Guantanamo Bay is still open. There is no public option for health insurance. Gay men and women cannot serve openly in the military. Obama has 50,000 troops in Iraq, and more troops in Afghanistan than George W. Bush had on his last day in office. The Patriot Act was renewed with no added oversight of surveillance. You still can't buy reimported prescription drugs. And if Obama's latest deal becomes law, Bush's “tax cuts for the rich” will continue.
And there's nothing liberals can do about it.
Obama's tax deal this week caused a furor on the Left because it violated his promise during the campaign to let the higher tax rates return to Clinton-era levels. While the progressive backlash has visibly upset the president — he scolded his critics in a Tuesday press conference, and out of nowhere, brought up his failure to get a public health insurance option — the liberal discontent will probably have minimal tangible results, for two reasons: Obama's self-regard and the Left's tendency to accept half a loaf.
There's also the frustrating fact that Obama is the liberals' president. The New York Times and Washington Post stoke talk of a primary challenge from the Left. Pundits throw around the names of Howard Dean and Russ Feingold. But this is typical baseless speculation by the media. Obama is the most liberal politician who could be elected in 2012.
Is there other leverage the Left could apply? The Progressive Change Campaign Committee tried to shame Obama into standing firm on his pledge — effectively a “Read my lips, YES new taxes” moment — but that just seemed to get Obama angry. Obama's fuming press conference Tuesday recalled earlier blowups at his base, such as when press secretary Robert Gibbs cursed the “professional Left.”
Liberals are getting a taste of what conservative critics saw close up during the 2008 campaign and the health care fight: Obama's intolerance toward dissent, perhaps rooted in a personal arrogance and too much self-regard. His personality leads him to call names and question critics' motives, and it also makes him bristle at outside pressure.
“He knows he kicks ass, and he doesn't need any other validation,” one liberal former Obama administration official told me this week.
When his base disagrees with him, then Obama apparently believes it's because they're too “purist” or too “sanctimonious” and just don't appreciate the political realities of compromise and negotiation.
But it's exactly on the score of Obama's bargaining tactics that Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, chides the president. “He could have won the public option, he could have won this [tax] fight, if he was simply willing to step on Republican toes, hold them accountable to their constituents, and actually have the fight.” Green thinks Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown could have been picked off on taxes had Obama fought harder. “He didn't fly to Maine. He didn't fly to Massachusetts.” He charges Obama with political “malpractice.”
Already, however, the Left appears to be calming down and getting behind their man. Liberal blogger Ezra Klein — as is typical of the young progressive set — has endorsed the White House's deal as imperfect but worthwhile. MSNBC host Chris Matthews (who bristles at being called a liberal, but certainly plays one on TV) scolded the “loud Left” for picking on Obama.
It's not that the Left is servile, but that they know incrementalism works for them. Obama knows this, too. At his press conference, he referred to Social Security's growth from a modest program at its birth. His message: Chill out; we liberals always win in the long run.
Green thinks compromise has short-term political costs, though. “President Obama's lack of fight during his first two years left many of his own supporters uninspired to go out and vote in 2010,” Green theorizes. And the same thing could happen in 2012.
But listening to Obama, you don't hear a “lack of fight.” In fact, he regularly sounds like a schoolyard bully. This week he said of Republicans that “tax cuts for the wealthy … seems to be their central economic doctrine.” This is just a class-warfare slur, considering Bush's 2001 tax cuts actually made income taxes more progressive than they had been under Clinton.
But this is his style. He reamed out the “Wall Street fat cats.” He accused his health care critics of serving “those who stand to profit from the status quo.” Obama and his surrogates slimed Obamacare protestors as “manufactured mobs.”
To use a basketball metaphor, liberals want Obama to throw elbows, but the president prefers talking trash. As 2012 gets closer, count on his liberal critics to stop booing and rally behind the Democratic team.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.