that the hardcore segregationist vote was about one third. The old order was on life-support.

Stressing economic progress and social tolerance, Bumpers laid the political foundation for several Democratic governors to come: David Pryor, Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Even Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee—installed by legalistic coup during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s farcical “Whitewater” investigation—governed as a moderate.

Progress was palpable. When Bumpers took office in 1970, per capita income in Arkansas was 43% of the national average; today it’s 82% and rising. If it’s far from paradise, local patriotism here runs very strong. (Go Hogs!) It’s tempting to observe that Arkansans finally got rich enough to turn Republican. The GOP ran the table in 2014, electing former Rep. Asa Hutchinson governor and taking control of the general assembly.

Did the election of a black president help seal the deal? No doubt, but only at the margins. Trump won 61 percent of the state’s presidential vote in 2016. But if the state legislature has recently devoted itself to largely symbolic absurdities involving guns and public bathrooms, neither has it fundamentally altered the state’s political culture. Gov. Hutchinson has resisted the Trump administration’s attack on Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion; even far-right Sen. Tom Cotton vigorously opposed the Trump-Ryan Obamacare repeal.

Very broadly then, the center appears to be holding. And while I yield to no man in my visceral contempt for Donald J. Trump, I’ll be very surprised if Congress enacts his anti-community budget cuts. Trashing cartoon liberals is one thing; shutting down Meals on Wheels quite another.

As for cartoon conservatives, Democrats should keep in mind that bringing even five percent of them back around would constitute a revolution.

Why We Shouldn’t Let Resentment Define Us

So this driver is stopped at an intersection. A pedestrian is dawdling in the crosswalk. Driver leans out the window and yells, “Get out of the street, you damned liberal!”

It’s been years since I read that in a magazine. I can’t remember if it was a true story, though I think it was. But even if only apocryphal, the picture it paints of American acrimony in the post-millennial years is true beyond mere facts.

As such, it leaves me questioning the likely impact of two recent well-intentioned pleas for ideological outreach. Joan Blades, co-founder of the liberal activist group Moveon.org, wrote an essay for The Christian Science Monitor, asking progressives to stretch beyond their left-wing comfort zones and “love thy neighbor.” And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned the left against a tendency to “otherize” Donald Trump voters.

I’ve got no real argument with Kristof or Blades. It’s a noble gesture they’re making. It occurs to me, though, that none of this addresses a question that has come to seem obvious: What if the problem is simply that we just don’t like each other?

As I’ve said often, our acrimony is not political. It’s not about tax rates, government regulation, or even abortion rights. No, this is elemental.

This is about the city versus the country, higher education versus a mistrust thereof, Christian fundamentalism versus secular humanism. And it is about social change versus status quo.

Consider for a moment how often in history that change has been forcefully imposed on conservatives. It has been done by statute, by court decision, by executive order and, once, by war.

This is not an apology for that. In every instance, force was necessitated by the intransigence of those who defended that status quo because they were not ready for change.

If change must wait until all parties are “ready” for it, then change will never come.

So no, the foregoing is just an observation: Resentment is the residue of forced change. And this particular resentment is old, deep, and festering. Worse, it is useful. Republicans have found the maintenance and exploitation of that resentment to be a political gold mine. For instance, it helped elect Donald Trump.

But resentment is not identity. Or at least, it never was before. These days, people seem to wear their resentments — and more to the point, the ideological labels that give them voice — the way they wear gender or ethnicity, i.e., as an immutable marker of self. Suddenly, “conservative” is not about what you believe, but what you are. Small wonder the feud between ideologies comes to seem as mindless — and about as amenable to amicable resolution — as the one between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Then you see a George W. Bush cozy up to his friend Michelle Obama and it stirs some vague, vestigial hope, some reminder that none of this is destiny, some realization that we must resolve this hate — it is not too strong a word — if we want to continue as one nation, indivisible. You see them buddied up across their vast ideological divide and you wonder why we can’t all be like that.

Still, with due respect to Kristof and Blades, I don’t know that progressive outreach alone can get us there. I find it noteworthy that I’ve seen no prominent conservative columnist or activist issue a similar call to the political right. Maybe I missed it. If so, I look forward to the correction. It would be a hopeful thing.

Because it’s a fallacy to believe progressives can fix America’s acrimony by changing their attitudes. I am all for reaching out.

But it helps to have someone else reaching back.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his “Make America Great Again” rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Why Conservatives Love Trump’s Attacks On Journalists

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

Over the past five days, the White House chief strategist called the press the “opposition party” and threatened to destroy it, the press secretary barred major news outlets from a press gaggle while opening the door to right-wing outlets, and the administration announced it would be giving a plum Oval Office interview to a Breitbart reporter considered among the administration’s most sycophantic media boosters.

The Trump administration’s press strategy is clear: delegitimize mainstream news organizations, especially those that produce critical reporting that jeopardizes its efforts, while lifting up unabashed propaganda outlets.

And his fans love it.

“I want you all to know we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake!” President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” His supporters responded to Trump’s six-minute attack on the press with laughter, cheers, and chants of “USA! USA!”

While some conservative media figures are speaking out against the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate coverage and damage the institution of the press, many more can’t get enough of the way he treats journalists with utter contempt and grinds them into the dirt.

And those opinions are mimicked by their audiences. Seventy-three percent of Republican voters approve of the way he talks about the media, according to a recent poll. Nearly four out of five trust President Trump more than the press to tell the truth.

But those views are wildly out of step with the rest of the American public, which overwhelmingly disapproves of Trump’s conduct and trusts him less than the media.

This divide is the result of extremely successful efforts by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that the mainstream press is liberal and deceitful and that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted to provide the facts.

Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.

As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.

This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. As Mark Feldstein detailed in June:

Just a few months after [Nixon’s] election, he dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to launch a public assault on the “small and unelected elite” of journalists who held a “concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” Nixon publicly said that he hadn’t heard Agnew’s speech. In fact, he had privately approved it word-for-word ahead of time, chortling that it “really flicks the scab off.”

In addition, Nixon invited top broadcast executives to the White House and told them that “your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office.” Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler declared that all of the TV networks were “anti-Nixon” and would “pay for that, sooner or later, one way or another.” Another top adviser, Charles Colson, told the head of CBS News that Nixon’s administration would “bring you to your knees” and “break your network.”

“The press is your enemy,” Nixon told Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a private meeting in February 1971. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

Given his criminal activity, Nixon was right to fear the press. The dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward eventually forced his resignation — giving conservatives a new data point in their grievance against the media.

As conservative politicians lashed out, conservative activists tried to build their own outlets. A central premise of such outlets was that they were needed because, as Agnew claimed, the press was irreparably liberal.

Two decades before Roger Ailes founded Fox News and began building it into a conservative media juggernaut, the former Nixon aide served as news director of the fledgling Television News Inc., a conservative news outlet that claimed nonpartisanship but was funded and led by right-wingers.

But TVN was unable to find an audience, bled millions of dollars, and lasted only a couple years. And as Republican presidents racked up victories in the years to come, the impetus behind purely right-wing outlets — outside of a handful of conservative magazines and journals that largely served elite audiences — dissipated.

But in 1992, Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush, whose campaign spent its final months urging supporters to “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.” Clinton’s victory unleashed a new, grass-roots-focused wave of right-wing talk radio hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh.

These radio hosts provided conservative news, opinion, and talking points to a broad audience, while simultaneously targeting individual Democratic lawmakers for defeat. They were an alternative news source that sought to delegitimize both the new administration and the press that covered it. The result was the “Limbaugh Congress” of 1994, which made the radio host an unofficial member of the House Republican caucus.

Two years later, Fox News was founded. Its “fair and balanced” mantra implicitly suggested that the network’s competitors were not. And the hosts and anchors have spent the last two decades making that subtext text, attacking other journalists and media outlets on a regular basis and constantly suggesting, as Agnew insisted decades before, that the press consists of untrustworthy liberals.

In Fox’s wake, new outlets like Breitbart have risen, all seeking to mimic Fox’s success in attracting conservative audiences by condemning the rest of the press. The result has been plummeting trust in the press among Republicans.

Once that effort was complete, the stage was set for Trump’s ascendance.

“The conservative alternative media, and I’m part of that, grew up and I was very proud of that and I assumed that what we were doing was informing people, making people smart, giving people factual information, telling them the other side of the story,” conservative radio host Charlie Sykes said last year. “And unfortunately what’s happened is it has morphed into this alternative reality whereas Joan says, we live in these different silos. And having discredited the mainstream media, now what do we have? We have the InfoWars, we have the Breitbarts, we have the Drudges, in which information is passed, things that that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever.”

Trump and his advisers are trying to crystalize those changes. They want to convince as many of their supporters as possible that only Trump can be trusted. And after years of conditioning from this decades-long campaign, they have frighteningly little work to do.