From the left’s perspective, the president has disappointed on issue after issue: No public option. No Gitmo shutdown. No end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
And, of course, last week’s down-to-the-wire budget deal included $38 billion in cutbacks for education, labor and health that Republicans demanded as the price of keeping the government open.
But now comes word that Obama “will throw his support behind the bipartisan effort in the Senate to turn the Simpson-Bowles plan into legislation,” says the WP’s Ezra Klein—based on the deficit commission he has largely ignored until now. And the WSJ reports that administration officials handling the debt-ceiling dilemma “now say they won't rule out linking an increase of the borrowing cap with cuts aimed at reducing the deficit—even though they'd prefer to keep the issues separate.”
Paul Krugman is appalled on the deficit-panel front: “By endorsing an already right-leaning document, Obama will of course define the center as being somewhere between the right and the far right.”
And the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait is incredulous about the debt ceiling: “I really cannot believe the administration is preemptively conceding this. If the House Republicans are not only able to hold up as bargaining chips things that Obama wants but also things they want too, then the Obama administration will have vastly less power then normal presidents, even presidents without control of one house in Congress. The pattern has been ongoing since last summer, when Republicans got to take the position that they favored an extension of the Bush tax cuts on income below $250,000, as did Obama, but they needed concessions in the form of rich people-only tax cuts, or else they'd block the tax cuts they claimed to favor. Democrats let them pull this off.”
So there are two streams of anger here: that the president is making bad deals, and that he’s a lousy poker player.
Let’s examine the evidence. Obama has been pursuing a centrist path since the midterms, positioning himself as a bipartisan dealmaker who is willing to work with the other side. He is cutting the budget in ways he would prefer not to, bowing to an altered political climate in which conservatives have the upper hand. It may make good political sense for Obama to cast himself as a born-again deficit hawk, but that stance—and the necessity of dealing with John Boehner’s House--has certainly pulled him to the right.
The political calculation here—and the mainstream media buy into this—is that Obama doesn’t have to worry about his left flank. He is the only chance the Democrats have for holding the White House, so he can afford to engage in triangulation. But that misses the danger of an enthusiasm gap among those who thought they were getting a true-blue progressive in 2008.
The president’s largely passive negotiating style is harder to decode. Whether it’s health care or the shutdown showdown, he seems to let the Hill slug it out, enter the game in the last two minutes and run a hurry-up offense. The problem with this approach, which is driving the left nuts, is that he is relinquishing the chance to set the terms of debate (even as he avoids the trap of Clinton-style micromanagement, circa 1994). So when he does weigh in and start compromising, he’s doing so from a starting point closer to the right.
Of course, this approach keeps him largely above the fray and does put points on the board. Health care reform is now the law, and the government didn’t grind to a halt. A CNN poll says 54 percent approve of Obama’s handing of the shutdown talks, compared with 44 percent for the Republicans.
At least in the case of Obamacare, though, the president did something remarkable: He got the legislation but lost the debate, which still reverberates today.
Slate’s John Dickerson says the White House expected the latest round of criticism: “The president and his aides made a tactical decision to be followers on the budget deficit. They chose not to put forward a plan to reform entitlements to bring down costs and decided not to embrace the findings of Obama's own fiscal commission. If the president had led in this way, say White House advisers, his proposals would have become a target, and nothing major would have gotten done. This obviously was also a political strategy. Bravery points don't help when the other party clobbers you for your bold proposals. (See also: health care reform).”
And Nate Silver says both sides are at an equal disadvantage in the debt-ceiling game of chicken because a default would devastate the economy and make all the leaders vulnerable to primary challenges.
Already there are signals that Obama’s Wednesday speech about the coming budget brawl will be mainly thematic, with only a few details, following a pattern in which the president leaves the negotiating to others. Obama’s liberal critics may be more interested in purity than pragmatism, but one thing is certain: They are not going to be taken for granted. And that means we may see a Democratic president heading into 2012 under assault from both sides.