In the bunker mentality that is any Democratic White House, the enemies appear to lie on all sides so it's easy to scoff that those crazy liberals just don't get it. They want the ideal, or so Obama proclaims, and then he proudly proclaims that he is a pragmatist and wants to get things done. And the political center applauds him. The Right is still unimpressed and the Left fumes.
So what gives? Are the liberals simply impassioned radicals who would sacrifice progress for principle? Can they not see the good that will come from an extension of unemployment benefits? Can they not appreciate that the deal provides about $120 billion in benefits to those with incomes over $250,000 and about $400 billion in benefits (that had been opposed by Republicans) to those who live paycheck to paycheck?
As the dust settles I am sure progressives will come to see the merits of this deal. Hopefully they will also come to see the political realities that Obama faced. It's true Obama could have stared down the GOP and tried to argue in January, when taxes went up, that the GOP was responsible because they preferred tax increases for everyone over tax increases on the rich. But the fact is that January would have seen a GOP Congress' first order of business being an across the board extension of all tax cuts, no pay roll tax cut for working people, and no unemployment benefits extension. Then, the Democrats in the Senate or the White House would have had to veto a GOP extension of Bush tax cuts for all. Democrats would have instantly lost the ability to accuse the GOP of increasing rates.
What the White House fails to realize though is that the deal isn't what drives progressives and liberals crazy. It's the lack of fight. It's the appearance of a preference for deal making over any kind of stand on principles (or self respect for that matter). And that may describe Obama perfectly.
But what they cannot square at all is why Obama appears to save his sharpest rhetoric, most pointed barbs and most strident anger for them. Take the example being shown now around this very tax deal.
WH warns tax defeat could trigger new recession - Yahoo! News
Who comes in for the sharpest criticism? Those 'idealists.' Who is threatening recession? Those 'idealists.' Who is endangering the welfare of the country? Those idealists.
Those idealists stand around looking at each other bewildered. They think - 'You're being called a socialist Muslim terrorist by the other side and they are obstructing good economic policy (tax cuts for the middle class, health care reform), social policy (DADT), and security policy (START) -- but WE are the one's threatening the welfare of the country?"
I'm sure the White House doesn't remember this incidenty but I can tell you most progressives do. This summer, just weeks after folding like a cheap suit on the public option, Medicare drug negotiations, and all other manner of good, progressive, fiscally sound health policy without so much as a whimper, let alone a cry of anger, the White House threatened to veto Financial Reform. What got their anger up? Was it some poison pill from the Right? No, it was a modest proposal to audit the Fed for its role in the TARP bailout of banks.
Noam Schreiber ascribes the most recent deal to the GOP victories in November, arguing that this finally allows Obama to be the President he always wanted to be. Here's another reason that Progressives tear their hair out. Obama would rather govern with a GOP House and only 53 Democrats in the Senate than with a solidly Democratic House and almost 60 votes in the Senate?
To believe Obama prefers to govern under the first scenario, one would have to assume Obama is much much more conservative than the middle of Congress was in the just past Congress. Or one would have to assume that Obama prefers the image of the dealmaker to actually getting progressive victories like Health Care Reform and Banking Reform and improving the lot of the working and middle class. Neither possibility is very reassuring to progressives.
What drives progressives and liberals crazy is not that Obama is a pragmatic deal maker. It's that he doesn't appear to share their values at all.
The White House doesn't see that it's lost credibility with the Left because it HAS threatened stands on principle -- but those stands have typically been anti progressive or targeted against progressives.
When it's come to taking a stand on gay rights, on progressive policies like the Public Option, on rational security policies like opposing torture, illegal incarceration or ending the disgrace that is Guantanamo, or fighting for truly progressive financial reforms Obama has raised a limp hand and whispered "I'm with you." When it's come time to standing with the policy elites and the centrists of the Treasury, his economic council, or the New York Times editorial page though, Obama has been much more strident and forceful.
It's not that Obama is a progressive pragmatist that upsets. It's that Obama hasn't convinced anyone on the Left that he truly cares about anything those on the Left have cared so much about. They get that he's pragmatic. What they worry is that he's really not progressive at all. And that should be of genuine concern to this White House. Progressives will never vote Republican. But 40 million voters from 2008 stayed home in 2010. 3 million 'idealists' voted for Nader in 2000. Disillusioned Leftists make good fodder for ribbing at White House cocktail parties, but laughing at or scoffing at your base's principles makes for very bad politics.
Somehow Obama is going to have to convince them that there are just some things he won't compromise on. Clinton was able to do this although he never quite over came the degree to which he alienated the Left with his forceful positions on NAFTA over Global Warming, and Deficit deals over Health Care or Welfare Reform. He's another example of someone who appeared to fight hardest for those things the Left cared the least about or opposed most strongly. As Clinton's example showed, economic recoveries have a remarkable way of making political problems like disaffected bases go away. But without a recovery, Obama is going to need that base. Karl Rove understood this in 2002 and 2004. Will this White House?