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Restiveness on the left

Liberals to Obama: no more Mr. Nice Guy

This is a greatly expanded, revised, and updated version of my latest print column


There are noteworthy rumblings of discontent on Barack Obama’s left flank. Liberals in his own party can’t understand why the guy who racked up more votes than any presidential candidate in history, the guy who posted the biggest Democratic victory in 44 years,  nevertheless seems so eager to placate the Republicans whom he so recently – and deservedly – banished to the political wilderness.

Liberals – or, as they prefer to be called these days,


– can’t understand why Obama keeps chasing the “post-partisan” dream despite the reality that Washington remains a pit of vipers, and that every time he reaches out to opposition members, they treat it as a sign of weakness and use the opportunity to stiff him.

Obama may not be interested in playing hardball, but Republicans certainly are. That’s what they do, and two successive electoral thrashings will hardly change their nature. And when their de facto leader speaks, they fall into line. For instance: Rush Limbaugh, on his Jan. 28 show, coined the term


as a synomym for stimulus; within hours, Republicans and their followers were dutifully invoking



In other words, while Obama in his early weeks has seemed so focused on wooing the people he defeated, on somehow winning their approval of the economic recovery package (fat chance), he might be well advised to pay more attention to the people in the Democratic base who got him nominated and elected. They’re already restive.

Rachel Maddow, the left-leaning MSNBC host, wondered the other night: “Is it really that important to bend over backwards to try to make the Republicans in Congress happy right now?” That’s the polite way of putting it. After Obama excised family-planning money from the stimulus bill, to mollify Republicans who were railing about “contraceptives,” feminist Katha Pollitt said it was “bewildering that he sacrificed low-income women’s rights and health in a vain bid to woo antideluvian right-wing misogynist Republican ideologues who will never, ever vote his way.”

And after the Senate forged a compromise deal last Friday night on the recovery package – by (among other things) slashing the money for job-creating school construction, slashing proposed federal aid to the beleaguered states, and putting greater stress on tax cuts that won’t sufficiently stimulate the economy – liberal commentator John Nichols faulted Obama for being too passive. Nichols wrote in The Nation magazine:

“These (compromises) are the fruits of bipartisan fantasies…President Obama, who should have been on television addressing the nation and doing everything in his power to rally support for a sufficient stimulus plan, will be lucky if he gets anything by the President's Day deadline he set.”

Paul Krugman weighed in this morning, condemning the compromises in The New York Times: "I blame President Obama's belief that he can transcend the partisan divide - a belief that warped his economic strategy...He let conservatives define the debate, waiting until late last week before finally saying what needed to be said - that increasing (government) spending was the whole point of the plan" to boost the economy.

I heard some of these concerns the other day, when I lunched with Mike Lux, a Washington strategist who, in a previous life, worked in the Clinton White House as liasion to the liberal community. He has a new book, The Progressive Revolution, which argues that America typically changes for the better only when progressive reformers are bold enough to defeat conservatives in partisan battle.  He sees the same opportunity today.

"There is no such thing as 'post-partisanship,'" he insists. "Conservatives are going to oppose progressive policies, period. If that's the way they want to play it, that's OK…Our problems right now are so big that Obama is going to have to go with more progressive, bolder, unconventional thinking. At the end of the day, he won't have a choice."

Lux and his brethren, of course, are pleased with many of Obama's early moves – particularly his executive orders on Guantanomo, labor, civil liberties, and abortion rights; and his signing of new laws that expand children's health insurance and make it easier for working women to sue for sex discrimination. There were also murmurings of approval late last week, when Obama finally hit back at the Republicans, in a series of venues, by pointing out that a record number of Americans "went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change," and that the surviving Republican lawmakers are trying to peddle "the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis."

(Indeed, now that budget-busting George W. Bush is gone, GOP lawmakers have suddenly dusted off their old small-government rhetoric – even though their rhetoric doesn't fit the current crisis. Yesterday, for instance, GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada insisted on NBC that the states don't need federal help because their budgets are "bloated." Classic denial. In the real world, the recession has precipitated deep budget deficits in 43 of the 50 states;  34 states have responded with deep cuts in education. Nineteen governors, including the Republican governors who run Florida and California, have signed a letter pleading for the federal aid that Ensign and his Senate GOP colleagues deem to be wasteful.)

While liberals are rooting for Obama to hammer the GOP over the stimulus package, they remain wary of Obama's priorities on other fronts. The president has wobbled on his campaign pledge to speedily revoke the Bush upper-income tax cuts. His foreign policy team is comprised of people who voted for the Iraq war. He has decided to postpone lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military until the military fully assesses the policy's likely impact on discipline – thus prompting at least one prominent blogger, John Aravosis, to suspect that Obama might renege on his campaign vow and instead perform  "a major and devastating flip-flop."

Indeed, even before Obama took office, he named so many centrists and Republicans to the Cabinet that another noted liberal blogger, Chris Bowers, lamented: "Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?"

The big liberal concern today is that Obama may again decide to indulge the GOP partisans who think it's just fine for the federal government to spend upwards of $1 trillion on a war in Iraq that was predicated on nonexistent WMD evidence, but who consider it a scandal to spend the same amount to confront an economic crisis at home (and who have a vested interest in thwarting Obama's priorities, because a successful recovery plan tailored to those priorities would doom them indefinitely to minority status).

It's not unusual, of course, for Democratic presidents to get heat from their left. It happened to Clinton, as Mike Lux well remembers. It happened to Jimmy Carter. It happened to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was frequently tagged by the left as overly timid. But liberals today are hungry after long years in exile, and their technological reach is certainly stronger than before.

Lux said: "With all the online capability, with the blogs, progressives can push much harder than they did during the Clinton years. They can push Obama with the speed of light. This president won't have as much rope as Clinton did. It's also because of the desperation of the times, because people are so scared (economically) about what might happen. He's going to have to respond" to that pressure – on a broad range of issues, from universal health care to goodbye, Iraq.

And what's the point of Obama sweet-talking the Republicans when they clearly prefer to fight? Consider Texas congressman Pete Sessions, who chairs the GOP 2010 election operation. Last Wednesday, he publicly shared his party's credo for good governance in these perilous times: "Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes."

He said it, folks. The Taliban.

With Republicans likening themselves to the Taliban, it's no wonder that liberals have little faith in Obama's "post-partisan" ideal. Author/commentator Robert Kuttner argued the other day that the ideal is dead, and "good riddance...Obama's real challenge is to mobilize public opinion – not just to win general approval ratings, but to make it very hard politically for anyone in either party to oppose his recovery program…That's what leadership is all about."

Indeed, Obama may soon decide, however reluctantly, that there's no point in extending a hand to a foe who won't unclench his fist.