The progressive left has an answer for whom to blame for this White House’s many faults: Valerie Jarrett. The most read piece on Politico at the moment is one calling on President Obama to fire Jarrett. Noam Scheiber’s piece at The New Republic illustrates why progressives are finally voicing their frustrations with Jarrett’s avowedly corporatist approach to governance, leaking quotes to display her status as a yes-woman with naive views of Obama’s popularity (Mika Brzezinski is here for the defense).
Scheiber’s achievements list two-thirds of the way through the piece leads into an interesting point about why progressives feel so dissatisfied:
The Obama era has been deeply disorienting for the left. Eight years ago, progressives would have delighted at the idea of a president who withdrew from Iraq [ed. note: ha!], remade the rules for Wall Street, slowed the proliferation of greenhouse gases, brought the country within spitting distance of universal health care, and multiplied the rights of gays and lesbians. And yet it’s hard to be a self-respecting progressive these days and not feel a frustration that borders on disillusionment. The victories have been muddled, the errors unforced, the ambitions preemptively scaled back.
How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama share—call it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.
Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideas—from jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youth—rely on the largesse of corporations.
There’s something Scheiber is missing, here, though – his piece doesn’t so much reach a conclusion as just end. What the Obamas and Jarrett represent as a the ideal modern liberal throuple is the logical end point of the rent-seeking and regulatory capture necessary when government enters into an unending quid pro quo dance with major institutions. The populist rhetoric deployed by the original progressives against the unchecked power of corporate entities and elites and the need for government to step in to the gap ignored the way these processes actually play out. Obamacare’s essence was branded as empowering people, but of course, in practice it actually empowered major entities in the health care industry. A bill that was supposed to help people is also about funding hospital consolidation, the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, and a host of for- and non-profits. The largesse of government takes from the taxpayer and expects something in return – namely, that these large institutions will bend to the will of the powerful, in return for protection from risk.
A few months back, in a piece for Commentary, I wrote: “History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax. And who are those enemies? Not big business or Wall Street, which has paid their way to new alliances; not America’s insurers, whose products Democrats have made it illegal not to buy; not privacy-challenging government, which Obama has expanded to unprecedented degrees. No, the only enemies who really matter to today’s Democratic Party are those wayward intolerant social-policy traditionalists with their un-American views of religious liberty.”
The Obama-Jarrett administration has played this tune for six years – and only now are progressives waking up to the reality that all along, they were the ones being fooled. Ultimately, Jarrett looks like the real guiding hand on this White House, taking the inchoate agenda offered by the 2008 campaign and crafting it into the approach Obama has deployed almost from the beginning. Jarrett looks exactly like what the left claimed Dick Cheney was: dealmaker, corporatist, and the real administrative power behind a shallow and uninterested figurehead president, who’s just relieved he doesn’t have to answer to those progressives any more.