A progressive's answer to Obama

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"This country was founded on compromise," remarked the president toward the end of last week's tax deal press conference. "My job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there." Perhaps Barack Obama is right to define his job that way. But in light of the negotiations that led up to this claim, it's hard to see what he has done to truly illuminate that North Star.

There is no question, in a political system warped and broken by corporate money and lobbyists, that a president intent on achieving "victories for the American people," as he described them, would require a sense of pragmatism, and a willingness to accept the compromises that, at times, will flow from it.

But too often, this president is so singularly focused on seeking common ground that he fails to define his - and our - principles. The tax cut deal is just the most recent example. Obama began those negotiations telegraphing his endgame, with eyes set unwaveringly on resolution. He chose not to passionately articulate his values, or to define the GOP's, and in the aftermath of the battle, he refused to explain where it's all meant to lead us.

This, he might conclude, is a minor complaint from a dismissible left. But the truth is, without a president who is able - and willing to - lay out a clear, strong and principled argument, without a president who will stand up for the ideals he ran on, even as he seeks resolution, the progressive worldview becomes muted, and the conservative worldview validated.

Obama has reinforced the notion, not by compromise but by relative silence, that we should fear changing tax rates in a time of economic crisis, even when economists of all stripes tell us that tax cuts for the wealthy offer extraordinary cost and zero benefit to the nation. He speaks most passionately not while lambasting a Republican Party that would drown the middle class on behalf of the wealthy, but when criticizing the left for not offering support at a time when he doesn't deserve it. Because he rightly expects the worst from the far right, he seems to have lost his sense of outrage toward them. The left, in turn, receives his overcharged and misplaced anger - suggesting an equivalence between the two when, in truth, there is none.

The fact is, there is no monolithic left of the type Obama imagines. That a number of progressive economists are supportive of the tax deal is, in itself, proof of that reality. There are few on the left who expect unwavering ideological purity, few who reject the notion of compromise at any time. Most of us understand the structural limitations of our political system and the need to achieve what is possible.

I met Obama once - when he was a candidate for president. On learning that I was editor of the Nation, he said to me, "The perfect is the enemy of good." Perhaps he expected me to disagree. I don't.

I don't disagree with the need to find balance, the need, at times, to compromise on policy. What I disagree with - and what I will never shy away from criticizing the president for - is his willingness to compromise on principle. Real leadership might require compromise, but it cannot be defined by compromise.

It must instead be defined by a clear vision for the future, and most important, a willingness to defend it. It should be focused not on what is possible but, instead, on the most that is possible; not the path of least resistance but the path of maximum potential benefit. That path doesn't trade away a federal pay freeze or a public option or more stimulus dollars for too little - or worse, for nothing. It doesn't begin with a willingness to relent.

A more aggressive stance from the president might not have substantially changed the contours of the ultimate tax deal, but it would surely have changed the narrative. It would have defined the Republican stance as morally indefensible.

Real leadership, too, should not be about merely accepting that you have popular support. It should be about mobilizing that support. "The fact of the matter is the American people already agree with me," said the president at his press conference. But he did not - and perhaps cannot - explain why he refused to use their support as a point of leverage.

These next two years present a daunting challenge. Once the new Congress is sworn in, any legislative movement forward on the progressive agenda (if any is possible) will require some form of compromise with an increasingly loathsome opposition. This is not a reality lost on any of us. But if reaching those compromises means a continued berating of the left, a continued lack of outrage toward the right and a continued willingness to strike deals without defining principles, then in the end, the president may well find himself with a modest list of achievements, a deeply demoralized base and a party that seemingly stands for nothing.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post.

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