Monday, December 13, 2010

Obama Shrugged

Well, bless my stars, are progressives ever in a tizzy over the President. First it was healthcare reform with no public option; then it was financial reform with too big to fail still in tact; and now, heavens to Betsy, a deal with the hated Republicans that extends ALL the Bush tax cuts. Seems old Captain Pragmatic can’t do anything right (er, make that good) enough for them. Throw in an over-developed sense of antipathy from the wing nuts on the Right and Barack Obama is now a man without a country, not to mention a political party.

Since engaging in post-mortems is futile at this stage, the choice before Obama seemed rather obvious. Either he was going to do a Truman and/or a Clinton, or he was going to end up a Carter. Those were his options. Mid-terms that do not go well beg for an immediate and predictable response. Without exception, every successful reelection of an incumbent president started with a courting of the Center, often at the expense of the base. Hence, the decision to throw the Left under the bus as it were with the tax deal. In what amounts to the calculated decision of his political life, Obama has opted to go middle of the road and throw both flanks over board. Only time will tell if he is right.

But while Obama’s shift toward the Center may be predictable and have historical precedent behind it, the reaction it has provoked so far has been about as ugly as any sitting president has gotten in recent memory. It’s one thing to be despised by your political opponents; it’s quite another to be publicly vilified by your own party. At a recent White House press briefing Obama had what can only be described as a let your hair down moment as he showed outward frustration over his party’s inability to come to terms with the stark political reality that has befallen them.

“This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where I finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for 100 years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn't get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. Now if that's the standard against which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about ourselves about how good our intentions are, how tough we are.”

In an op-ed piece for Mother Jones, titled “Obama Goes Medieval on the Left,” Kevin Drum remarked how stunned the President seemed by criticism from the base of his party.

“His outburst about "purist" liberals was considerably more impassioned than his rather clinical description of Republican "hostage takers." In one sense, this isn't surprising: you expect the opposition to show no mercy and that hardens you to it. You really don't expect it from your putative allies. But in another sense it is surprising: even if Obama thinks his progressive critics are off base, he must know by now how they're going to react to compromises like yesterday's tax cut deal. So why was he apparently so unprepared for this? Why deliberately make things worse with his base during a press conference?

“Answer 1: he just lost his temper a bit. It happens to everyone. Answer 2: it was all precisely calculated. He's convinced that Democrats lost in November because of defections from independents, not liberals, so he's trying to do everything he can to distance himself from the left and win back the center. My guess is that #1 accounts for 10% of his performance and #2 accounts for 90%. After all, we've seen this movie before in 1994.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps, it is a little bit more complicated than that. As stated before, running to the Center is a no-brainer, especially after getting the political wind knocked out of your sails. But I suspect that the real answer is more even-steven than most would like to admit to. And given what this president has had to contend with since he took office, one can hardly blame him.

It is well established that progressives have enjoyed a somewhat tepid relationship with Barack Obama. Publicly they lauded him, while privately holding their noses. Let’s not forget that for most of the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton was the establishment liberal, beloved by her devotees. Obama was the outsider who ran upstream to the political currents within his party. He was the upstart who dared take on the big Clinton machine, and had the audacity – no pun intended – to actually win. Many within the party still have not forgiven him.

And, contrary to the popular mythos that has surrounded him, Obama was never much of an ideologue. His background as a litigator should’ve been the first tip-off as to how he would govern as President. From the beginning, Obama has been both blessed and cursed with seeing both sides of a debate and being able to frame a response accordingly. While Hillary would’ve been far more combative, especially with regards to healthcare, her pride and joy, Obama sought early consensus and took the road more traveled. Compromised and flawed though it might be, he got it through when other presidents, including Bill, failed. That “signature piece of legislation” that Obama spoke of, while a political triumph for him, has been a thorn in the side of progressives ever since it was signed into law, and they have never forgotten it. And you thought elephants had a long memory.

And then there were the personal attacks from the Right that started even before he was sworn in. He was to blame for Bush’s recession, even though virtually every economist has gone on record as stating it began well before the general election. From the Birther movement that still hasn’t gone away, to the charges of being the second coming of Stalin, to shouts of death panels, all the way to the culminating “You lie” remark from Joe Wilson, Obama has managed to remain the adult in the room filled with juvenile delinquents. And he has had to do all of this with little or no backing from his own party, who, more often than not, left him twisting in the breeze. Don’t tell me that doesn’t eventually take its toll. Frankly, I am amazed, given what he has had to contend with, that he has remained this composed for this long.

This is not to suggest that Barack Obama hasn’t earned some of the criticisms that have come his way; far from it. As the leader of the Democratic Party it was his job to set the tone and agenda. More often than not though, he opted to let others chart the course. His hands off approach during both the stimulus and healthcare debates allowed his opponents to craft a narrative that over time took root within the electorate. Obama paid dearly for that bit of naiveté. As his poll numbers began heading south, along with those of his party’s, many pleaded with him to stand up and show some backbone. But, like most intellectuals, he held firm to the belief that in the end the American people would realize the good he and the Democrats had done and respond accordingly.

The election results last November clearly showed otherwise, and only now has he come to realize the sins of his omissions a day late and a nickel short. That burden must be weighing heavily on him. Add to that the realization that he was never progressives’ first choice for president and the deep hatred the Right holds for him and small wonder he unloaded at his press conference. Expect more of the same, and not just because it makes perfect sense politically to put some distance between your base and yourself, but because I suspect that at this moment he has about as much use for them as a bug has for a can of Raid. In deed given how both flanks have treated him these last two years, the Center may be his only comfort and refuge.

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