It was a rare moment in the annals of presidential history. The president of the United States stands before the microphones to discuss a budget agreement he had reached with the opposition party. The deal they cut keeps the government functioning, eliminates the prospect of government shutdowns, tells taxpayers and investors the rules by which they will be held to as they make important financial decisions for the coming year, and gives the lame duck Congress time to act on other items to which the president says he awards a high priority, like the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (an action that would allow gays to serve in the military without concealing this part of their identify).
One would think such a president would openly celebrate such a development. Such a president might even have used the event as the occasion to build new and positive relationships with his Republican negotiating partners, who will run the House of Representatives come January and have the capacity to block initiatives the administration proposes during the remaining half of his term. On two successive days this week, Obama revealed that he is not such a president.
Students of Abraham Lincoln, which Obama surely is, would not characterize his scripted and off the cuff remarks as his “malice towards none” moments. Rather than praise his Republican opposites for concessions they made (on renewed unemployment benefits, a resurrected estate tax, among others) Obama likened them to hostage-takers. Clearly that was not a line intended to win friends and influence people. (Dale Carnegie would not have understood.)
As he has done often in the past, Obama, especially when he strayed from his text, let his audience know what he was really thinking. (Give Reagan this, he not only stuck to what was on his index cards. He was also disciplined enough to commit his lines, many his own creation, to memory, “just in case…”)
Obama made clear that he does not like most other politicians and that he considers many of them his intellectual and social inferiors. He holds a special contempt for the Republican leaders with whom he has had to deal. In his mind, perhaps, their collective characters are just a cut above those of hostage takers. History will record that he has shown more willingness to engage and negotiate with real hostage takers in North Korea and Iran than with the GOP-at least until this week. In a strange turn of events, Obama, through the condescension he showed the young congressman at what was to have been a budget summit last winter, did more to raise Rep. Paul Ryan’s national profile and more to make bring Ryan’s “roadmap” toward deficit reduction a reality, than anything Ryan or the GOP did on their own.
It is truly remarkable that Obama chose to bite the hands that may have just saved his presidency. Should the economy show signs of recovery by 2012, voters and pundits will credit the president for what ensued on his watch. Should this come to pass, the president, should he be re-elected will find it all but impossible to return to the class warfare line of argument he made for two years straight. It may be this, even more than the manner in which Obama first slighted and then lectured his “progressive” base that has liberal Democrats so upset.
American history is full of examples of presidents breaking with their respective bases in order to advance what they thought to be in the national interest. Jefferson ignored his fellow partisans’ “strict constructionist” objections to the Louisiana Purchase. (The Constitution is silent of the acquisition of territory in this way.) Lincoln could never move fast enough to satisfy the abolitionists. FDR annoyed his leftist flank when he brought the very business leaders he had castigated as perpetrators of greed into his administration as dollar a year “win the war” government planners. Reagan ignored the “let Reagan be Reagan” crowd when it came to domestic matters and stared them down when movement conservatives who lionize him today proclaimed that the old man had gone gaga in his infatuation with Mikhail Gorbashev. Obama appears to have gone one further than all of these presidents combined.
Liberals will be forgiven if they, as Obama says, were unrealistic about what might be achieved in Washington under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. Did he not promise to change the way things worked in Washington? If not, what was the “change” theme of his campaign about?
It was not all that long ago when Obama and Democratic progressives were willing to use each other. Obama sensed early on that his only chance of wrestling the Democratic presidential nomination away from Hillary Clinton’s grasp was to snuggle up to left-leaning activists, fed up Clintonian “third ways” and “triangulations.” They pined for the “old-time Democratic religion” of class warfare, income redistribution, distrust of the private sector, higher taxes, and higher regulations. Obama was more than willing to give it to them. Two years into his term, he now appears in their eyes as but just another Chicago politician.
His fall from grace with his base began with his keeping open Gitmo, which he promised to close; his increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, from which he had promised to disengage and quickly; his abandoning the single payer path to healthcare, and his permitting lobbyists from the financial industry to write a law intended monitor and curb abuses. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
To some on his left (and some on the right) Obama’s policy reversal more closely resembles George H. W. Bush’s abandoning this “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge than it does Bill Clinton’s belated moves to the center. Clinton, they say, bent, but only after prolonged showdown, carefully crafted to convince his base that he was all that protected them from unchecked Republican rule. By yielding so much ground without even putting up a fight, Obama, like the elder Bush, comes across not only as weak, but cynical. Seen in this light, his admonition to his supporters at his latest press conference was reminiscent of Bush's "read my hips" response to a question about his violating his "no new taxes" pledge.
So, Obama ends the year with the Republicans happy with the results of his compromise, and Democrats furious at their leader for appearing to have sold them out. Not a good position to be in.