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Posted at 10:02 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Martin Luther King Jr. on Obama and liberals

By Ezra Klein

I've been pretty critical of the Obama administration over the past couple of days (see here and here, for starters). If everything plays out as I expect it will, I'll probably be pretty critical over the next couple of days, too. But I've been surprised by the vehemence of the concurring e-mails and tweets I've been getting from discouraged liberals. "Worst president in my lifetime," wrote one. "Jimmy Carter 2.0," wrote many more than one.

I still find this sort of thing surprising. This is the guy who passed health-care reform, financial regulation and a pretty big stimulus bill. I get the disappointment in the compromises and concessions necessary for each. But not the fury. But then Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s thoughts on his relationship with the black power movement, and I think it speaks eloquently to the dynamic between Obama and (some of) the liberals who've turned on him.

Unfortunately, when hope diminishes, the hate is often turned most bitterly toward those who originally built up the hope. In all the speaking that I have done in the United States before varied audiences, including some hostile whites, the only time that I have been booed was one night in a Chicago mass meeting by some young members of the Black Power movement. I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.

For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, "all, here and now." I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

By Ezra Klein  | December 3, 2010; 10:02 AM ET
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Yes, Obama has an impressive legislative record so far, and the compromises he made on those measures were politically necessary and he shouldn't be blamed for them. But lately he has become a spokesman for moderate Republicanism. That's the Obama I cannot vote for again.

Posted by: BobN1 | December 3, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

While I understand the disappointment, I wonder how much that will matter when it comes to the 2012 electoral map. Will liberals decide states like Ohio, or will it be Independents and Reagan Democrats?

Posted by: jduptonma | December 3, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

He's clearly not the worst president in our lifetimes. Remember George Bush?

But he's been unnecessarily weak, a poor leader, has no clear core principles and is a terrible negotiator.

I'll have to vote for him in 2012 because the republican will be worse, but many dems will sit out the election just like they sat out the midterms.

Posted by: fuse | December 3, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

So despite having huge majorities he passed a Republican health care bill, too weak financial regulation while doing nothing about the current bank balance sheets and an inadequate stimulus. WooHOO!

If he was elected in 1996 he would be an average President. However in the current situation average isn't good enough.

Posted by: endaround | December 3, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

fuse is right. endaround, I understand the wish that the legislation passed would have been more liberal, but people that make your arguments never present a compelling case that more liberal legislation could have been passed. President Obama and this Congress have made some simply colossal, mind-blowingly stupid mistakes, and they've allowed themselves to get out-played by the Republicans waaaaaay too many times. On the other hand they've passed a lot of important legislation that leaves us better off than we were before.

And anyone who was born before January '09 and seriously says that President Obama is the worst president of their lifetime is dumb.

Posted by: MosBen | December 3, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"he's been unnecessarily weak, a poor leader, has no clear core principles and is a terrible negotiator."

This is the bottom line. It's not a matter of liberals being frustrated by external events, and taking out on those (philosophically) closest to us. It's a matter of seeing someone who was advertised as a liberal, who is incapable of making a coherent argument for the policies he supposedly supports, and who unnecessarily capitulates, and whose administration attempts to score cheap political points by attacking his base.

If MLK Jr spent his time going around the country, speaking in front of white-supremacist groups, meeting those groups "half way", and gratuitously slamming the Black Power groups, they'd rip him to shreds.

*That's* the dynamic we're looking at.

Posted by: ibc0 | December 3, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The issue for me isn't what was passed, but rather how it was passed and how the President uses the "bully pulpit" to make his case to the American people why is policies are better than another person or group. And pointing out, with conviction, the absurd reason(s) why the other side opposes his policies.

The President needs to be more on the offense because 90% of the media are also incapable of pointing-out the absurdity of many of the opposing views. It's not that the other side is wrong 100% of the time, there are definitely valid points, but too often their opposition is just nonsensical and/or hypocritical.

Posted by: RoundGoby | December 3, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I'm with you, Ezra. I have a couple of theories, none of which are mutually exclusive.

First, part of what we're seeing is a delayed reaction to the midterms. Democrats collectively go into massive panics when they lose, as we witnessed in 1994, 2004, and after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts last January. But perhaps because a Republican takeover of the House had been predicted for so long, the initial reaction was muted.

Now, however, the reality of the situation is clear. And although I don't think Obama is handling it especially well, he's in a very tight situation. For a lot of people, the tax cut debate has brought back those panicky emotions.

There is also, as you point out, a loss of hope. I'd add that people have short memories. And also, that most people (over)react to immediate circumstances. Liberals are traditionally pessimistic, and many - rightly or wrongly - feel the liberal moment has closed and all that's left for the future is President Palin.

Again, I'm not happy with Obama's current actions, either. But I sense a lot of hysterical overreaction among people too, and I think the above reasons offer some explanation.

Posted by: Isa8686 | December 3, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I am perpetually stunned by the depth of insights that MLK possessed. I mean, I shouldn't be--after all, he achieved the impossible, and you don't do that unless you are exceptional.

But wow, little things like this remind me again and again he was such a great leader and rare person. As a nation, America is so fortunate to have had a man like him. He changed us so much for the better. Divine Providence is STILL looking out for us, I swear.

Oh, and for what it's worth, passing health care reform is only slightly less difficult than passing Civil Rights legislation. That is to say, only slightly less impossible. Obama deserves major credit for this.

Posted by: theorajones1 | December 3, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

"So despite having huge majorities he passed a Republican health care bill, too weak financial regulation while doing nothing about the current bank balance sheets and an inadequate stimulus. WooHOO!"

Okay great, let's repeal all of that junk.

Posted by: justin84 | December 3, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"Oh, and for what it's worth, passing health care reform is only slightly less difficult than passing Civil Rights legislation. That is to say, only slightly less impossible. Obama deserves major credit for this."

Obama nearly botched the whole health care leg process. Supermajority in both houses of Congress, and his Administration burned through months and months *needlessly* watering down the final product.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi deserve major credit for overcoming both implacable political opposition *and* the bumbling malpractice of the gang of White House naifs.

Posted by: ibc0 | December 3, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Some of the attacks from the left are fake, ginned up by Axelrod to make Obama look moderate. Expect more of the same as the 2012 election approaches. Obama may himself provoke some more flak from the left, just to better position himself. He will have multiple sister souljah moments, all orchestrated by Axelrod.

Posted by: truck1 | December 3, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Ezra and other pundits, you must be drunk to compare Obama with Dr. King...

To start with Dr. King was not for any office. He was ABOVE that. You want to talk about 'movement politics' - that is movement politics.

You forget again and again, in the end credibility of Political Act depends on 'sacrifice'. The very notion of 'sacrifice & fight' is defined in Modern world by Dr. King.

Don't ever dare to compare Obama with Dr. King.

With George Washington - Congress begged him to remain President. With Lincoln, the guy wrapped his enduing legacy in just 5 years with phenomenal 'where to fight & where to bow' sense fully intact. FDR - he fought his political opposition unlike Obama.

So where does our 'Child Pharaoh' stand? No fight,no sacrifice (those Congress members who lost 2010 election they paid the price for Obamacare), no nothing.

Obama will get credit for ObamaCare when he defends that. Today he is simply allowing 'barbarians to vandalize' his trophy for which others toiled....

Wake us up when Obama can stop political juggernaut of Paul Ryan on ObamaCare. Even Ezra, you have stopped responding to Ryan attacks on Health Care....

Posted by: umesh409 | December 3, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

ibc0, and you know that it was needless "watering down" how? As long as Leiberman, Nelson, and others were the 60th vote, there's no reason to expect that there was some process by which the bill ended up more liberal. Hell, they agreed to the Medicare expansion that Leiberman wanted and then he moved the goal posts again! No amount of strongly worded remarks from the Rose Garden change that.

Posted by: MosBen | December 3, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Obama simply made too many concessions and bad appointments. Totally misread the GOP and listened too much to Rahm and Blue dogs. Should have gone after "Medicare for All" and never compromised. If the vote failed - which is unlikely - so be it. The American Public knows Medicare - and likes it. They would have punished the GOP in 2010 not elected more of them.

Posted by: WisconsinReader | December 3, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Since when do liberals give a damn about Martin Luther King?

It's well known that liberal hero Bobby Kennedy engaged in wiretapping of King because he thought King was a communist.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 3, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I am one of those disappointed liberals. Yes, I can recognize Obama's enormous legislative accomplishments. When it comes to 2012, I will probably vote for him again because the Republicans are sooo much worse.

Obama's original victory was against a backdrop of such godawful despair at Bush's coup. We felt such relief at being delivered from Bush and the Republicans. However, Obama with his "need" for bipartisanship has squandered that reserve. He also allowed Republicans to define the narrative. We needed a partisan President.

Posted by: Darsan54 | December 3, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I read posts like these about liberals' frustration with Obama, and I wonder how much of their anger comes not from disagreements over policies, but from having been duped by an effective political ad campaign they thought they were too sophisticated to be taken in by. I mean, what evidence is there that Barack Obama actually 'believes' or 'cares about' or 'is willing to fight for' anything at all? You don't get to be president by standing up for things you believe in, you get there by adeptly manipulating the largest number of people while not overly angering the powerful.

Obama did win an award for the best ad campaign of the year, and just like drinking Pepsi doesn't immediately make you more attractive and fun, electing one man to the office of president doesn't instantly rescue a delusional society from its problems. There's nothing wrong with calling one person out for his failings, so go nuts on the guy if you want. But if liberals are going to keep falling for these gimmicks in the first place they have no one but themselves to blame.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | December 3, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Gimme a break. This all comes down to unemployment. If it were 6% right now, all posts and comments would be "Gee, why is Obama so awesome??". Part of me thinks that there is something fundamentally wrong with the economy that no one has the guts to fix. But would an in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway type really be getting more traction in fundamentally transforming our economic culture?

Posted by: klautsack | December 3, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

andrewbaron78, I think you're mostly right. I also think that there's a combination of liberals believing President Obama would be whoever they conceived him to be rather than who he actually was and a tendency for Americans to think that governmental problems can be solved by one strong or brilliant or charismatic man. President Obama ran as a fairly liberal moderate and has turned out to be just a hair less liberal than he campaigned. He never ran as the savior of pure liberal ideals, but he has followed through on most of his campaign promises. People also need to stop thinking that if you could just get person with quality X in the office that the government's problems would be solved. No matter how solidly liberal the president, he wasn't going to make Ben Nelson vote for a National Health Service, or even Medicare for all. President Obama has made plenty of mistakes, but people vastly overestimate a president's ability to twist arms of people over whom he has little or no control.

WisconsinReader - There is absolutely no basis for your theory that not passing healthcare reform would have let to Republican losses in the midterms. Indeed, history vehemently disagrees with you. Also, your "Good plan that doesn't get passed" approach hasn't worked out so well for that last 75 years. What makes you think it would work better now?

Posted by: MosBen | December 3, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the health care bill and the stimulus were important. But he could have made much more sweeping changes when the dems had a majority in the senate. But he didn't take the opportunity and run with it. Instead he kept trying to "cross the aisle" to work with republicans who were, and are, in solidarity against him and everything he wanted to do. And now he won't even stand up for the middle class!! At least get us behind him wholeheartedly.

Posted by: ania8 | December 3, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm a furious 57-yr old liberal. I won't speak for anyone but myself, but I'm furious because I risked my vote for this guy. We knew what Hillary could do, but we were inspired that Obama could do more, would be different, would fight in a way that could possibly even inspire more independents and rational Republicans. So were misled, either to think Obama held progressive beliefs (does he?), or to believe he would fight for them (he is a proven failure on this score). I would MUCH rather see Obama put up the good fight and lose, for things like a truly effective stimulus, the public option, real financial reform, or restoring tax rates for over $250K to the Clinton-era. His approach to negotiation is one of submission and weakness, and he seems to think he can satisfy Republicans with his concessions. This is the definition of insanity, and reveals a serious character flaw, which was not only unknown to voters, but stands in direct contradiction to what we risked our vote for. We were bamboozled into thinking this man would be an effective, principled leader. I admit I saw signals of risk in the 2008 primary campaign, and I avoided them, as I think many did. So part of my fury is that I denied or ignored the obvious, and allowed myself to be politically seduced. Every politician does that to some extent, but we risked so much, and Obama has failed so miserably. And no, he's not the worst Prez in my lifetime, just the most disappointing to me personally.

Posted by: brucek1 | December 3, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Really, brucek1? You'd rather we just lost battles on health care reform, stimulus, etc.? What makes you think we'd get a political win out of a legislative loss? It has never worked out like that historically.

And although I think the tax cuts negotiation has been atrocious, the bulk of the concessions for the stimulus/health care reform/financial reform, etc. were negotiations with conservative Democrats. (For the stimulus, they needed 2-3 Republican votes to pass it.)

Legislation has ALWAYS only been as liberal or conservative as its decisive voter.

Posted by: Isa8686 | December 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Paul Ryan's political juggernaut against health care reform ended on 11/2 (and achieved it's goals). At this point, sadly, he's soon to be the chairman of a major house committee. Therefore, no one cares anymore what he thinks, the only thing that matters at all is what legislation he can pass and get signed into law. I don't think he can repeal health care reform. It's quite possible he could change the law and make it better or worse, but the problem with doing either is that the President would get the credit which is what the Republican are desperate to avoid at all costs.

Posted by: windshouter | December 3, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

lsa8686, yes, you are correct.

Posted by: MosBen | December 3, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you give Obama too much credit for his "legislative successes." Outside of the stimulus (which I do credit him for), most of those "achievements" - and most especially the heath care bill - happened because Nancy Pelosi MADE them happen. If it'd been left up to Obama, I don't think we'd have gotten *either* the health care bill or the financial reform bill.

Of course, it's possible that we also give him too much blame, too. The health care bill probably would have been better without the conservadems pulling in the opposite direction. The stimulus and the finance reform bill might possibly have been better, but I'm also not sure that Obama didn't get exactly what he wanted on those.

As far as letting the *extra* cuts benefiting the very wealthy expire, I don't think it was bad planning or bad negotiating that caused us to "lose" that fight. We lost it because because too many conservadems (and possibly Obama) intended to lose it.

Posted by: KarenJG | December 3, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse


I think you are right with one small edit:

"Part of me thinks that there is something fundamentally wrong with the economy that no one [knows how] to fix."

Posted by: justin84 | December 3, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

We're disappointed with Obama not because he hasn't delivered, but because he hasn't fought.

Posted by: Eminpasha | December 3, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

You guys should stop complaining because, one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed so give it some time. so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. If you do not have insurance and need one You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price check .If you have health insurance and do not care about cost just be happy about it and trust me you are not going to loose anything!

Posted by: bryanmobley | December 4, 2010 3:38 AM | Report abuse

They were pissed at King because King had been wrong. He promised a dream. They got a nightmare. If I am your guide and lead you into a bear's den, you'll be pissed at me. Also, a bit sick of hearing about the stimulus plan (inadequate) and a health care plan that no one understands and does absolutely nothing for almost everyone, leaving the vast majority with huge, growing bills and premiums, and provides a new out of pocket expense for the unemployed and desperate! Whippeeee! Since when do we give awards in politics for screwing up?

Democrats should be angry--with themselves. That Obama was full of it was clear very early on. ( Dem self-righteousness won the day and this is the result.

From Back in Dec. '07:

Finally, Obama himself gives me pause. His insistence that he can bring us all together is, of course, a major aspect of his candidacy. How, though, do you "bring together" a Republican congressional caucus with an ideological fixation on 1920s style laissez-faire economic policies, and a Democratic majority who believes that regulation is necessary to protect ordinary Americans? How do you "bring together" a vocal conservative Christian faction who insists that creationism be taught alongside the scientific principle of evolution? How do you bring together a Republican right who believes that the 4th Amendment needs shelving, and that any American can be locked up indefinitely, without charges, without trial? I don't know how that's done. I do know, however, that in order to try, you have to accept that there is merit in the aforementioned right wing positions. That's what his protection and embrace of the homophobic pastor Donnie McClurkin suggests. I do not believe there's validity in their positions--any more than they believe there's merit in mine. In a war of ideas, you can't fight on both sides.

Posted by: lEG2 | December 4, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

obama campaigned with "yes we can"

as president he seems to be saying "well, i guess we can't"

he created expectations

a different leadership style is needed

Posted by: jamesoneill | December 5, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

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