If there's anything good about Matt Bai's most recent piece, it's this brief summary of liberal disappointment with Democratic presidents:

Of course, Mr. Obama is only the latest in a long line of Democratic presidents, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, to disappoint the liberal wing of his party and to at least hear rumblings of a challenge. In 1960, the hipster John F. Kennedy represented for liberals something similar to what Mr. Obama embodied as a candidate; two years later, the writer Norman Mailer acidly concluded that Kennedy stood for nothing but the pursuit of power, “without light or principle.”

Both Johnson and President Jimmy Carter faced liberal primary challenges when they stood for re-election: Mr. Johnson because of the Vietnam War and Mr. Carter because he was deemed to be ineffectual in advancing liberal ideals. Bill Clinton’s stances on issues like free trade and welfare reform similarly infuriated the left, though he managed to avoid a primary.

Presidents face so many constraints and limits, that even when unabashedly liberal, they are bound to disappoint supporters on the left. That said, progressives should keep things in context when they rage against Obama for capitulating or "selling them out." FDR interned the Japanese and cut deals with white supremacists to make the New Deal policy. Truman was a foreign-policy star, but his domestic achievements -- with the noted exception of military integration -- were comparatively modest. Kennedy and Johnson began and accelerated our descent into Vietnam, and Carter was small-bore and ineffectual with a hawkish streak. And, as Bai notes, Clinton governed from the center-right for most of his presidency, giving liberals NAFTA, welfare "reform," and a nice dose of timid hyper-incrementalism.

Between the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and financial reform, Obama is easily one of the most progressive presidents of the postwar era, even with his dismal record on civil liberties. What's more, his concessions to the right are a lot less significant than ones made by Clinton or Carter. Of course, as I've said before, liberals shouldn't stop their criticism. There are plenty of times when skepticism is warranted and pushback is deserved (indeed, this tax-cut deal might be one of them). Still, as progressives continue to launch into Obama for betraying them or failing liberalism (two very different things), I can't help but wonder what they think success is supposed to look like.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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