Barack Obama, you might say, is a very good man who is just not turning out to be a very effective president. And he makes a serious misjudgment if he thinks that it is just the liberal base of the party that is disillusioned both with the deal that he cut and with his leadership skills. Centrists like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are every bit as dismayed at the agreement Obama made -- a deal that increases the deficit by some $900 billion in a fashion that is both inequitable (too much to the top) and not very efficient as economic stimulus.
It was nothing short of astonishing to see Obama, at his surprise press conference Tuesday, with harsher words for members of his own party than for Republicans. It is the Republicans, after all, who have been blocking his efforts, wall-to-wall, while liberal Democrats have been his staunchest if often exasperated supporters.
Also rather surprising was Obama’s misreading of his own incrementalist beliefs into the history of Social Security and Medicare. It’s factually incorrect, contrary to the president’s assertions, that Social Security began as help for “widows and orphans.” The basic provisions of Social Security, as a retirement benefit for workers, was right in the original 1935 legislation. The first retiree began collecting benefits in 1939, a necessary delay while the program accumulated funds. And Medicare, despite Obama’s misunderstanding of its history, was legislated as a full-blown program of health insurance for the elderly in 1964.
Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson won Social Security and Medicare not by splitting the difference with the right but by fighting for these landmark protections, in Congress and in the court of public opinion -- protections that Obama seems on the verge of compromising away.
Why are Democrats so disheartened? It’s not that they are sanctimonious purists. It’s that Obama, time after time, lets himself be rolled. His negotiating style is to compromise even before the negotiations start.
Take the freeze on federal wages. It plays to Republican ideology that government and public employees are a major problem. The freeze will yield only a few billion dollars of deficit reduction while reducing purchasing power in a recession. And Obama got nothing in return.
Or consider the deficit commission, which Obama stacked with appointees who are opposed to most of the core Democratic Party beliefs. Why did he need to appoint this commission at all? Why not appoint a commission on how to bring about a recovery? The deficit commission only reinforced the conventional wisdom that the deficit is a bigger problem than the recession. It painted Obama into a corner, where the test of his resolve becomes whether he will cut such core (and very popular) Democratic programs as Social Security and Medicare.
The proposed deal on the Bush tax cuts sets the Democrats up for their next defeat. As a stimulus plan, the strategy is pure Republican -- nearly all tax cuts and no public investment. Then, after Jan. 3, the Republican House can pronounce itself aghast that the deficit is suddenly $900 billion bigger, and demand that much and more in spending cuts. The deal doesn’t extend to the next budget resolution.
The New York Times' Matt Bai cited me as one of those spoiling for a primary fight to topple Obama. That’s not quite what I’ve been writing. Mainly I have been reporting what I’m hearing -- that the idea of mounting a primary challenge, unthinkable before Nov. 2, is suddenly being openly discussed by former Obama supporters. This is not because such people are purist or sanctimonious but because the prospect either of Obama and the Democrats suffering an epic defeat in 2012 or Obama squeaking through to re-election and being remembered as the Democrats’ Herbert Hoover are equally unpalatable.
The first-best would be for Obama to respond to the Republican bluffs by being reborn as Harry Truman, not for him to be displaced in a primary fight. That seems unlikely, and his remarks about the Democrats -- his own party -- suggest that he plans to govern in coalition with the Republicans rather than as a fighter. Bill Clinton did that for a time, but Clinton was a far better politician. And if Obama continues in this vein, a primary challenge seems likely.
-- Robert Kuttner