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Posted at 1:40 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Democratic presidents and the left

By Ezra Klein

Two readers e-mailed me in the past 24 hours with quotes showing the complicated relationship past Democratic presidents -- both real and fictional -- have had with the left. First up is a quote from Taylor Branch's book, "The Clinton Tapes," which recounts a contentious interview President Clinton sat for with Rolling Stone:

[Clinton] said Rolling Stone's founder, Jan Wenner, had come to the White House with author William Greider, a former Washington Post editor whose books included a populist critique of the Federal Reserve banking system. They had agreed not to discuss NAFTA because of Greider's implacable opposition, and the president said all went fine until Greidier brandished a photograph of a destitute-looking American to mount a sudden, dramatic attack.... Greider confronted him saying here is one of the countless poor people who looked to you for leadership -- you were their last hope. Now they feel utterly disillusioned and abandoned. Can you look into this face and name one thing you have done to help? Or one principle you won't compromise ? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for?

The president said he had replied in kind. "I kind of went off on him," the president recalled. He told Greider that he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the poor. He had introduce the AmeriCorps service program, which Rolling Stone had campaigned for, and established it into law. He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby. He had proposed fair treatment for gay soldiers. He was fighting for national health care, and more, but liberals paid very little attention to these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives or the opinions of moderates. They wanted him to behave like a dictator because they didn't really care about results in the world.... He said he had pointed at Greider to tell him the problem is you, Bill Greider. You are a faulty citizen. You don't mobilize or persuade, because you only worry about being doctrinaire and proud. You are betraying your own principles with self-righteousness.

Clinton took a breath. "I did everything but fart in his face," he concluded.

At least President Obama didn't resort to farting. The next example comes from a fictional television character, not a president, but it certainly resonates with left's current feelings about Obama:

I have been watching the first season of the West Wing, and one particular line from the episode entitled "The Short List," where faux-President Jed Bartlet is choosing a nominee to replace a retiring Supreme Court Justice, was surprisingly relevant to the current state of President Obama's relationship with his liberal base. The retiring Justice is upset with Bartlet's reluctance to back up the inspirational progressiveness of his campaign:

"You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow...I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat...And instead I got you."

This isn't to play down the real frustrations of the left, or of Obama. But there's some predictability to the frustration of a president's base when that president has to cut deals to get things done. And it wouldn't hurt for the president, who prides himself on his ability to empathize with others, to respond to that frustration with a bit more grace. As one political consultant wrote to me, "I wish [Obama] were as hard on the Republicans who are hurting the country as he is on the Democrats who don't want to compromise their principles."

By Ezra Klein  | December 8, 2010; 1:40 PM ET
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Next: Rep. Peter Welch: 'We don’t know whether we could’ve gotten a better outcome'


I believe we all understand that negotiation and getting things done requires compromise.

The problem with Obama is that he seems bad at negotiation and compromises away things he shouldn't. Adopting R talking points doesn't help - it weakens discussions with Rs, pisses off the base and does nothing to help with independents.

"I wish [Obama] were as hard on the Republicans who are hurting the country as he is on the Democrats who don't want to compromise their principles."


Posted by: fuse | December 8, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Really is there anything liberals like to do more than to complain about other liberals? At times they complain more about other liberals than the GOP! It is like Monty Pythons People's Front of Judea spiel:

"The only people we hate more than the Romans is the Judea People's Front" ~ People's Front of Judea.


Posted by: chrisgaun | December 8, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Once more with feeling:
The liberals are probably in revolt, less due to the substance of this deal but because of how it was agreed too.
As an example from health care. The final bill isn't perfect but is, as the President states, an historic bill. However, by throwing out the negotiating power of the public option up front, liberals are left feeling like they could have gotten more.
The GOP was holding out for the tax cuts for the rich. Any *reasonable* compromise means they get *some* of those cuts while the 'left' gets some of what they want. Perhaps you can call only 2 year extension of the rich tax cuts the *some* but I don't.
This deal gives the GOP what they wanted and more. What did they give up to get the tax cut for the rich? Per Rachel Maddow last night, many of the things the White House touted as GOP concessions were originally added in *to get GOP votes* in a previous bill (votes which never materialized anyway). Were the Dems really going to take away these things? (seriously doubt it) so they aren't 'concessions' the GOP made.
The President is also right that the Congress helped make this unpopular bed. That doesn't absolve him of his transgressions in getting this deal though.

Posted by: rpixley220 | December 8, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

As hard on Republicans as on his base? Obama did very nicely tie the tax cuts for the top 2% around their neck last night -- "that is their holy grail." Not to mention comparing them to hostage-takers...

Posted by: sprung4 | December 8, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

It's important to note that democrats are now stating nostalgia for the Clinton administration, while at the same time being pissed about DADT and not reimplenting Glass-Steagal. Progressives have fixated solely on the tax issue, but income disparity was terrible under Clinton, though not quite as bad as Bush. My point being that there are a lot of structural issues that I believe Obama is trying to address that are the result of 30 years of bad policy by both democrats and republicans, and fixating on discrete, shortterm issues is not helpful. Obama has two years to propose how he will address income disparity, along with other important issues. Oddly what no one is talking about is that Obama declared yesterday he wants this fight and plans to win it.

Posted by: DavidCEisen | December 8, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra, do you really think it's fair to suggest that Obama wasn't showing any "grace" in his comments to the Left? I'm not talking about the echo-chamber interpretations of his response (Greg Sargent called it an 'outburst'), but the actual video and transcript of the answer.

Giving people a straight answer, with lots of information, in an even tone doesn't pass as graceful anymore because it's not kissing up. If you spend a few hours on DailyKos, you'll see he's giving his alleged supporters much more consideration than they're giving him. Oh, and "sanctimonious" is nowhere near as harsh as calling them "hostage takers," which is how he described the GOP. Both descriptors have the merit of truth.

Posted by: fbacon2 | December 8, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I think it goes without saying that Obama has completely stolen the narrative on this issue now. If this deal passes, it will be the "Obama Tax Cuts". Almost no one discusses this in terms of the Bush Tax Cuts anymore, and it has only been about 36 hours since announcement of the deal. That's a breath-taking achievement if you ask me and it strengthens Obama's hand considerably going forward.

Posted by: willows1 | December 8, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Apparently I'm not enough of a progressive liberal because I didn't get insulted by his remarks. I don't know that he could have gotten anything better, but if I was one of the people standing in the unemployment line with my next meal or place to live up in the air, I'd be damn glad something was done. The Republicans have already proven that they don't care about the unemployed and I don't think they were going to blink. As for the MSM, too bad they aren't as brutal when questioning Republicans or actually just getting Republicans to agree to press conferences. I'm sure Sarah Palin's refudiation of his remarks will make the news with no substantive backgound from the press.

Posted by: JoyP | December 8, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

"I wish [Obama] were as hard on the Republicans who are hurting the country as he is on the Democrats who don't want to compromise their principles."

I wish my fellow liberals were as hard on the republicans as they are on Obama--in that they could call petition blog mobilise against THEM. The filibuster abuse has perverted our senate. I think fixing that really needs to be a priority in the first days of the new Congress. If we had had an up or down vote this and many other things would not be a problem.

Posted by: espell | December 8, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I am sorta glad Obama was able to get something out of the Republicans, the unemployment additions. But, again, many of us liberals want to see him at least bargain a little. Start high. Give less away. Make them pay for some of it.

What worries me now is Republicans will think they can blackmail the country again and again. The next time Obama should call their bluff. I don't think we would mind losing a fight now and then, if we had someone stand up for us. That's what we elected him to do.

Posted by: Darsan54 | December 8, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

He should have been harder on the Republicans, according to you? He already called them hostage takers and terrorists, comparing them by that to the people who drove the planes into the buildings. What worse can he say? That they are Hitler? That's next. I can't remember ever hearing a president talk in a public address about the other national party that way, smearing and demonizing them like that.

Posted by: truck1 | December 8, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree with those who say the real problem is not necessarily the substance of the deal, but rather the negotiation process that produced it. I've seriously wanted to ask the President if he ever took a course in negotiation during law school, because it doesn't look like it.

Repeatedly, he has taken a prime objective off the table before the negotiation even began(public option, federal pay, tax cuts for the wealthy), as well as sending signals in his pre-negotiation messaging that he was ready to compromise major principles. He seems to be assuming that he is negotiating with reasonable, rational people (e.g. his statement yesterday that Republicans will not put the full faith and credit of the US at risk by failing to raise the debt ceiling--in spite of multiple statements by many Republicans that they intend to do precisely that very thing to prove a point), and that his generous concessions will be met with equally generous concessions. Each time, however, he seems to be the only one making concessions, while the Republicans dig in their heels and come away with all of their prime objectives, and no major concessions. I'm highly skeptical that he will ever fight for anything because we haven't seen him fight for anything yet.

I understand legislative compromise and expect it (I spent 8 years as a legislative staffer in the state legislature). He's just not playing the game very well. I like him, but I'm highly disappointed in his performance. And I'm one of the independents, not part of the professional left, but I was offended by his attitude yesterday, and thought it was an inappropriate forum to vent like that, especially when he really should have been focusing on affirmatively making his case for why this deal is really the best he could get (did he even try to get a commitment on the debt ceiling, for example? with as much as this package would add to the debt, I'd have pushed back hard on that -- and have been prepared to walk away from the table to make my point). What came across instead was a wounded ego.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | December 8, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

truck1 - I'm a big fan of Obama, but I agree that he pushed the envelope a bit on what he said about the Republicans. I didn't hear him call them terrorists or really anything close to that, but the "hostage-takers" thing was pushing it. It is one thing for Michele Bachmann or Anthony Weiner to call the other side all sorts of nasty names, but the President isn't really supposed to do that. Somehow that gets lost among the Professional Left.

Posted by: willows1 | December 8, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Didn't FDR once say, 'Sounds like a good idea. Now make me do it'?

Posted by: leoklein | December 8, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I think the idea that Obama was harder on Dems than Republicans is flat-out wrong. As someone else already pointed out, he called the Republicans hostage takers and said protecting the rich is their holy grail. That is not going easy on them. Let's also not forget the many, many times he has called out Republicans. Let's not forget the time he took the entire party to task at their own meeting.

Secondly, this idea that Dems didn't deserve a lashing is lame. Dems have been calling him weak, a eunuch, a sell-out, Bush 2.0, etc. by people in blogs, on TV, on the radio, in my group of friends. Dems have been rude and disgusting in their slams on him and now THEY are mad that he called them on it?

I do not comprehend how his self-declared "base" can be unproductive, oppositional, and insolent toward him yet when he is brazenly asked what his core values are, he can't get pissed off. Angry liberals wanted a fight. They just didn't expect to see some of the fight directed at them. That's their bad not his.

The only people who need to "grow a pair" these days are the people who refuse to LISTEN to the reasonable points laid out by the President and now are pissy because he hurt their feelings. Ridiculous.

Posted by: jhw221 | December 8, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

OK fine. But let's add some context about what is happening NOW

Two short years ago we had a near-apocalyptic failure of a Republican Administration and a clear refutation of the core “conservative” dogma of the past 30 years.

Two short years later we have a Democratic President negotiating with a Republican party advocating even more extreme variations of those same “conservative” policies as if the political pendulum never stopped swinging in their direction.

Yes, Republicans in the Senate with a minority that represents a third of the electorate has leveraged the small-state/rural bias with procedural hackery into a virtual veto of all legislation and appointments . And yes, broadcast media has a default conservative framing of all issues that pundits and politicos routinely mistake for public opinion.

But Democrats hold political and demographic advantages on almost all issues with a majority of working productive Americans – if they choose to use it. That is what is so maddening, the pendulum has not stopped swinging in the Democrat’s direction. Their failure in the midterms is a result of not going to bat for their own constituents and Obama just doubled-down on that failure. He is negotiating with a wealthy minority as if they were the majority.

Posted by: BobFred | December 8, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Republicans: happy about this deal!
Democrats: generally unhappy about this deal.

But as everyone here points out, this must be a win for democrats! Clearly the president was able to negotiate a deal right in the center so everyone was equally happy/unhappy...

Posted by: goinupnup | December 8, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I wish my fellow liberals were as hard on the republicans as they are on Obama--in that they could call petition blog mobilise against THEM.

Posted by: espell

We did mobilize, and because we did, Obama is currently residing in the White House.

Posted by: Kevin71707 | December 8, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

If the president's great stimulative move is continuation of the same tax policy that has the unemployment rate hovering near 10% after two years, and he has to negotiate a lower estate tax to get it, the country has a big problem. Richard Fuld's kids don't need any more of America's cash.

If America wanted Mitt Romney’s Health Care Plan, Mitch Mcconnell’s tax plan and George Bush’s foreign policy, they would have voted Republican two years ago. In case you forgot, they didn't. They voted Democrat -- for Obama, and further, gave him a historic majority in the legislature. He is about a year over due to start acting like a progressive.

This president is about to turn off a whole generation from politics because he continues to act as if the past 30 years of straight Republican rule, have not been a complete and utter disaster for not only our country but the world.

I personally am not going to continue to vote if every Democrat that gets sent to the Whitehouse has a Freudian need to govern from the right.

I suggest that he and you, look to someone besides Clinton as an ideal for progressive rule.

Posted by: comma1 | December 8, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Kevin71707, I am not "itching for a fight," but, please be reminded that liberals/progressives were not necessarily the people who really mobilized early for President Obama in 2008. I am a liberal, and I can assure you it was hugely difficult for me to get my liberal friends on board with the Obama Campaign. Most liberals I know were actually supporting John Edwards. President Obama was supported by many independents, republicans, and moderate democrats at the beginning of his campaign. During the general election, liberals supported President Obama, but even then, it was somewhat grudgingly. Go back and read accounts about the Obama Campaign at sites like "The Daily Kos." I have recently stopped reading/participating at the Daily Kos because the language is so nasty with regard to President Obama.

Right now, we must get the economy moving, and relief for as many of the unemployed as we can. Our anger must be directed at the really cynical republicans who held the unemployed hostage. If we are going to critize the President, let's also take responsibility for not mobilizing to keep the House of Representatives in the hands of the Democrats. If we had done enough, then this "deal" would not be on the table.

In the meantime, let's recognize it is the Christmas Holidays for people who celebrate this season. In the spirit of Christmas, there will be millions of unemployed people who may be able to keep a roof over the heads of their family because the President made a deal that hurts him politically, but gives them a lifeline. Understanding the relief of the affected unemployed people may not be my focus (or perhaps, your focus) because at this time, I have a roof over my family's head and my holiday is bright.

Posted by: IrishJet123 | December 9, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Yes, but not all deals need to be cut.

Posted by: albamus | December 9, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

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