In the wake of President Barack Obama’s premature capitulation in the tax wars to the Republicans -- a party who I might remind you controls neither congressional chamber at this moment (they will take over the House in January) -- once-muted
December 21, 2010


In the wake of President Barack Obama’s premature capitulation in the tax wars to the Republicans -- a party who I might remind you controls neither congressional chamber at this moment (they will take over the House in January) -- once-muted criticism of the Commander-in-Chief on the Left has suddenly erupted into a full-scale flurry of condemnation.

There have been calls for other Democrats to primary him in 2012, jeremiads that Progressives should have been treating him as an adversary, and a feeling on the Left, put into words by a Congressman (Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York), that Democrats "can’t trust him."

So you could say it’s been a somewhat bad month for the president - although that might be akin to saying the guys attending South Carolina's "Secession Ball" will only be missing some of their teeth. The president has not only caved on eliminating budget-busting tax cuts for people who have toilet plungers more expensive than your house, but has backed off long-delayed (but promised) environmental regulations to govern smog and toxic emissions from industrial boilers.

He also negotiated a new Korea Free Trade Agreement that isn’t free from deleterious affects on American workers, enacted a freeze in pay for federal employees for reasons nobody can figure out, and was ready to listen to recommendations to cut Social Security from a committee of rich, irrelevant Beltway primates so old they look like they should be starring in Weekend at Bernie’s 3.

This turn of events would probably explain why in a new McClatchy Poll, President Obama’s approval among liberals has fallen from 78% to 69%, while his disapproval among self-described Democrats has nearly doubled, from 11% to 21%.

That Obama doesn’t have much of a stomach for a rumble as president, this much many liberal commentators can agree upon. Yet, perhaps for political reasons, or maybe due to the glorious rose shade the passage of time can deliver to one’s glasses, many have looked admiringly back to a moment that never existed to call on Obama to be someone he never really was.

A Fighter.

Recently, I have read essay after essay asking Obama to "return to who he was during the campaign." To stand up strong to GOP bullies! To bring us back to the glory days when he rode through the badlands of a never-ending campaign and apparently had the fortitude and purpose of General Sherman on a scenic gallop through Georgia.

Now, it's true he took stronger positions during the election, but that was simply a rhetorical exercise. It is also true that he was a much better communicator back then, one with an actual message. But what many pundits and progressives are forgetting is that during those heady days of Campaign 2008, much like today, he refused to hit back when viciously attacked by John McCain. Then as now he saw himself as above the fray.

It was his Achilles Heel then, just as it is now.

In fact, that may have been the very reason that up until the world economy went splat in September of 2008, a presidential race that should have been almost impossible to lose, against a party whose sitting President was just slightly less popular than scurvy, was neck-and-neck. So much so, that a month before the big economic crash, Chuck Schumer , Democratic senator, offered a none-too-subtle nudge to Obama to start fighting back when he said, "when they say, 'he's not one of us,' you don't say, 'here's our plan on health care.'"

Democratic Strategist and Clinical Psychologist Drew Westen summed this up perfectly in an August 2008 (or pre-economic meltdown) Huffington Post piece:

Obama has a voice, and he has the microphone to say anything he wants anytime he wants to say it. But as his opponent "distracts" the media - and hence the public - daily with a relentless drumbeat about what's wrong with Obama - that he isn't strong, that he isn't American, that he isn't patriotic…that he is the most liberal member of the United States Senate, that he isn't "one of us" - what story has Barack Obama told that could possibly catch the public attention? That he has a slightly amended plan for dealing with the energy crisis? And what story is his campaign telling about why voters should worry as much about John McCain as they are beginning to worry about Barack Obama?

Why do I point all of this out? Because now is as good a time as any to be realistic about what the president is made of. There will be many battles over the next 2 years. If we are to analyse the problem, and what to do about it, we have to begin by acknowledging the facts.

In other words, when progressives and moderates decide how to confront President Obama's propensity for playing dead at the outset of legislative negotiations over the next two years, one might want to - for once - think like former Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense. "You go into policy fights with the President you have. Not the one you wish you had."

[Editor's note: This is Cliff's weekly column for Al Jazeera English.]

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