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What Progressives Want From Obama's State of the Union Address: Fighting Words

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An editor asked me a simple question: What do progressives want from President Obama when he delivers his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night? I'm no spokesperson for the left. But here's my hunch: fight.

The first two years of Obama's presidency have yielded mixed feelings among many of his supporters. He succeeded in scoring big legislative victories with his stimulus package, the health care bill, and the Wall Street reform law. But these initiatives all were marked by compromises that disappointed progressives. The stimulus bill was too small; the health care legislation did not include a public option; and the Wall Street measure was not as tough on Big Finance as it could have been. Moreover, Obama failed or fell short on other top-priority items for progressives: He didn't shut down Gitmo; he expanded the war in Afghanistan; and he didn't pass a climate change bill or broker an international accord with strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions. (On the hooray side: START ratification and "Don't ask, don't tell" repeal.)

In many of these episodes, progressives saw Obama toiling hard but not fighting fiercely enough. On health care, he spent much time courting a few Republicans who ended up not helping the bill pass. At the same time, Republicans and conservatives pummeled Obama, falsely calling the bill a "government takeover" of health care and decrying "death panels" that did not exist. It did not seem a fair face-off. Regarding the recovery package, Republican leaders asserted that the measure did not create a single new job. That was not true. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has stated that the stimulus measure saved or created up to 3 million jobs.) The Obama White House did try to talk up the success of the package. But what infuriated progressives was that the president and his crew were not able to punch back in kind. Facing Republican obfuscation, obstruction, and prevarication, Obama and his aides, perhaps trying too hard to be reasonable and responsible, kept losing the narrative wars. The president was slogging it out on Capitol Hill, but not confronting the right-wing attack machine with sufficient might.

This was frustrating for Obama's loyalists. And the grand climax came with the tax cut compromise Obama struck with the GOPers last month. As a candidate and as a president, he had pledged to oppose extending the Bush tax cut bonuses for the well-to-do. Then -- poof! -- he was hailing a package that included this extension (while still proclaiming his opposition to that provision). It again appeared as if the president had not been willing to slug it out with the other side.

The compromise might have well been the best Obama could have achieved, and it ended up as something of a second stimulus, including plenty of measures -- such as extended unemployment benefits and additional tax cuts for middle- and low-income Americans -- that progressives could cheer. But because the public tussle had focused almost entirely on the tax cuts for the wealthy, the final deal reinforced the concern that Obama was not tough enough. The Obama administration had screwed up its messaging. It had never signaled publicly that it was attempting to force the Republicans to accept these other provisions, which were larger than the tax cuts for the rich. Had the White House done so, then the initial media coverage and liberal reaction to the deal might have been different, with Obama coming out a winner, or, at least, a quasi-winner.

Progressives will be listening on Tuesday night to what Obama has to say about policy matters -- Social Security, job creation, Afghanistan. They will be quite sensitive to any hints that he's willing to follow the suggestions of deficit hawks on Social Security and budget cuts. (In this speech, Obama will continue his tightrope walk: hailing government efforts to keep the anemic recovery going, while calling for a path toward balancing the government's books.) But most of all, they will be looking for signs that Obama is willing to battle the conservative and Republican forces that politically outmaneuvered him this past year.

Sending out that signal may not be easy. In the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, Obama has called for uplifting the public discourse. He also needs to woo back those fickle independent voters, who like it when he talks about transcending partisan bickering -- and when he actually does so (as he did with the tax cut deal). These folks don't yearn for bare-knuckles brawling in Washington. So if Obama wants to rev up lefties and win over indies, he will have to thread a needle. He could well decide to disappoint the libs for the time being and appeal to them later, perhaps during the fights with the GOP that are expected to emerge over budget cuts and extending the tax-cut extension for the rich.

During the State of the Union address, Obama will probably do what most presidents do: cover a laundry list of accomplishments and present a shopping list of policy initiatives. In those details, there will be much for progressives to applaud. But tone will trump specifics. The overarching question many progressives have about Obama, I'm guessing, is this: How vigorously will he fight the newly empowered Republicans for what we believe in? On Tuesday night, they want to see him flex.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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Rob & Kathy

It really doesn't matter what progressives want to hear. They are really pretty irrelevant at this point....

January 24 2011 at 9:15 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I'm not a republican but an independent who is thoroughly disgusted with the political and media elite.What many in the media are failing to take into account when they slam the republicans is that they were not apart of the legislation created for the last two years as the democrats in power totally disregarded any input what so ever. We ended up with terrible legislation loaded with unintended consequences as it was not properly vetted. Good legislation usually comes from a compromise between liberal and conservatives when they work together. We independents were promised if we gave the power to the democrats that they would work for us, they would reach across the table and take a bipartisan approach, legislation and the process of creating legislation would be transparent, and most importantly there would be an end to fiscal irresponsibility and they would work on reducing the deficit. As soon as the democrats got the majority, most of them became arrogant and went into business for themselves. They treated any of us that dared to try to remind them of what they promised as well as our opposition to the the terrible legislation they were churning out while all but hanging from the rafters to get our voices heard, with thinly veiled contempt and proceeded to call us names and marginalized us in order to silence our opposition. The new reality is that unless these politicians wake up realizing they work for us, that the American people are not stupid and do not need our government telling us what we should have because we are too stupid to know what we want, we will vote every last one of them out regardless of party. We need to vote out all political elites who arrogantly believe they are a privileged class as they sneer at us little people they forgot they work for! We do not have a class system in this country and we will no longer tolerate this bunch of blow hards behaving like aristocracy.

January 24 2011 at 9:38 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

.....government tends not to solve problems, only to rearrange them...........rr

January 23 2011 at 11:41 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Sunday, January 23, 2011
Imagine....watching Obama and his administrations efforts to grasp reality is akin to watching whirling dervishes howling with rabid wolfs. Imagine a stimulus bill that has been judged an absolute failure by any and all economists not in the pocket of the progressives.

Imagine....a so called health care Bill which will lead to catastrophe health care and financial ruin in America, which is in the process of being repealed by fastidious congressional lawmakers who are not tone deaf, regarding the will of the folks, at last count 57% of American voters cast a disapproving vote for all those not in step with their will, electing lawmakers that will read this abysmal 2,000 plus page bill; written and crafted during the midnight hours under the light of the moon, by lawmakers with a specific agenda who managed to include their specific language and clauses, with not a thought aside from their own ideology.

Imagine...talking tough regarding the shenanigans of Wall Street while looking the other way when witnessing the shenanigans of the likes of Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd who continue their progressive actions and thoughts regarding their adopted playthings, Freddie Mac, Fanny Mae and AIG.

Imagine....words like; obfuscation, obstruction, and prevarication being used by the likes of a righteous David Corn, who in his daily efforts to improve his station in life, has no trouble in his continued efforts to marginalize any and all not in agreement with his and his ilk’s notion of a progressive America, talk about whirling dervishes and howling with rabid wolfs....WFR

January 23 2011 at 8:01 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

So while progressives pitch a fit over the right's alleged inflammatory remarks, they want Obama to start using more "fighting words?" Can you say hypocrites?

January 22 2011 at 2:25 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

Help me understand, Mr. Corn: Progressives first complain that government has failed to act properly, then call for ever more government. I think I'd go the other way

January 22 2011 at 12:14 AM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply

Progressives want him to do to the speaker of the house what he did last year to the SC Justice.

January 22 2011 at 12:02 AM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

Look at what happened: Three important pieces of legislation got passed in the lame duck session and the approval ratingS for both the president and Congress went UP!!! The majority of Americans will reward a spirit of compromise and getting things done. If the president seeks more of that in his SOTU speech, he will get another bump in the polls. That would put Congressional Repubs in a bind; i.e. if they join Obama, their approval rating will also go up, but NOT with the "no compromise" members of the Tea Party groups. This is going to be an interesting address from a number of perspectives, not the least of which is whether Obama uses it to box Repub's into more moderate behavior. Let's see what happens.

January 21 2011 at 10:42 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to puzzleguy1's comment

It's a totally new and conservative congress puzzle guy. Of course the approval ratings went up.

January 22 2011 at 2:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

Looks like the furthur Obama moves to the center the more his approval rate goes up. Hmmm...

January 21 2011 at 9:49 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment

Yea, who wants do gooders? America's right wing devoutly loves evil doers and hopes that some tiny bit of good accidentaly comes out of the evil that is American conservatism.

January 22 2011 at 5:52 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply

All I can say about Progressives is "Yech". Progressives doesn't equate to the noun progress. Progress actually means a forward motion or advancement to a higher goal. An advance or a steady improvement. A progressive is a person or person(s) who want so much progress to happen so fast that it is inconceivable for the actual good to work for those around them, i.e. angry left wingers. Of course, no one looks back on history as a critical factor here like I am doing. In Bush's first term, Republicans felt the same way about George as well. Too soft when it came to dealing with the Democrats. Granted he didn't do much, but he was able to ride the war on Iraq into a 2nd term. Obama is doing the same thing. He realized after awhile that even though he professed to go in and change Washington in 4 years, that was not going to happen. Washington will change how you think after you try that and not the other way around. So Obama realizes that even though he's not getting many ideas from the Republicans and only confrontation, for him to have a chance he's going to have to give in somewhere. He pulls off a win-win extending the Bush tax cuts, while being able to extend the unemployment. So it will be interesting to see whether or not Obama stays his course for 2012 or does he give in to those on the far left, frustrate the public some more with Obamacare, etc.? If he's smart, he'll go with the majority.

January 21 2011 at 9:34 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

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