The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
As President Barack Obama’s second year in office comes to an end, a bitter battle is under way among Democrats over whether he has broken his promises and sold out his principles, or merely made the kind of rational compromises that prudent leaders are required to make. Hurt, betrayed and surprised, some of his original supporters are now deriding him as spineless and weak, while others insist that his tactics allowed him to achieve all he possibly could have in today’s partisan political environment.
Passions are running high. Should he have held out indefinitely for the public option during the struggle for health care reform, or was he right to compromise in hopes of passing a bipartisan bill? Given his campaign promise to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison within one year, how could he have allowed Congress to thwart him so easily? In the recent lame-duck session, should he have let the Bush-era tax cuts expire entirely rather than allow them to be extended for people who earn more than $250,000 a year?
At its core, this is one of the oldest battles in the history of politics. Tensions between moderates and radicals, between pragmatists and purists, between gradualists and those who are unwilling to wait for change are an integral part of the democratic process going back to classical Athens and Rome. Whether a politician should stand firm for what he or she believes in or cut deals in order to lock in partial gains is both a moral question and a tactical one on which it is unlikely that everyone will agree.
It was certainly a familiar dilemma to Abraham Lincoln, who as an up-and-coming politician took a moderate stance against slavery, stopping well short of the position that the radical Republicans and abolitionists wanted him to hold — and that he himself appeared to believe in. Lincoln knew slavery was wrong — “I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel,” he wrote — but he had other, competing objectives that he was unwilling to sacrifice: He was determined to win elections, to work within the Constitution and, most important, not to push the Southern states too far and threaten the stability of the Union.
As a result, he adopted a series of compromise positions. In the 1850s, he opposed slavery’s westward expansion into new territories, according to Columbia professor Eric Foner, but declined to call for its abolition in the existing slave states. During the Civil War, he came out for a gradual end to slavery, with compensation for slave owners, which would have taken years to accomplish. Abolitionists had little patience for such positions.
According to an article by Henry Chu in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain face a problem similar to Obama’s. Joining the coalition has required them to jettison some of the purist stances they took as an opposition party in favor of practical actions and political compromises. As a result, they have substantially more say in running the country, but they have capitulated on certain long-standing positions and angered their base along the way. Among other things, they’ve signed on to a sweeping plan to cut spending and welfare benefits and have agreed to raise university fees. Is it worth it? All political leaders have to choose between principle and pragmatism at some point. What they decide often depends on their character and temperament.
Before making significant concessions, however, politicians should ask themselves several questions: Are they trading away core principles or merely short-term interests? Are they making concessions for honorable reasons or self-interested ones? Is the compromise, however flawed, an improvement on the status quo? Will it move the country forward, however slowly or imperfectly?
Obama has made some good choices and some bad ones. We praised him for his pragmatic compromises on health care, arguing even after all his concessions and emendations, it was still a bill worth fighting for. We reluctantly backed his tax-cut deal as well, although we had previously opposed extending the tax cuts to the wealthy. But we have criticized him for failing to show sufficient zeal in his efforts to close Guantanamo, and for seeming to allow political calculations to trump principle in his opposition to gay marriage.
Obama is who he is. He’s a politician eager to be re-elected, a liberal rather than a radical, and unquestionably a man more interested in getting things done than in making a point. We don’t expect to agree with his every decision. But leadership takes all kinds — the Sumners as well as the Lincolns; the dealmakers and gradualists as well as the idealists and radicals. Together, they make change happen. As the economist Robert Kuttner has noted, America’s great social justice movements — including those for abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights — have all been championed by radicals before being taken up and transformed into policy by moderates. That may not be the fastest way to make the world a better place, but that’s the way it works.
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