The Obama You Voted For

It shouldn’t surprise us when Republicans hold the UI extension hostage for billionaire tax cuts. While the last thing any sane president wants is to cut off four million Americans right before Christmas, it is exactly the sort of un-governing the oligarchy has paid Republicans to do.

But why didn’t Obama fight? the left asks. If he didn’t get in someone’s face, that’s because no one has done it in Washington since LBJ. But the answer is that he did fight: in fact, Obama fought harder — and in a more personal way — than he ever has before.

Not that it seems to matter. House Democrats are rebelling, and for all the hoopla around yesterday’s press conference, the choke point for billionaire tax cuts was always the House of Representatives. Which is my point. Just read:

Many seem to have forgotten that it is the House, which must originate tax bills, that last week voted by a 234-188 margin to limit the extension of the Bush tax cuts to families making less than $250,000 — Obama’s original campaign pledge.

Speaker-to-Be John Boehner denounced the vote as grandstanding “chicken crap,” but, being the legislative veteran that he is, he understood its procedural significance: It meant that whatever the Senate produces must come back to the House for another vote. (Emphasis mine)

This whole mess begins with a party in disarray, not a president. Despite the Democrats being still in charge for a few more weeks, the midterm verdict looms large. Robert Parry attempted to remind us before the election:

The thinking seems to be that the loss of the congressional majorities will punish the Democrats for accepting half-measures and compromises on issues from health care and financial reform to job stimulus and war. The Left’s hope apparently is that the chastened Democrats will then shift toward more progressive positions and be more assertive.

However, modern American political history tells us that this strategy never works. After the four key elections in which many progressives abandoned the governing Democrats – in 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 – not only did Republicans take U.S. politics further to the right, but the surviving Democrats tacked more to the center and grew more timid. (Emphasis mine)

But there’s no sense of this in the left’s online and cable coverage. While surveying the damage from Teh Cave-in™ last night, I found Oliver Willis giving voice to the general reaction:

If President Obama is doing what is within his power to depress his base vote and give the Republican party a new lease on power, well he’s doing a great job at it.

Republicans got their “new lease on power” November 2nd. DADT repeal may still meet with obstruction, but there will not even be a discussion until this issue is resolved. The same is true of START, which has new life and is really really important. They both take a back seat, though, to keeping a safety net under four million Americans. Oliver, whose stock (like mine) fell considerably with the utter failure of netroots this cycle, continues:

If his goal is to be a strong leader and a great Democrat, he’s failing miserably at it.

2010 was a repeat of 1994 and 2002, when all the force of moral good on the side of liberalism can’t overcome a Democratic party that simply will not fight.

I’m not just picking on Oliver here. There seems to be a general confusion that needs clearing up: Obama doesn’t run the Democratic Party. Indeed, Democrats generally don’t like strong leaders, and liberal leadership vacuum is not original to the White House. Why did it take One Nation so long to come together? If it seems there’s no fight in the party, then we’d have to admit the movement is damn near lifeless. To be a “strong leader,” one needs followers — and Democrats are anything but that. Oliver again:

If he continues on this path, and nothing – absolutely nothing – has shown me otherwise, he’s setting himself up to replicate the Democratic losses of 1980 and 1984 no matter who the Republican nominee is.

I’d say the same for everything and everyone standing left of Obama today. This cycle saw failure of movement and failure of party; failure of president is the least of our worries. Oliver again:

We sent him to Washington to stand up and fight. Instead he’s cowering and retreating.

This is what I find most bizarre about yesterday evening’s coverage across the ‘sphere. People say they want Obama to fight; I have heard it a lot. He used more martial language in his presser yesterday than I’ve ever heard from him. His attitude is very different than one year ago. So what’s with negative headlines about a “combative” Obama? Isn’t that the Obama they voted for?

The fact Obama did hold a press conference is revealing, because he hasn’t done a lot of them. My fellow Banter blogger Chris Weigant, who has made note of this fact more than once, pointed something else out last night:

The White House was criticized (by me, as well as others) during the endless healthcare reform negotiation, for not putting some skin in the game. Obama and the West Wing folks seemed content to sit back and let congressional Democrats have all the time in the world to (quite publicly) have a fight among themselves. The White House never took control of the process at all, instead remaining content to nudge Congress every so often with bland “Gosh, we’d sure like to see some progress” sorts of statements, or vague “goals” issued with no specifics attached. The process took forever, as Democrats haggled among themselves almost endlessly.

Now compare what just happened. At the start of the lame duck Congress, Republicans were presenting a unified front. Democrats, as usual, couldn’t even agree on a single plan in their own caucus. Two competing plans emerged (actually more emerged, but two made it to the top of the heap). Nancy Pelosi got the House to pass one of these fairly quickly, and then (reportedly) the White House pushed hard on Harry Reid to hold a vote on the top two plans in the Senate, as a “test vote.” Both of these only managed to get 53 votes — they couldn’t even get all the Senate Democrats to support either one of them.

After showing they didn’t have nearly enough votes in the Senate, and facing an absolute brick wall from Republicans, the White House sat down and (fairly quickly) hashed out a final deal with the Republicans. Congressional Democrats didn’t even enter in the equation, if truth be told.

Which is my point. This deal was worked out in almost exactly the opposite fashion that Obama has been operating for a long time. Instead of deferring to Democrats in Congress — in the hopes that they will get their act together, in some period of time less than “forever” — Obama led the negotiations. These negotiations were carried out with remarkably few leaks, and a deal was struck which is actually a lot better than was rumored just hours before it was announced. The conventional wisdom floating around inside the Beltway was that Obama was going to get a short extension of unemployment benefits, and not much more. But the plan announced was far more sweeping, meaning perhaps the White House negotiators are better than people generally think they are. Obama got a lot more than anyone was willing to give him credit for beforehand, and he did get some concessions from the Republicans in doing so — which nobody really expected. (Boldface mine)

The president’s style has changed. Everyone who complained for two years that Obama didn’t take charge of Democrats and wasn’t angry enough can stop. They now have the Obama they say they voted for, and well may it profit their agenda.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/I3GA2D4GVO6AKPBIU6ZZLBFMTM Annette

    Thank You Matt, I have been trying to figure a way to say this. I blame the Congress with this problem much more than I do the President. He wanted this vote to take place BEFORE the elections and no one wanted to do that because they were afraid of a rout.. well guess what….

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  • http://www.politicalruminations.com nicole473

    You said exactly what needed to be said, Matt. Members of the so-called progressive leg of the Democratic Party need to grow up, and get their act together.

    If they don’t do this fairly rapidly, if they primary Obama, they will cost us 2012, and worse yet, they will enable a conservative, a conservative emboldened by the Bush years, and the disarray of the Democratic Party to take us even further to the right. We can’t afford that. Much further right and we will have to eliminate Godwin’s law.

    And yeah, I found it hilarious, and ridiculous, that after all the raging crap about wanting Obama to fight! to get loud, they are now acting as though he did something wrong, even though he gave them what they said they wanted. Bunch of damn babies and morons if you ask me.

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  • http://twitter.com/marklainer Mark Lainer

    Excellent piece, Matt. I also don’t think the problem is with the President and that he made the best deal he thought he could get. And I certainly think it would be idiotic to primary him. Dems need to focus on Congress (and on State offices, though that ship has sailed for the moment). What I still wonder, though, is which Democrats objected to a vote on tax cuts before the election. Everything I’ve read suggests it was the more centrist Blue Dog Dems who resisted the vote, since they thought it would hurt their reelection chances, and Reid and Pelosi gave in to them. In the end, many of these same Blue Dogs lost, even though they’d opposed the health care bill and/or ARRA. I’m also sure that many Dems in Congress and Democratic strategists will take the message from this that the Democrats need to be more centrist, but, and I’m probably wrong about this, I agree with Bernie Sanders that this will be the first of many times that the GOP holds safety net legislation hostage to their agenda and that, when this agreement expires in two years, the GOP will hammer any attempt to return the tax rates to their pre-Bush levels, and will also characterize the return of the payroll tax to its previous level, as tax increases. Then what? The deficits will be higher and the GOP will slash every safety net program they can, perhaps finally achieving their goal of “starving the beast.” I don’t know that there’s any answer to these problems. The President promised not to raise taxes on any family making under $250K a year, the economy is growing, but at a glacial pace, and the only hope is increased revenues from a more rapidly expanding economy and I’d guess that this agreement is the best shot at that. But a plan that raises taxes on families making under $40K a year (violating the President’s pledge, but only to those who don’t have much voice in the political system) and that has the long-term perils that this plan has, is disquieting.

  • Marion

    Truth be told, the Progressives don’t like the fact that this Obama doesn’t “know his place.” They wanted the angry black man, they got him – and the didn’t like it one bit. For a group of people whose icons use blackface mock-ups of Democratic politicians (Jane Hamsher) and constantly refer to the President in stereotypical black terms (Bill Maher), they seem almost racist to me.