Watching Barack Obama's press conference yesterday, it's obvious he's genuinely frustrated that he doesn't get more credit from progressives for accomplishing things progressives ought to cheer about. But there's an easy way he can get more credit from the base: Try not to insult them so much. When you reach a compromise, make a case for it that 1) is based in progressive values, and 2) doesn't immediately segue into bitching at progressives for not being happier about it. I suppose it's possible that he thinks there's strategic value in showing everybody he's willing to beat up on his supporters by calling them "sanctimonious" and complaining that they don't give him credit for anything. But it's hard to see how he'll get all that much benefit for that, since most people in the country's broad middle will barely notice it. He did, however, go a long way toward alienating progressives.
Here's the thing: Telling people they're being ridiculous is just not an effective way of persuading them, even if that's what you believe. When he said, "This is the public option debate all over again," it was a double insult. He meant to say, "This is yet another case where the left is being totally unreasonable." They got that message, which would have been bad enough, but it also had a second meaning for them: This is just like that other time I betrayed you.
Even if you think progressives put too much importance on the public option, the fact is it did become invested with a lot of meaning. When it got jettisoned, people were very disappointed. The fact that Obama thinks they shouldn't have been disappointed doesn't mean they weren't. So bringing it up the way he did just poured salt in the wound.
The people who are unhappy about this compromise (and others) could certainly do more to explain why the alternative path they support would in fact produce results. Obama assumes that there were only two alternatives: the compromise he reached, or a principled stand that resulted in defeat. It's possible that a principled stand could have produced victory, but you'd have to make the case for exactly how that would have played out. Nevertheless, it's reached a point where you begin to question whether Obama actually wants the support of the progressive base of the party, or if he figures that they have nowhere else to go in 2012, and they're more useful to him as a foil than as allies.
-- Paul Waldman
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