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Did Obama Let the Left Down?

Chicago — In an interview the week after Barack Obama’s re-election, Cornel West said he was glad Mitt Romney hadn’t won, but he also expressed his displeasure with the president, calling him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”

West, who is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and an emeritus professor in Princeton’s Center for African-American Studies, knows how to turn a loaded phrase, and here he was lambasting Obama for not doing enough to help poor people or, for that matter, to mention their plight during the campaign.

Nothing even close to that inflammatory was said at a session over the weekend on Obama and progressivism held here as part of the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference. In fact, most of the session was devoted to explanations of why the president had failed to live up to many of the expectations of many on the left, why those expectations were unreasonable, and what Democrats should hope for in his second term.

It’s interesting to imagine what the session would have been like had Romney prevailed. Funereal, probably. As it was, the atmosphere was relief mixed with cautious hope.

Still, the post-mortem on Obama’s first term wasn’t entirely laudatory. The inspiration for the session was The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), by Gary Dorrien, who is both a professor of religion at Columbia University and a professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. He wrote the book, he said, because he heard too many of his progressive friends say that, while they had volunteered for Obama the first time around, they “weren’t going to lift a finger” to help him get re-elected.

Dorrien thought that was wrong. But he has some common ground with West, though his language is much less barbed. Dorrien argued that Obama had “opportunities in his first 18 months to make huge, historic gains for social justice” and that he “failed to plant the flag.” Those opportunities included pushing for a public option in the health-care bill, breaking up the big banks, arguing for a second stimulus bill for job creation, and trying to get strong immigration legislation passed. “The president demoralized his progressive base,” Dorrien said.

Sharon Welch disagreed. Welch, provost and a professor of ethics at Meadville Lombard Theological School, contended that faulting Obama for lack of aggression doesn’t take into account what he was up against. “What Dorrien sees as timidity in Obama’s first term I see as genuinely democratic leadership in the face of formidable challenges,” said Welch.

You might wonder why this discussion was taking place at a religion conference. Except for a brief mention of his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, there wasn’t much talk about the president’s faith or the role of religion in the election. As an aside, it can be puzzling to attend sessions at a religion conference that—on the surface, anyway—have nothing to do with religion. You can find yourself thoroughly immersed in an hour-plus discussion of hip hop’s uneasy relationship with capitalism and feel as if you’ve wandered into a musicology or sociology conference by mistake. Still enjoyable, just puzzling.

As for Cornel West’s recent rant, he invoked the name of Richard Nixon when talking about Obama’s shortcomings, arguing that Nixon was to the left of Obama on a list of issues, including health care, guaranteed income, and foreign policy. Meanwhile, Dorrien, despite his disappointments, offered a different historical comparison: “Obama is well on his way to becoming the best president since Franklin Roosevelt.”

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