12/08/2010 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Fault Is Not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves

Liberals and progressives are in a fury because of Obama's "deal" with the GOP. The fury is justified by the fact that the extension of the tax cuts for the rich intensifies the ongoing robbery of the people by the moneyed elite. But the rage at Obama is entirely off base and reveals a lot about the weakness, not of the president, but of the liberal left.

The president said yesterday that his job was to defend the livelihoods and welfare of American families. He said that their fate was being held hostage by the Republican intransigence on taxing the rich. He gave in on that by agreeing to a two-year extension of current tax rates. In return he got agreement to extend unemployment compensation for 13 months, a substantial cut in payroll taxes for the middle class (cuts that will put hundreds of dollars into the pockets of average households next year), extension of the substantial but little known earned income tax credits that help support millions of low wage workers. These are "stimulus" measures (that will increase the deficit despite all the yelling about deficit spending) and are coupled with a number of job-oriented tax benefits for small business. There is one other really horrible feature of the deal -- an estate tax cut that benefits less than 40,000 rich families that adds billions to the deficit without any economic value to the society.

Liberals are furious because they wanted Obama to put up a fight about the tax goodies for the rich. Some wanted this fight even if it meant an eventual tax increase for working families, and even if it meant that long-term unemployment benefits would be lost. That he would not go in that direction is said to be a sign either of cowardice, incompetence or his subservience to Wall Street.

What Obama is saying includes the following points that we all are duty bound to consider:

1. As president, he must do what he can to protect ordinary people: "My job is to do whatever I can to get this economy moving. My job is to do whatever I can to spur job creation. My job is to look out for middle-class families who are struggling right now to get by, and Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own"

2. That job takes precedence over attempting to defeat the GOP in a game of chicken. Some are making the point, however, that "caving" at this point will only embolden the opposition in battles to come. Obama seems well aware of this and is betting instead that these moves now will rally support of "middle-class Americans" including many Independents who voted for Republicans in the fall.

3. Finally, Obama is quite clearly telling us to look at the power relations that are determining the political process. He used the word "hostage" in his press conference -- not only to refer to himself but to the people as a whole. The power of the moneyed elite is magnified by the organized irresponsibility of the Republican Party and by the rules of the Senate, which systematically protect minority rule. In that context, the bargain he has crafted may well be the best that could be achieved.

The growing liberal drumbeat about Obama's failed presidency, coupled now with fantasies about opposing his renomination, or with anguished hand-wringing about his failure to communicate, to lead, etc., etc., dismays me. It's rooted in fear and anger over the intransigence of the corporate quasi-dictatorship we are up against. But the answer to corporate dictatorship and kleptocracy has to come from social movements, not from the White House. History strongly suggests that grassroots disruption that threatens to unravel the social fabric is the fundamental impetus to real reform.

Yet the loudest voices on the left keep wishing that Obama would lead such a movement. It's a natural wish -- since the work of movement is hard, risky and costly for those who take it on. But to wish for the leader and to cry when he seems to abandon us is childish, and it bespeaks impotence...

Let's start by giving up a lot of BS about "principle." There is NO history of Democratic Party or liberal principle that Obama is betraying. FDR's compromises to achieve Social Security and labor legislation abandoned African Americans with effects still strongly felt in our social order. No Democratic president was able to achieve universal healthcare and bargained it away for decades. It was FDR who gave J. Edgar Hoover the authority to spy on the left, and JFK gave him the same to spy on Martin Luther King. Bill Clinton's abandonment of welfare and his other "triangulations" were larger and more cynical betrayals than Obama's (so far). Obama's record of accomplishment, leadership and betrayal stacks up well against all his predecessors. And let's stop using ideological yardsticks to judge politicians. Is Obama "really" a progressive? Whatever he is, he tells us, he must be a pragmatist in the real world he works in. And we should appreciate and even welcome that!

Ideology is a very poor predictor of integrity or action. Ideology is not what determines the political assessments that most Americans make. This is a big topic, but one advantage the "left" has over the "right" these days is that the latter is in fact over determined by narrow, ideologically-driven thinking and therefore inevitably going to fail to connect with the American majority.

A big reason we aren't yet in the midst of a movement on the left has to do with the defaults of the leadership in the national progressive organizational world. At the same time, even with a will to mobilize, strategies for effective action have to be grasped -- and defining these is not an easy matter. And finally, there is a loss of "vision" -- an absence of articulate expression of how a better world might look.

Liberal hand-wringing over Obama distracts us from the work we need to do. And he has learned how to discount it.