Obama Lost Democrats With Tax Cut Deal

Obama is acting more like the first Civil War Union general George McClellan, whom history does not remember well.


True to my reputation as a history muse, I see Barack Obama at this hour in a Civil War light—the chapter which carved out classic templates of American character 150 years ago, none greater than the sage realist Abraham Lincoln.

Yet President Obama's stand defending his Bush tax cuts "compromise" with Republicans—over the heads of his Democratic friends—has no shades of Lincoln's political sagacity. This is a bit ironic since Obama often conjured Lincoln as his moral compass on his journey to the White House. Now that he is actually governing a divided country in economic shambles, however, Obama is acting less like Lincoln and more like the first Civil War Union general, George B. McClellan. History does not remember McClellan well.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Early in the Civil War, McClellan made a great first impression on everyone because he looked the part of a West Point-trained general, a Napoleonic piece of polished brass as he drilled his troops over and over. The Army of the Potomac looked good to go out and conquer the rebellion, but McClellan was curiously diffident about confronting the enemy. His opening engagements in battle were not much to write home about, but Washingtonians (some of whom watched from picnics in the Virginia hills) trusted that the fate of the nation - the Union - rested on his shoulders.

Lincoln, the new commander-in-chief, wrote letter after letter imploring and ordering McClellan to keep up the fight in the field against Confederate General Robert E. Lee: to chase the Army of Northern Virginia. These letters were to little avail. McClellan insisted the Union army was vastly outnumbered by Lee's army. This turned out to be wrong. The truth was eventually revealed, that McClellan was afraid to fight Lee - also a West Point-educated general and a legend among his military peers. That was one reason the Civil War took so long.

That brings back us to Obama, who also seems to have no heart for a good fight to clear the air. As he made the deal with Republican leaders to keep the Bush tax cuts in place, he scolded and alienated friends in his own party. It was as if the new Congress had already blown through the door and he was trying to appease the Republican leadership, though the Senate will stay blue even as the House turns red in January.

[Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Bush Tax Cuts.]

But still I sense Obama is afraid of Senator Mitch McConnell, the hard-nosed Kentucky Republican and the Minority Leader. Sure, McConnell is scary as a sworn foe. But it's too bad Obama surrendered so much ground. Why should anything with George W. Bush's name on it be extended - like his tax cuts were so good for the economy. It's not all the money the Treasury will lose from those earning $250,000 or more and from enormously wealthy estates. It's a matter of fundamental fairness. There are scads of wealthy people out there who feel they need a Bush tax cut like McClellan needed to drill his troops some more. Like most Americans, they'd like to wake up from this fiscal nightmare in the wake of the Bush era.

In a stretch of days, Obama lost some true blue hearts and votes in what many see as the most pivotal turn of his presidency. The package will pass and may be hailed as a victory. Then again, McClellan won a battle somewhere near the stream of Bull Run.

To be strategic, Obama could have dared Republicans to vote against the benefits to the middle class and the jobless also in the package - but now it's all mushed together like so much gruel. To be smart, he could have framed ending the Bush tax cuts as restoring the progressive Clinton tax code- harking back to when we had peace and prosperity. Instead, he called back the man himself, Bill Clinton, to bless and give voice to his course. Clinton captivated White House reporters with his command performance and mastery over the details. He generously did not say that he knew how to stare Republican leaders down much better than this. [See a slide show of 5 reasons Obama is the same as Bush, Clinton.]

And who did he remind me of? The Commander-in-Chief, President Lincoln.

  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
  • See a slide show of 5 Reasons Obama is the Same as Bush, Clinton.
  • Read more coverage of the political stories of the year.