American liberalism has many sources, but not the least important is New York Jewish culture, which brought democratic socialist traditions from Europe. Jews also brought another habit, the kvetch. Kvetching is complaining for the pure pleasure of it, as a way of keeping yourself sharp, as a habit. Leftists and progressives the world over can be more critical of each other than the Right, but no one does it like the Yanks. Indeed, the self-lacerating, self-defeat of American progressivism is a sort of bizarre fusion of Jewish kvetching and Puritan guilt. Politics is experienced as a call to the individual to correct action, and so the crucial element becomes the individual conscience. Whenever the inevitable compromises of politics occur, the conscience is called out, not to merely object, but to denounce and disassociate. “Why do we do this?” one commenter asked on The New Republic website, during the furious denunciation of Obamacare from the Left. “It’s just our culture, it’s what we do.”

It sure is, and it has been well on display in the wake of the midterm elections, a disaster for the Democrats, but a partial victory for the wider Left. With the presidency not up for grabs this time, the strategy for the election fell to the House and Senate leaders. They decided on a minimal strategy, and scared individual members went even further, with some such as Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Grimes refusing to say whether she had voted for Obama or not. Most candidates didn’t want Obama stumping for them at all, and thus he only did a half-dozen appearances, in safe areas. In the wake of the disaster — which had the fingermarks of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid all over it — he gave a speech saying that he heard the people who voted, and also those who didn’t, and that he wasn’t going to abandoning the possibility of doing stuff by executive order, including and above all immigration amnesty. That was followed by a strong commitment to net neutrality, and this week by the US-China climate deal, which, whatever its limits, sets a clear direction of travel, and further pushes the issue to the political frontline back home (the new head of the congressional science committee will be Senator Jim Inhofe, who believes that global warming is “the greatest hoax perpetrated of all time” because “God would not let us damage the climate he created” — apparently God wasn’t so protective about West Virginia). Yet the talk all around the US and beyond is that Obama is “over the job”, that he’s “not even trying”. At times, such sentiments have a real level of disgust about them, an air of recrimination over betrayal.

The judgement is bizarre. It has a little to do with Obama’s manner — a certain low-key cool, which at times sounds almost distracted — and a certain amount to do with some decisions made early on to stabilise the economy by appointing insiders whom the markets demanded. But it also has a lot to do with the demand for a perfection of purpose, and a certain attraction to noble defeat. Obama’s strategy for his first term was to get one thing done above all, and that was affordable healthcare. He wisely rejected the complex plan the Clintons had tried to impose in 1994, and also quickly abandoned a “public option” plan when he realised that it was unlikely to get the support of conservative Democrats. The strategy was wise; the Republicans have thrown everything at it, including a full Supreme Court challenge, which they lost. Now, there’s another Supreme Court challenge — to aspects of the funding of subsidies — which, if successful, would eviscerate the act without abolishing it.

Besides that, the stimulus that was won from a recalcitrant Congress managed to avert a full-scale depression (which politically may or may not have been a good thing). The Supreme Court justices he appointed — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen — gave backbone to the liberal side of the bench, pushing the gender balance in the direction of full equality and inclusiveness. When he won re-election in 2012, he announced that he had a “pen and a phone” and he was going to use it, to executive action past a recalcitrant Congress. Holding fast against a Republican-initiated government shutdown, he drove them to a full defeat. He stood down the federal pursuit of marijuana prosecutions in states with legal medical marijuana and cut federal sentencing for drug prosecutions. These and other executive moves have driven the Republicans to a frenzy, tempting them to make a move on impeachment. Should he issue a full amnesty to around 5 million illegal immigrants — the largest such amnesty in history — then millions of people will no longer have to live in the semi-legal shadows. It will also push a full unduckable, unavoidable crisis. Word is that Obama will sign this executive order, as early as next week.

That Obama is unpopular with a whole section of the American public is not surprising — since he is blamed for much of the things that Congress is doing or not doing. But the despite from large sections of the American Left has more to do with some demand for a permanent state of dissatisfaction than with the material itself. You can see it closer to home, with the end-stage Whitlamolatry that took over last week, as journos lined up to mourn the absence of big ideas in politics, great men, etc — and then went back to reporting the same minutiae as ever — without any interrogation as to why that was the case, and whether Whitlam might have been as a much a product of a great historical wave, as he was a producer of it. Now we have, in Tony Abbott, the reincarnation of Billy McMahon, a man who may ensure a Labor victory through sheer embarrassment that he represents us. In the US, there’s a weird nostalgia for Bill Clinton, who achieved, in progressive terms, a fraction of what Obama has achieved. It’s a strange process, the kvetch, and it’s one, in this election, that helped kill the Democrats. As recent events have shown, the legacy is solid, and there is still more to come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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