Be careful what you ask for

| When I exhorted President Obama (Nov 4, 2010) to draw some lines and show some fight, I didn't mean that he should take aim against his own party! When Obama strode to the podium in the White House Press room Tuesday to give a spirited defense of the tax "framework" he had negotiated with the Republicans, he essentially gave the back of his hand to liberals and progressives who wanted to make a stand against giving further tax breaks to the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Obama described those those who wanted to make a stand as holding "a purist position" so they could feel good about themselves and "sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are" (press conference transcript 7-Dec-2010).

And since then, he has sent Vice President Joe Biden out to absorb the venting of Democrats on Capitol Hill and reinforce the message that this deal was the best they could get under the circumstances, so get over it. In a follow up email today (I just love the way my name got added to the White House email list!), Biden said, "That's the deal, folks, and it's a good one for America's middle class. Take a moment [to view the White House whiteboard presentation], and I think you'll agree."

OK, I do agree that under the circumstances, Obama made a reasonable, practical decision. And those circumstances include the facts that (1) an attempt to extend the Bush tax cuts for everybody except those making over $250,000 per year failed in the Senate and (2) unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans out of work would end on December 31. You do what you have to do.

The good news is that we finally got to see some fire in Obama's eyes. He finally spoke without a teleprompter in crisp, clear sentences.

But the bad news, what really galls me is having gotten into those circumstances in the first place.

I also don't let Obama off the hook. In today's column in the Washington Post, E J Dionne put his finger on what has so disappointed Obama's supporters:

What's most striking about Obama's deal with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is the extent to which it only reinforces Obama's image as an inside technocratic dealmaker. It turns out he will negotiate with anyone to get what seems sensible to him.

The problem is that this approach shortchanges the need to carry on a sustained argument on behalf of his overall objectives and rejects the idea that some "fights," a word Obama uses with disdain (except, perhaps, when he's criticizing liberals), are instructive and can help accomplish change over the long term.

The key phrase there is "to carry on a sustained argument." Obama's tendency has been to kick off consideration of an issue then sit back and let others, Congress, work it out as far as they can get, and then step in at the end to split the difference between the competing positions for a final deal. This lets Republicans frame the argument — something they are extremely good at — and leaves Democrats unsure of what Obama's bottom line is, where his lines in the sand are drawn.

We saw this pattern unfold in spades in healthcare reform. There was the very public kick off presentation, followed by months of protracted, convoluted, back-room negotiation in Congress while everyone wondered: Would Obama or fight for a public option, or wouldn't he? Would he or wouldn't he stand up to the insurance and pharmaceuticals industries? And in the end, what we got was far less than what had been held out during the campaign as the objective.

Obama's answer is that he is just being practical, taking what he can get, as long as he can make progress:

And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I'm absolutely positive is right, I can't get done. And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way? Because I'm keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight; not my day-to- day news cycle but where am I going over the long term?

And I don't think there's a single Democrat out there who, if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.

Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There's not a single thing that I've said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven't gotten it done yet, I'm still trying to do it.

And -- and so the -- to my Democratic friends, what I'd suggest is let's make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game.

True enough, but it sounds defensive. And in the absence of the "sustained argument" it sounds too much like giving in and giving up too much.

All that said, now that the deal has been struck, it has to pass. If it is rejected, this late in the year, all the cuts will expire and the Republicans will have been given a hammer to beat on Democrats for the next two years: You don't like that your taxes went up? Blame the Democrats, they're the ones who torpedoed the deal. Yup, tax and spend Democrats.

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018



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