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Obama's Challenge:
America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency
, by Robert Kuttner



(Click for Amazon book review)

OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:

We expected this book to be a perceptive analysis of the Obama campaign, since it won a prize (the Sidney Hillman Award), and since the author, Robert Kuttner, co-founded "The American Prospect," a well-respected liberal publication. Alas, the author is partisan rather than perceptive, and the book is fatally tainted by the author's biases. Some partisanship, and some punditry, are forgivable. But the fatal taint comes from the unforgivable--and politically inaccurate--partisanship of mischaracterizing "progressives" vs. "liberals."

Kuttner can be forgiven for some partisanship, since he's a well-known as a liberal Democrat. Perceptive readers recognize his partisanship in his statement describing Obama's activist use of government: "Which party is more likely to manage government in a way that doesn't arbitrarily diminish rights?" (p. 90). Well, which rights? Kuttner means gay rights, civil rights, labor rights, and so on. But a conservative could answer, "The GOP, of course, is less likely to diminish gun rights, free trade rights, and the right to life." After statements like Kuttner's above, readers acknowledge that Kuttner is writing an opinion piece, not an analysis piece, and thereafter read the book cautiously, differentiating Kuttner's opinions from analysis about Obama.

Kuttner can also be forgiven for some punditry, since he has earned his place as a pundit. He wrote this book during the 2008 election, and published it in August 2008, as "a citizen's open letter" to the Obama campaign. Kuttner admits his presumptuousness in predicting that Obama will win the election three months hence; readers acknowledge Kuttner's presumptuousness in thinking that the Obama campaign would care about his "open letter." After all, it's also an "open letter" to his fellow citizens, about how Obama would be a "transformative president" (that's Kuttner's subtitle. He means Obama will permanently change America, as did Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Ronald Reagan).

But Kuttner cannot be forgiven for mischaracterizing the term "progressive." That term defined the difference between Obama (a progressive) and Hillary Clinton (a liberal) during the 2008 primary, so it is core to the election. Kuttner does identify Obama as a progressive, but also identifies as progressives LBJ, Hillary, John Edwards, and others. Kuttner writes in chapter one, "Progressives who backed Obama rather than John Edwards or Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination gave Obama a pass on some of the issues." (pp. 7-8). That statement is politically inaccurate twice. Where I come from, no progressives backed John Edwards nor Hillary Clinton. I know many, many progressives --they all backed Obama, or Dennis Kucinich, or maybe Mike Gravel. And I know many, many liberals--they all backed John Edwards or Hillary Clinton. It was a clean split, where I come from--and that's also where Kuttner comes from, since we both live in the Boston area. Kuttner must be well-aware of that split, but he misleads his readers by conflating the two political philosophies.

The second inaccuracy in that same statement is that progressives gave Obama a pass on some issues. Kuttner thinks like a liberal, and that statement only makes sense from a liberal perspective, where the focus is on economic issues (labor rights, appropriate taxation, protecting Social Security). Progressives instead focus on social issues (gay rights, protesting and ending the Iraq war, civil rights). Progressives backed Obama because he matched their views and their focus on social issues; liberals backed Hillary and Edwards on the same grounds for economic issues. Progressives would not give a pass to Hillary or Edwards for their pro-Iraq war votes because that's a core part of the progressive agenda.

That distinction between economic issues and social issues is the focal distinction of this website--see our "VoteMatch Quiz" for details. That same distinction differentiated Obama from Hillary, and differentiates the two factions of the Democratic Party, the progressives vs. the liberals. And that same distinction applies to the Republican Party too--its current three factions differ in their social vs. economic focus:

  • Christian conservatives focus on social issues (on the opposite side from progressives)
  • Tea Party conservatives focus on economic issues (on the opposite side from liberals)
  • Libertarians focus on both issues at once (on the opposite side from populists, but these groups aren't relevant to this discussion).

Kuttner's truly unforgivable partisanship comes from mischaracterizing the 2006 Senate election. This statement goes beyond partisan punditry into the realm of factual misrepresentation: "All six of the Democrats who took back Republican senate seats in 2006 ran as resolute progressives." (p. 112) Huh?!? Let's take a look at the six Democrats Kuttner refers to:

Sen. Casey, in particular, ran his campaign clearly in the populist center politically--no one during the campaign would have described him as a progressive, and certainly no one looking at his voting record afterwards would! So what could Kuttner possibly mean? Well, look at the list above, and all are social issues--ones that matter to progressives. All six of the new Senators toe the line on the Democratic view of economic issues--ones that matter to liberals.

It's ok that Kuttner is a liberal. But he pretends to be a progressive. And he adds confusion to the debate between progressives and liberals, the ongoing central debate of the Democratic Party. Readers need to be careful in this book to interpret Kuttner's use of the term "progressive" because he often means "liberal." His other analysis might be interesting; but his opinions on progressivism are just factually erroneous.

-- Jesse Gordon, OnTheIssues editor-in-chief, January 2011
 OnTheIssues.org excerpts:  (click on issues for details)
Budget & Economy
    Barack Obama: Regulate institutions for what they do, not what they are.
    Ronald Reagan: Deficits don't matter as long as they're used for tax cuts.
Civil Rights
    Barack Obama: OpEd: Not the seed of civil rights, but the flower.
Education
    Barack Obama: Refundable $4000 tax credit for community college tuition.
Energy & Oil
    Al Gore: We borrow from China to buy Gulf oil; both should change.
Environment
    Al Gore: 2000: Avoided passion by avoiding talking about environment.
Free Trade
    Barack Obama: China trade deal does too little on fairness & compliance.
    John Kerry: 2004: "Benedict Arnold CEOs" profit from outsourcing.
Government Reform
    Bill Clinton: OpEd: Triangulation fails to defend party principles.
    Ronald Reagan: 1981: Government is not the solution; it is the problem.
Principles & Values
    Bill Clinton: OpEd: Triangulation worked but set up defeat in 2000.
Social Security
    Barack Obama: 2007: Raise income cap to avoid future shortfall.
Tax Reform
    Barack Obama: Trickle-down economics has failed.
    Sherrod Brown: 2006: Did you get any of the Bush tax cuts?
War & Peace
    Barack Obama: 2002: I don't oppose all war; I am opposed to dumb war.


The above quotations are from Obama's Challenge:
America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency
, by Robert Kuttner.
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Page last edited: Jul 19, 2011