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.
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