For someone who is supposedly cool and detached, President Obama has triggered outraged and outsized reactions on both sides of the political spectrum in the last year. Conservatives loathe his health-care reforms; progressives hate his tax compromises.
It is true that the two signature laws have some things in common. Both were negotiated mostly through backroom talks, which alienated those left out and confused the president’s supporters. Both deals carry price tags that are hard for the average voter to fathom. Both will be debated for the next two years, as health care meanders its way to the Supreme Court and taxes continue to roil both parties through the presidential election of 2012. And both have been the subject of sensationalist and distorted politics.
But the extreme responses to both deals, and to a man who likes to think of himself as anything but extreme, tell us more about our politics than the politician at the heart of the action.
We live in a topsy-turvy political world. Democrats recently condemned a tax-and-benefits deal that puts more money into stimulating the economy than the vast American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. At the same time, Republicans are celebrating legal challenges to a health-care law that is officially budgeted to reduce the deficit by $143 billion over 10 years. Meanwhile, those same Republicans rushed to vote for a tax deal that will add $858 billion to the deficit over the same period.
It is the progressives, though, who seem most confused — about their president, about politics and about their own identity as Democrats. Many seem to want to climb back under the covers and pretend like the midterm election never happened. Others prefer to direct their anger, if not their grief, at the man in the Oval Office. Most seem unsure how to define themselves in a world without George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
One major Democratic donor told me recently that there was no way he would give or raise money for Obama after the compromise that extended the Bush-era tax cuts for two years. Of course, the donor was most exercised about tax cuts for people like himself: the wealthiest Americans.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I met some Howard Dean supporters (and yes, they still identify themselves as such) who were grieving not because of the Democrats’ midterm defeat but because they have had to let go of their idyllic notion about what Obama stands for. They would rather, it seems, have a liberal lion, growling at conservatives, than a leader willing to compromise to get things accomplished.
Part of the problem may be that Democrats have never really examined the president’s track record, which helps to shed light on both his political identity and his strategy.
Obama is above all a political pragmatist. In the Illinois Senate, he helped achieve the seemingly unachievable — making reforms to the death penalty — by winning over conservative Republicans, even as he alienated liberal Democrats (especially African-American elected officials from Chicago). One of the suburban senators who sided with him was a former state’s attorney called Ed Petka, who was such a fan of capital punishment that his nickname was Electric Ed.
On health care, it is no small irony that Obama should face his biggest legal challenge in the one area where he truly compromised his campaign position.
The individual mandate requiring most Americans to buy insurance or face a financial penalty was the only substantive point of argument between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton on domestic politics through the long primary battles of the 2008 election campaign. Clinton insisted it was necessary; Obama refused to embrace it. Once in the White House, Obama jettisoned his position — so doggedly defended for so long — to make the politics and economics work.
Progressives should not be surprised by Obama’s compromises, on taxes or any other issue. Instead, they should understand that Republicans have just made the biggest concession of all — not on taxes, but on their own successful strategy. After two years of denying Obama any claim to bipartisanship, and turning him into a freaky caricature, the GOP’s leaders have just placed him in the reasonable center of American politics.
From socialist to centrist in five short weeks since the election: The most extreme thing about Obama is how quickly the conventional wisdom changes.
• Richard Wolffe’s latest book is “Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.