Finally, a rebuke straight from the horse's mouth.
Last January we learned that Rahm Emanuel called liberals "f**cking retarded." In August, Robert Gibbs labeled "crazy" anyone who would compare Obama to his predecessor. You might've hoped these were "loose cannon" statements, made by men weary with responsibility. President Obama never uttered words like those. We could assume, fairly, that the Commander in Chief didn't feel similarly. Well, no longer.
In a "hastily-called" press conference yesterday, President Obama set out to push back against expected criticism from the Left over his tax cut compromise. Obama didn't use a teleprompter. He was frank with us, we Liberals. (Jake Tapper, ever the insider, called him "feisty.") Clearly he was speaking from his heart (watch video). After a once-in-generation midterm blowout, the President didn't just announce his intention to compromise. He went further, and scolded liberal "purists" for threatening his accomplishments:
"This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation... but because there was a provision in there that [Liberals] didn't get... somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. Now if that's the standard by 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."
We can all relate to frustrating idealists, those who seem blind to the confines of reality. On this level - an abstract level - the speech works well. It's an appeal to common sense, and an argument for the value of compromise. Amen. Yet isn't it bizarre that Obama singles out his supporters? What's going on here? Why does the White House seem most frustrated by its base?
Consider three of Obama's biggest accomplishments: economic stimulus, health care, and the new federal income tax. In all three cases, progressive activists pushed Obama's agenda; they wanted more stimulus, more health care, and more taxes for the wealthy. (Both parties agreed on tax cuts for the rest.) Conversely, in all three cases, the GOP stood lockstep in opposition: no stimulus (remember, they defeated the first plan under Bush), no health care, and no tax increases for the wealthy.
Why, in such an environment, would Obama save his ire for the Left? Why would he take time out of his day to scold Liberal idealists? Can anyone remember a hasty press conference held to excoriate the obstructionist Right? Here's a bit more of what Obama said:
"If that's the standard by which we are measuring success... we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out."
This sounds fair, in Obama's classically beguiling way - but really it's the extraordinary statement of a man with his back up against a wall. Here's Obama, after advocating for healthcare overhaul and a higher millionaire tax, attempting to justify to Americans what we got instead: insurance companies will be forced to cover sick people, and unemployment benefits will be extended. (Never mind that we'll be forced to pay insurance companies, and that the tax cuts virtually kill further job stimulus). How does the new tax plan represent compromise when Bush's lowest rate will be extended for two more years? Obama wasn't able to nudge the rate up one, single percent.
And then there's healthcare: is Obama really asking us to celebrate his health care plan because illness won't disqualify us? This is the single greatest accomplishment of his bill, and the President points to it all the time. It's not peanuts; it's a deeply meaningful change to the status quo that affects many, many lives for the better. Nonetheless, just as you wouldn't congratulate a father for not abandoning his kids, we shouldn't praise the health care bill for not abandoning sick people.
And yet here we are. The system is so skewed that one of Obama's bargaining chips is the unconscionable ethics of industry - in exchange for major, profit-generating concessions, we get the absence of brutality. One can imagine the secret health care negotiations:
Obama: This system is a mess. We need to clean it up.
Health Care Lobby: Okay, Mr. President. You're right. The American people are demanding change.
Obama: How about a public option that allows folks to subvert insurance companies?
Health Care Lobby: No can do, Barry. But if you force everyone to buy health care from us, we'll promise to end our most ethically abhorrent practices.
Obama: Like refusing to provide coverage for sick people? And restricting access to life-saving benefits because of bad paperwork? And kicking kids off their parents' insurance even when they have no income of their own?
Health Care Lobby: Yeah, okay. People want change. We'll do that stuff.
Obama: Okay, deal. Congratulations on all those new customers!
Health Care Lobby: Congratulations on getting the job done!
During his press conference, Obama reminded us he's a doer: "This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only covered widows and orphans. You did not qualify... When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew." Yes, these programs started small and contained compromises. But FDR was a formidable enemy. When the Supreme Court threatened to overturn much of the New Deal, FDR shot back with his infamous court-packing scheme, a plan to secure favorable decisions by electing as many new justices as necessary. FDR wasn't forced to play his hand: his threats were enough to change the sitting justices' minds. When was the last time Obama issued a threat?
Compromise is well and good, but it's a truism of the form that one should always begin with conviction. In two major instances, healthcare and tax cuts, Obama signaled he would cave almost from the start. He's griping about the Left's complaints - but that's all Washington theater, after the fact. Were the liberals really in his way during the fight? Didn't they help him by championing agendas to the left of his own? The GOP has been very smart about its extremists - giving them platforms and embracing their views - because they recognize that extremists help to shape the conversation (e.g., a debate about the dangers of "global warming" becomes a question of whether or not "climate change" exists). The party bosses - and its corporate friends - don't have to agree with Fox News. They welcome it for advancing their agenda.
Obama may not agree with progressives, but how does he not see them as an ally? The harder they push a Leftist agenda, the more progressive "the center" will become. The question is, What does Barack Obama really want? Is all this compromise unsettling to him, or is he perfectly happy jettisoning the public option and extending Bush's dreadful tax cuts? Let's go back to the heart of the press conference.
"This country was founded on compromise. I couldn't go through the front door at this country's founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn't have a union." Again, sounds reasonable - but pull up a mental image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers weren't idealists? Even amateur scholars stand in awe of our fiercely, frighteningly opinionated ruling forebears. Their compromises led to political immortality, and yet they argued their positions with intense intellect and profound conviction. Speaking of the Great Compromise, which gave us our House and Senate, James Madison wrote (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson) that it was impossible "to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle." The Constitution was born in a hothouse of high-minded idealists. The Democratic party would do well to have more of them.
In his speech, Obama suggests the opposite. He directs his scorn at his own supporters, knowing full well that pleas toward the GOP will fall on deaf ears. But compromise by definition must be mutual. If one party refuses to compromise, and the other party accepts a deal anyway, that's capitulation. Obama has a right to expect compromise, but by making Liberals the target of his frustration - by singling out "purists" on the left as the source of legislative impasse - one has to wonder who we're compromising with.
The truth, as plain as day now, is that Obama can't compromise with the GOP. They're unavailable. They'd rather deny Obama victory than provide legislative gain for the American people. Obama has two choices at this point: 1) he can play hardball, and activate a grassroots campaign against the GOP's tactics - perhaps forestalling some successes, perhaps achieving more than he has; or 2) he can capitulate, as he did with the indescribably irresponsible new tax cuts for the superrich, and hope that history judges him kindly, as the guy who got things started. Clearly our President chooses the latter.
In this grand(iose) scheme, Obama sees progressive activists as the enemy because they threaten his ability to capitulate, i.e. to pass legislation. For all of Fox News' bluster, the GOP has to be delighted with Barack Obama. He's prolonged two major wars while showing no reluctance to begin a third; he'll be forcing 30 million Americans to buy health insurance from the same wretched companies responsible for the mess; he wrote ungodly checks to the world's top financial firms (a few based overseas) with absolutely no strings attached in order to rescue "Main Street"; and now he's secured additional tax cuts for the mega-wealthy. Sure, Wall Street may threaten Obama from time to time - but that's only to keep him check. They gotta love the guy.
And the flattery is working. Obama seems shocked - shocked! - that folks might be disappointed with his capitulations. His tone is: "Are you serious? I've gotten so much done for you people! How can you not appreciate me? You think you could've gotten the public option? Keep dreaming!" The ungrateful Left angers Obama because we're off message; we say he's a weak president. Apparently, he doesn't get that a lot. Those in Washington, DC -those in power - heap praise on Obama, assuring him that everything he failed to do was impossible anyway.
The President's been outsmarted time and again. Nonetheless, it's astonishing for him to lecture Democrats about compromise. For the last fourteen years the Democratic party has made one major compromise after the next, beginning most artfully with Bush vs. Gore. (Remember the fury over Bush's inauguration?) If any party needs a lecture on the merits of compromise, it's the GOP. But Obama knows they aren't listening. He's not asking us to compromise with them. He's asking us to compromise with ourselves.