Tuesday, December 7, 2010

President Obama: Visible mostly in surrender

Fascinating press conference today from Barack Obama.  His comments at the end about purists were, from my perspective, absolutely correct, substantively. 

The truth is that there are a lot of people who just don't accept that the President of the United States can want something, fight for it, fight effectively and correctly, and still not get it.  If it doesn't happen, it must have been -- in Obama's words -- a "betrayal."  Those people are wrong.

Jonathan Bernstein's comments above made me realize that part of my problem with President Obama is, indeed, optics: the president has been very visible in compromise and surrender on liberal priorities. He's been a behind-the-scenes player when it comes to actually fighting for those priorities.

President Obama spoke with frustration about last year's fight over the "public option" and how he doesn't get credit for health reform on the left because of the lack of that option. The problem is that *I don't remember seeing him fight for the option.* For much of the yearlong healthcare debate, the president let Congress take the public lead and wrestle with the issues. When he emerged to make the case for a health reform law, he quite explicitly signaled his surrender on the option. Liberals never got the sense he fought and then compromised. All we really saw was the compromise.

Again on taxes: Obama ran for president promising to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and end them for the rich. And he made, in my view, a persuasive case for that approach. But in recent months, as the clock ticked toward midnight, the president wasn't very visible in making the case again and now. He became most prominent, at the end, when he was showing frustration and disgust with the deal he himself had signed off on.

Behind the scenes during the fight. Visible during surrender and compromise.

Combine that public face of leadership with Obama's seemingly pre-emptive concessions on offshore drilling and freezing the pay of federal workers, and the overall impression President Obama gives is that he's most comfortable in accommodation mode. If the president wants the respect of the "professional left," he's going to have to show early, persistent and visible leadership on some issue that's dear to liberals. We might even forgive him if he compromises a bit in the end. But we want to see him fight.

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