November 29, 2010, may be remembered as the moment when progressives stopped giving Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. Some had long before, of course, whether because of compromises during the health-care reform debate, his continuation of Bush-era policies on civil liberties, or what some see as his obeisance toward Wall Street. But his announcement of a pay freeze on federal workers -- a move that managed to simultaneously validate a half-dozen disingenuous conservative arguments, make government service less attractive, harm the economy, undermine the progressive vision of government, and give Republicans a concession without getting anything in return, all while doing virtually nothing to address the problem Obama claimed to be attacking (the deficit) -- feels like a tipping point. Every president disappoints his supporters eventually, but it's hard to recall one who went through such dramatic swings so quickly.
From the moment Obama emerged on the national scene, his ability to weave a compelling narrative around himself and his candidacy was one of his greatest strengths. As I argued back in 2006 (and elaborated on in 2007 and 2008), Obama brought context to the debates of the moment and established himself as the vehicle of our national deliverance. We should not allow the despair of the moment to make us forget the extraordinary accomplishments of the past two years, which included a stimulus that was comprehensive, if too small, financial reform, student-loan reform, the saving of the auto industry, and above all, the passage of the Affordable Care Act. But two years into Obama's presidency, a new story is being written. It's a story of failure, mounting frustration, and the loss of hope. The administration no doubt sees the spread of this story as deeply unfair, but it is resonating more and more with those who were once his most ardent supporters.
The story that sustained him for so long -- that Barack Obama was a unique figure who could bring us together as a nation -- is failing. To understand Obama you have to understand this story, because it is woven into his political and personal DNA. The belief that reasonable people of either party can come to an accommodation is simply part of who Barack Obama is and always has been. This was evident in his pre-political life; he became editor of the Harvard Law Review at a time of vituperative ideological warfare at Harvard Law in part because even though he sided with liberals, conservatives felt that he listened to their concerns and treated them respectfully.
But there comes a point when a politician needs to take a cold, hard look at reality and consider the possibility that what he is doing is not working. For a long time, I defended Obama's propensity to "reach out" to Republicans, arguing that it was strategic even if unrequited. Where Obama miscalculated was in the apparent belief that Republicans would pay a price for their obstructionism. But after setting records for filibusters and presenting a unified front of recalcitrance, they were rewarded with one of the most smashing midterm election victories in American history. Ask Republicans if they have an intention to change their ways as they look to 2012, and they'll laugh in your face. Why should they?
So now it has reached a point where Obama looks less like someone who is hopeful and magnanimous, and more like someone who is not only being played for a sucker but -- far more important -- is also unmoored from a discernible core of conviction. Progressives are now asking themselves anew what he really believes, who he really is, and whether they should invest their trust and hope in him. Obama could argue, for instance, that he had no choice but to give up the public option in order to pass health-care reform, and most progressives will believe him. But you can't make that case when you give up something for nothing.
That's what happened on the federal pay freeze, and the administration is poised to follow it by giving Republicans the permanent extension of tax cuts for which they've been yearning. Progressives, meanwhile, are revisiting all the times they've been frustrated with Obama for making concessions before negotiations begin. Like the time he offered a stimulus bill that was one-third tax cuts in the hopes of gaining Republican support (he didn't), or the time he offered an expansion of offshore oil drilling in the hopes they'd come along with cap-and-trade (no dice). When asked by a reporter why the president keeps giving things away before negotiations start, spokesperson Robert Gibbs replied, "The president makes a series of decisions that he thinks are in the best interests of the country -- not as a bargaining chip or a bargaining tool but because it was the right thing to do."
Perhaps -- though I dread the thought that Obama had always believed that freezing the pay of federal workers was a great idea. Even if that were true, failing to use it as a bargaining chip means that Obama gave up whatever he could have gotten for it. As Paul Krugman wrote last week, "It's hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama's measure -- that they're calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it's also hard to escape the impression that they're right."
During the 2008 campaign, whenever a dip in the polls caused hand-wringing on the left, people would e-mail each other a photo of Obama delivering his convention speech, captioned, "Everyone chill the f--- out. I got this." Just after the election, Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner said in an appearance on ABC's This Week, "Every time I second-guessed Obama in the campaign, he was right, and I was wrong." That sense -- that Obama knows exactly what he's doing -- is what progressives have lost.
So what can save them from their despair? If nothing else, Sarah Palin can. Or more properly, the 2012 presidential campaign, when once again the country will be consumed with a contest between Obama and one Republican, a Republican whom progressives will find repellent, no matter who he or she is. Campaigns don't involve compromise or concession. They are clear binary choices, in which candidates say, "I'm right about everything, and my opponent is wrong about everything." There is only one decision to make, and it's one without ambiguity. A decision you can feel good about. And the campaign will be starting any day now.