Dec. 8 2010 10:28 AM

Obama just doesn't have much fight in him, does he?

Barack Obama
Photo by David Rolland
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama seduced us liberals by, among other things, eloquently ridiculing the “Bush-McCain” plan to continue to funnel money into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. It was a campaign pledge to end the tax cuts for the rich and to focus on the struggling, shrinking middle class.

He was so good on the stump. He convinced so many people that he was different. At the very least, his considerable gift of gab would surely give his policy proposals a boost when congressional vote counts were tight and campaigning in this district or that one would persuade a politician or two to come along. Or so we thought.

How ironic is it, then, that persuasive communication has turned out to be Obama's weak suit?

He was largely unable to overcome Tea Party-style hysteria by articulating a strong case for sweeping healthcare reform and wound up with relatively mediocre insurance reform. And this week, it took extending those tax cuts, which were so easy to mock, in order to extend unemployment benefits for 2 million out-of-work folks.

How can this be? He had the public on his side: A majority of Americans favored his proposal to extend the tax cuts for most people while letting the cuts for those making more than $250,000 expire. He had economics on his side: Putting money in the pockets of people who have no choice but to spend it would do far more for the economy than to continue to give rich people more money to sock away. He had politics on his side: His party controls Congress, for heaven's sake, and the Republicans' desired policy outed them as hypocrites—they campaigned on debt reduction and yet their precious tax cuts are a major contributor to the skyrocketing national debt.

Thanks to the tax cuts, President George W. Bush squandered a budget surplus and spent his way to the worst deficit in the country's history. This was Obama's chance to reveal the GOP's position as indefensible and harmful and guide the nation down a reasonable path: Continue the middleclass tax cuts to help struggling families and the ailing economy, target tax breaks at small businesses so they can hire new workers, help recently unemployed people get by a little bit longer, but still get some debt relief by letting tax cuts for those who don't need them expire. It's freakin' ideal!

But, miraculously, Obama lost the fight. Or, if you're thinking like frustrated liberals such as Congressmember Anthony Weiner of New York, who criticized the president for always punting on third down, he barely suited up for the fight.

It's true that Obama got some public good in the proposed deal announced on Monday. In addition to the unemployment benefits, it includes tax credits for low and middle earners, plus lower payroll taxes for all workers and business deductions for new investments (the Republicans, meanwhile, also got a huge hike in the tax threshold for estate transfers, shielding rich people further).

Obama said Monday that the tax cuts for the wealthy won't last longer than the two-year extension because, in the interim, he'll speak frankly with the American people about how the country can't afford them. But how will 2012 be a better environment for that conversation than 2010? It could be worse, in fact; if the economy improves—and it has nowhere to go but up—the Republicans can say, “See? Look how tax cuts for all Americans are good for the economy.” And they can paint Obama as a tax-hiker if he dares to let the lower rate expire for the high earners.

Some liberals are calling for someone to challenge Obama from the left in 2012, but that would force the president to spend a bunch of money in the primary. And pushing him leftward early in the campaign would give the Republicans ammunition as they aim for centrist independents in the general election. And Obama would be far and away a better option than whatever right-winger emerges from the GOP primary.

Still, we can't help but empathize with the livid liberals. Watching the minority Republicans dictate the terms of debate has been extraordinarily painful. The view from here looks awfully gloomy—a far cry from those bright, sunshiny days of November 2008.

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