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A Disillusioned Fan Wishes Obama Had Cheered on the Pitchforks

Another disillusioned Obama fan has vented his disappointment with the President's lack of progress toward a transformed America. Conventional wisdom blames an intransigent right wing for Obama's failure but Thomas Frank says the problem is Obama himself.

All presidential museums are exercises in getting their subject off the hook, and for Obama loyalists looking back at his years in office, the need for blame evasion will be acute. Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

Frank suggests the keepers of Obama's legacy will be eager to point to his two successes at the ballot box and his nobel prize as proof that he held the progressive line against the right-wing "other." But in Frank's view, this is a cop-out. Obama could have done more if only he had abandoned the fantasy of bipartisanship:

those days before his first term began were undoubtedly Obama’s best ones. Mentioning them, however, will remind the visitor of the next stage in his true believers’ political evolution: Disillusionment. Not because their hero failed to win the Grand Bargain, but because he wanted to get it in the first place.

In Frank's retelling, the crux of Obama's presidency was the moment he warned a group of bankers, "the only thing between you and the pitchforks." Frank believes this could become a kind of epitaph for Obama's presidency. Instead he wishes the President had, in some figurative sense, cheered on the pitchforks and used the to goad the U.S. into a new, more progressive normal.

It's interesting that Frank's piece makes no mention whatsoever of the Occupy movement. If ever there was a moment when the pitchforks truly came out, that was it. Anti-capitalist activists had no interest in a grand bargain, they wanted a revolution. They occupied parks but also banks. Broken bank windows and smashed ATM machines became a form of unsigned protest in some areas. They were the kind of uncompromising force for change Frank seems to think was needed.

President Obama publicly expressed some empathy for the group's frustrations but was wise enough not to embrace their methods much less their vague goals. In retrospect, it was a smart move. Occupy began to implode within 8-10 weeks and was only a memory by the following spring.

Frank's disillusionment with Obama is unfounded. What he imagines the President could have accomplished was never really within the realm of possibility. We know this because Occupy tried it and failed. President Obama was smart enough to avoid their fate. Had he not been we would likely be halfway through the first term of the Romney administration.


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