Roger D. Hodge is angry. The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, a colorful expression of the author’s outrage at failed objectives and broken promises, begins with a lament that bespeaks profound disappointment in our current president. “Barack Obama came to us with such great promise,” Hodge writes. “He pledged to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the Constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.”
The Mendacity of Hope has been largely skewered by critics. In a Washington Post review, Alan Wolfe deemed Hodge’s polemic “a sloppily organized, badly argued and deeply reactionary book unlikely to have any influence at all on the way Americans think about their president.” In The New York Times, Jonathan Alter took issue with Hodge’s uncompromising position vis-à-vis the liberal purity of Obama’s policies: “Really?” Alter challenges. “Since when did the tenets of liberalism demand that politics no longer be viewed as the art of the possible?”
What we have seen to date, in the nearly two years since Obama’s inauguration, is a veritable influx of books, articles, essays, and magazine profiles critiquing his policies from the right. But while MSNBC, The Daily Show, and a smattering of other outlets have tweaked the president from the left, a substantive book-length rendering, by a liberal, of the inadequacies of the Obama administration’s policies has been largely nonexistent. This is owing at least as much to institutional inertia (Obama is already the president, and dissent is usually most effective when originating in the opposition) as it is to the fear that airing liberals’ disillusion could actually exacerbate the problem by causing miffed lefties to sit out the midterm elections.
Thus, after devoting much of his showtime, over the past year and a half, to unfavorable comparisons of the Barack Obama of today to the one who campaigned on such “high rhetoric” two years ago, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart was downright hospitable when the president appeared on his show on October 27, a mere six days before Election Day. Whether the abrupt change in the host’s demeanor was due to timidity or shrewd political strategy is unclear, but the consequence followed a general trend: outside of some niche circles, President Obama has not been held to accountability — in a protracted, thorough manner — by his liberal base.
But there is, I think, another reason that the left has kept largely silent. And that is the admission that, notwithstanding the collectively disaffected state of American liberals, Obama has indeed pushed through some truly formidable legislation. Health care reform, however trimmed-down and neutered its final edition, is still reform, as is financial regulation and other measures. Yes, Obama’s embrace of gay rights has been tepid at best, and his African-American constituency is less than pleased with his reluctance to embrace its plight. There are other grievances as well. But the progressive successes, largely lost amidst a torrent of obstructionism and party-line politics, remain, even as their legacy is overshadowed by perpetual congressional impasse and decreasing approval ratings.
It is this understanding — captured by the axiom “do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good” — that has eluded Rodger D. Hodge. In railing against “the mundane corruption of our capitalist democracy,” Hodge hammers away at “the obscene intimacy of big corporations and big government.” But his disillusionment is encased within a quixotic fantasy of liberal American governance. To Hodge, the conservative position is, for all intents and purposes, a politically impotent entity in the face of progressive ideology that is properly divorced from moneyed interests.
This is a somewhat absurd conclusion, given the populist (or demagogic, depending on perspective) stirrings that gave birth to the Tea Party and are expected to sweep the Republicans back into power in the House on Tuesday. Fortunately, Hodge’s animus is far more persuasive in his wholesale denunciation of corporate interests’ influence on American politics. Although at times a bit wonky, Hodge nevertheless portrays, with astounding clarity, fund-raising contributions whose origins and scale were strikingly at odds with the Obama brand’s stated philosophy. “The results were impressive,” the author writes. “Against a token candidate who raised a mere $2.8 million, Obama in his Senate race raised $14.9 million — in his first attempt at national office, in a relatively short time, with significant contributions from out-of-state donors such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and George Soros. Indeed, 32 percent of his contributions came from out of state.”
Contrast this with a 2006 speech Obama made, in which he expressed empathy with Americans for their disgust with “a political process where the vote you cast isn’t as important as the favors you can do” and proclaimed that Americans were “tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways.” Indeed, Hodge would argue that the president stole from the playbook of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who famously noted that political candidates “campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose.”
Interestingly, it is Roger D. Hodge’s prose that remains the highlight of The Mendacity of Hope. At times his phraseology perfectly straddles the line between comedy and outrage, as when he deems the doctrine of the “unitary executive” to be “a partial-birth abortion of the Constitution.” Later, decrying the lack of retributive justice for Ronald Reagan’s perceived crimes in relation to the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, Hodge sulkily concludes, “Impeachment would have to await Oval Office fellatio.” Yet however sincere his repulsion for Obama’s gradual backslide from his campaign’s lofty poetry, Roger D. Hodge is doomed to eternal disappointment if his vision for American leadership, as espoused in his book, remains so far removed from the reality of the possible.