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Obama’s Gift to Progressives.

Barack Obama’s relationship with American progressives is like a bad marriage. In 2008 he made all sorts of vows and promised to be faithful. Hardly had he taken office – brought there by our door-knocking, our phone calls and our votes – when he started jumping into bed with our rivals: the rich, the powerful, the warmakers, the reactionaries of all sorts.

Like so many unfaithful spouses, though, every so often he gives us a gift to try to set things right and keep our loyalty. Tom Hayden and Juan Cole are the latest major figures in the progressive movement who urge us to appreciate these gifts and keep the marriage alive. Like most influential progressives, they offer lists to prove their point: Obama supported health care reform, the stimulus package, bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, support for gay rights, curbs on deportations, etcetera, etcetera.

But this laundry-list approach misses the greatest gift that Obama is giving progressives, the one that’s on the order of the new car the philanderer gives the betrayed spouse for Christmas. It’s not a specific policy. It’s a narrative frame:

“Our destinies are bound together,” as Obama said in his acceptance speech. “A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity, is unworthy of our founding ideals.” We “believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules,” he said.

“We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”

Many progressives won’t appreciate that this narrative is a gift. Some will continue to press for a divorce. That’s because they judge Obama, and all the rest of the politicians, only by their specific policy positions. Few progressives realize how absolutely crucial narrative is to political success.

But professional politicians, who judge success by how many elections they win, know it very well. As the Democrats’ veteran pollster and strategist Stanley Greenberg once wrote, if you want to win a presidential election, “A narrative is the key to everything.” Candidate Obama proved that he understood that very well.   Read more…