12/22/2010 03:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Silent Night in America

"And so this is Christmas. And what have we done?"

John Lennon's question hangs in the air this frustrating year.

For liberals, the answer is "Not nearly enough." For the conservatives, it is "Way too much." For the putative guy or gal on the street, it is "Would the both of you please get a life."

Bemoaning the supposedly never satisfied "professional left," the Obama Administration has trotted out its litany of accomplishments as the year closes -- health care reform, financial regulatory reform, a wind down in Iraq, analysis (at least) on Afghanistan, a second stimulus, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Elena Kagan and the soon to be passed START Treaty. This has been book ended by a number of ostensibly conservative columnists like David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer praising the President for compromising on extending W's tax cuts and governing "to the center," the always touted sweet spot of American politics.

This is a more than a fair list.

American federalism requires any would be reformer to navigate his way through a minefield of competing regional and ideological interests. The consequence is that progress is generally incremental and always messy. The attacks on Obama, from the nutty birthers to the angrier Tea Partiers, are not particularly different from what was visited upon FDR in the '30s, the civil rights activists in the '50s, or LBJ's attempts at a Great Society in the '60s. Put simply, going to a rally (or tuning into Limbaugh) and calling this reasonably progressive President a socialist or a communist is obviously the screamer's right and may make him (or her) feel good.

But it is not remotely original.

Nor is it particularly accurate.

Whatever else may be said of the reforms wrought by Obama, socialism they are not. The health care reform jettisoned a proposed public option in favor of an individual mandate and delayed the advent of state based insurance exchanges and the elimination of exclusions for pre-existing conditions until 2014. This will allow the insurance companies to pare their rolls and raise their rates long before these de facto monopolists ever have to worry about the competition exchanges are supposed to create. Similarly, on the financial front, the elimination of proprietary trading by Wall Street's enormously conflicted investment bankers carries with it six loopholes through which creative lawyers will easily steer the Goldman Saches of the world. My favorite is that the ban does not extend to foreign entities, more or less inviting the creation of off shore repositories for all that proprietary money.

The problem, therefore, is not socialism.

It is ineffectiveness.

And that is what has the progressives worried.

The fact that Obama was able to wrestle a second stimulus from the GOP by agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years is a testament to his political abilities. Whether that second stimulus comes to pass, however, is an entirely separate question for which the answer is in serious doubt. To stimulate, the payroll tax cuts, small business tax breaks and extended unemployment compensation payments must actually create a net increase in demand (there will be no increase whatsoever from preserving the Bush era tax rates, which are the rates everyone is already paying). Once the GOP takes over in the House, however, they will beat the drum on deficit reduction and the conservatives in the Senate will help them along. If they cut enough elsewhere. and they certainly want to, they can suck any of the incremental gains created by Obama's eleventh hour tax compromise right out of the economy. The only thing that could stop them then would be an Obama veto.

Which Brooks and Krauthammer won't report as governing "to the center."

So, we have a health care reform that gives insurance companies two years to stack the deck, a financial regulatory reform that invites investment banks back to business as usual, and a tax cut compromise that continues to explode the deficit with no real guarantee that its good parts will create their intended results. It is great that we are ending the unmitigated hypocrisy that allowed gays and lesbians to die for their country so long as they never told us who they slept with. And I am counting on Elena Kagan.

But I still do not have a good answer for John Lennon.