Dear Liberals: Stop Complaining

Obama isn’t Captain Liberal. He’s the president. And liberal pundits who are up in arms about the fiscal-cliff deal seem not to recognize the difference. By Michael Tomasky.

01.03.13 9:45 AM ET

Here’s my New Year’s resolution: I’m going to read less liberal grousing about Barack Obama. At the moment, we have a number of critics of the deal Obama just cut with the Republicans to avert the fiscal cliff. They make some fair points, about the deal and about Obama. But if there’s a style of criticism that really bugs me, it’s that which reproves him for failing to be Captain Liberal while refusing to recognize that the guy has to be Mister President. Here’s what I mean.

The standard liberal position in the run-up to the cliff deal, or at least a position taken by a number of prominent liberals, was that Obama should have let the country go over the cliff, because he’d immediately have more leverage after Jan. 1. Taxes would go up, the argument went, most of the country would blame the Republicans, and boomity-boomity-boom, they’d come crawling to Obama ready to sign a deal on his terms.

I will readily confess that the logic is, if not impeccable, only mildly peccable. The Republicans would have been over a barrel. Of course predicting what those people will do and how they’ll respond to any given situation is risky business, but presumably they would not have wanted to be blamed for middle-class tax rates going up, so they’d have done something vaguely rational.

I get it. But here’s what I think proponents of that argument don’t get. Obama isn’t some co-speaker. He’s the effing president. People want the president to lead. They may blame Republicans more than Democrats for obstruction, and that’s a good thing. But they still want the president to Get Things Done, and, however naively, they still think he ought to be able to just assert his will and Get Things Done.

There is, in other words, a responsibility that comes along with being the president. It may be unfair, but the leaders of the House and Senate can play all the silly games they want to. Half the country or more doesn’t even know who they are. But the president—he’s supposed to do stuff. Obama really and deeply understands this—perhaps to a fault, but better that than believe he only has to represent the third of the country that loves him.

Sometimes acting out the jobs of Captain Liberal and Mister President can be done in harmony. But sometimes not; in fact, I’d say most often not, given that this is not an especially liberal country. So Mister President Obama was absolutely right to make every effort to hit the deadline. To your average person, failing to hit it would have been a terrible reflection on him, and an explanation from him about his increased leverage would have just sounded like more game-playing.

Relatedly, I’ve been amazed to read, sometimes from people I’ve considered quite knowledgeable, that Obama held “all the cards” here. He didn’t, by a long shot. This was a negotiation. Negotiations are hard. The other side wants exactly what you don’t want. Like it or not, liberals, the other side legitimately represents 47 percent of the country, so they had every right to get something out of this. And as it happens the other side also had the ability to block anything from happening. And they would have, too, if Obama had given them half an excuse.

As a matter of fact, think of this. If Obama had done what these liberals wanted and sent any signals as the New Year approached that he was ready to go over the cliff, the House Republicans would have publicized that, and then, if we had gone over the cliff, Obama would have shared the blame. It was Obama’s strict, good-faith adherence to the deadline that helped shift all the blame to the Republicans, and that is what made them play ball.

Now let’s talk a few of the specifics in the deal. First, how much does it really matter whether the revenue level for the higher tax rate is $250,000 or $450,000? I’d have much preferred the former, but the important thing is the principle. If he had to give a little ground on the amount in order to get the Senate Republicans to shake hands, so be it. It’s a shame the temporary payroll-tax relief will come to an end. This is the item liberals are most upset about, because it was a form of stimulus, and about the only stimulus Obama is going to get. But even Hill Democrats didn’t want that extended. What was Obama supposed to do?

The biggest complaint, given voice by Paul Krugman and Noam Scheiber among others, is that the recent negotiation basically showed that Obama is weak and too anxious to get a deal and will thus be steamrolled by the GOP in March into accepting steep budget cuts because he wants to avoid default.

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I have tremendous regard for Krugman and Scheiber, but I don’t agree. Obama has negotiated with the Republicans four times now—the December 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts, the spring 2011 government-shutdown threat, the summer 2011 debt-ceiling talks, and these recent cliff negotiations. On three—all but the summer 2011 talks, which were a fiasco—he came out looking pretty good. Now, it’s unfortunate that the one on which he didn’t do well involved the debt ceiling, the locus of the upcoming talks. But he vows that he’ll be tougher this time, and I take him at his word. He’s gotten a lot done, he got himself reelected when lots of people thought he couldn’t, and I say he’s earned a little bit of my trust. We’ll see.

I also think that “Obama is going to sell us out” columns somehow help make that eventuality come true. At the very least, they establish a tone and mindset that rank-and-file liberals imbibe and accept. Liberals should certainly pressure Obama to do as many liberal things as he can, but we should also recognize that he’s not the leader of a movement—he’s the head of a country. And he’s actually helped change the country pretty dramatically.

An earlier version of this story said the extension of the Bush tax cuts occurred in December 2009. It took place in December 2010.