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.