Ten Miles Square


January 04, 2013 10:47 AM Liberals Nip Obama as He Battles Republicans

By Jonathan Alter

You can already hear the rumbling in the distance — a train of noisy liberal Democrats barreling straight for the White House. They should arrive just in time for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The president already has his hands full dealing with angry and unrealistic Republicans. Now he’s getting reacquainted with their counterparts on the left — a less ideologically inflexible bunch but not necessarily any more susceptible to reason.

Recognizing the enormous stakes in the 2012 election, liberals took the advice of Dr. Evil and “zipped it” during the entire campaign. They refrained from any criticism of the president, lest it help Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

For a party famous for its lack of discipline, that was impressive. So was the Obama campaign field organization. Humorist Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Lately, given the disarray on the Republican side, Rogers might have swallowed hard and seen fit to declare himself a Republican.

If Democrats are better organized than in the past, they still have their foibles. Recall the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, loudly booing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he left the stage.

Scant Support

Villaraigosa, chairman of the convention, had just claimed that two-thirds of the delegates had approved by voice vote the reinstatement in the party platform of a provision supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was more like two delegates and maybe a third — about the same tiny level of support that welcomed Obama’s insistence that “God” be put back in the platform, too.

Before the campaign, liberals were hardly hesitant to express their disappointment with the president. Recall the liberal unrest of 2009 when Obama, bowing to congressional pressure, failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and neglected to support a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

Liberals crying “kill the bill” came dangerously close to derailing landmark health-care reform for which they had been fighting since the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party Convention of 1912. Obama rightly complained in response that too many of his supporters were letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Now we’re about to see such imperfection under assault again. While Obama won strong Democratic backing for the so- called fiscal-cliff deal in both the Senate and the House, a chorus of liberal critics rose up to condemn his compromises.

They were particularly incensed that he agreed to raise the threshold on income subject to a higher tax rate from his oft- stated preference of $250,000 per family to $450,000 per family. Some news stories reported that Obama broke a campaign promise by abandoning the $250,000 level.

A few liberals even complained that Obama violated his principles by compromising. They must not have listened to him all year. One of his most important — and most frequently stated — principles is that compromise is essential to governing.

Having said that “not everybody gets a hundred percent of what they want” from negotiations, Obama surely would have doomed these and future negotiations by clinging to every jot and tittle of his opening offer.

Perhaps Republicans, too, have now been forced to take the plunge into pragmatism. One achievement of the fiscal-cliff deal was that it violated the “Hastert Rule,” named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, that required “a majority of the majority” Republican caucus to proceed on legislation. Instead, Republicans split on the vote and the bill passed with Democratic support.

Entitlement Adjustment

Just as Republicans must learn to live with tax increases, Democrats must learn to live with — and vote for — changes in entitlements. They should keep in mind that reforms such as a chained consumer price index, which alters the inflation calculation applied to Social Security, and means testing the benefits of wealthy retirees, do not threaten the social safety net.

Neither Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security nor Lyndon Johnson on Medicare was wedded to any of the particulars of those programs — only the principle of guaranteed support from the government.

The road ahead is paved with compromises that many Democrats won’t like. The president will stick to his refusal to negotiate with Republicans who want to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to spending cuts. But he will have to negotiate over the sequester — the $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and domestic programs scheduled to take effect in two months.

Decoupling the debt ceiling from the sequester will be daunting, if not impossible. Even if Obama succeeds, he will have to agree to cuts to entitlements or discretionary programs, a course many liberals oppose. They haven’t forgotten how Obama almost betrayed their interests in the failed “Grand Bargain” talks in July of last year.

If liberals are disappointed in Obama’s fiscal-cliff deal, imagine how they will feel in late February when he starts making tough choices on spending cuts. Liberals need to think harder about what their own long-term deficit reduction plan would be. Raising more revenue is necessary. It’s not sufficient.

Back to Home page

Jonathan Alter a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and two on Barack Obama.


  • John on January 05, 2013 12:09 AM:

    I don't think that people were upset that President Obama negotiated a compromise. Rather, the defending is that he is not very good at it and gives up too much too freely.

    Regarding our paid for benefits ( aka entitlements ) SS in particular does not contribute to the debt and should not be be dragged into debt discussions.

  • Yellowdog on January 05, 2013 3:18 AM:

    False equivalence by the second paragraph. Oy. There are some unrealistic partisan Democrats around, sure, but they are miles from the separated-from-reality crowd on the right, which has, ho-hum, manufactured crises to force their will on the economy. This kind of tactic apparently does not bother Alter too much. Carping Democrats are not the equivalent of hostage takers who are ready to sink the Nation's credit rating and economy to suit their ideological agenda.

  • marynancy on January 05, 2013 11:22 AM:

    my co-worker's mother-in-law makes $70 every hour on the laptop. She has been unemployed for five months but last month her income was $17486 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on this site http://www.bit90.com

  • Marie Burns on January 05, 2013 8:45 PM:

    I'm disappointed to see that Jonathan Alter has joined the Very Serious People. Obviously, Alter will not have to rely on Social Security as his primary source of income, but millions do. Evidently his relative ease allows him to say, in effect, "Lowering Social Security benefits for really old people is a great way to ensure that rich & upper-middle-class people won't have to pay slightly higher taxes."

    Can Alter can explain why seniors who played by the rules & paid into Social Security all their working lives should now pay for the bad acts of Wall Street & Washington? I don't think so. Alter's position makes no moral or logical sense.

    As for means-testing Social Security or Medicare -- Really. Bad. Idea. That's just what conservatives want -- make these programs for "poor people," instead of programs for "all people." That will make them substantially less popular & make it easy-peasy for Congress to do just what Alter wants -- cut them.

    The Constant Weader @ www.RealityChex.com

  • George W Obama on January 06, 2013 10:20 AM:

    As commander and chief of the armed forces Obama did not need bipartisan support to close the torture chamber in Cuba. Obama does not need bipartisan support to bring the troops home and cut the defense budget.

  • neildsmith on January 06, 2013 10:44 AM:

    Mr. Alter is a brave guy. I'm just about convinced that liberal anger and apathy screwed up the 2010 elections and handed the House to the GOP. That was truly and epic mistake on a par with those in Florida who voted for Ralph Nader (or were too stupid to figure out the ballot).

    Progressives are in the very distinct minority both in government and in the country as a whole. They would be wise to remember that lest they risk a repeat performance in 2014 when turn out is lower.

  • centerfielddj on January 06, 2013 1:18 PM:

    Well, I and many others, including members of Congress, will be giving Jonathan a big sad in the future, because we're going to fight and push Obama and Congress from the left, JUST AS HE SAID WE SHOULD DO. Does Mr. Alter not remember the many times that the President said that the work of creating good governance does not end on Election Day, and that he would need our continuing help to improve the actions coming out of Washington, D.C.?

    I don't know what Jonathan thought he meant by that, but I'm certain that Barack himself did not presume to tell us that he wanted 100 million cheerleaders for each and every initiative he takes up. It sounds like Mr. Alter would like the President and Congress to be pilloried by public opinion from TEA party supporters, lobbyists from oil companies and banks and financial institutions, and the others who oppose the New Deal and Great Society programs which have been saviors to this Nation, but progressives should just "zip it", as he summarizes so childishly. How, exactly, would that help government work on our behalfs? It doesn't, and I have no idea why he believes it would.

    Oh...I think I've got it...yes, cutting the safety net makes it easier to keep the taxes on Jonathan's very ample compensations lower! Yes, perhaps that's it, and pehaps this also explains why the very well-compensated David Gregory and other pundits take such glee in asking questions and followup questions to Congressional members about what "pain" they are prepared to inflict on the American people who elected them. Sociopaths, SOCIOPATHS, all of them. Now, sadly, Mr. Alter wants permanent membership in that morally challenged club.

    Jonathan's sentiments in this column make me very, very, very angry. His blithe claims that we'll all have to accept cuts WHICH WILL CAUSE SUFFERING, MALNUTRITION AND DEATH to reduce the Federal budget deficit are not true. And if Mr. Alter wishes to claim that cuts in benefits to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs will not cause suffering, malnutrition and death, he should explain to us what cuts, exactly, could be weathered without widespread suffering as a result, because that looks quite impossible to me.

    The right-wing business and financial interests have run a quite successful long-term project in our country to lower pay and benefit levels from average jobs, as well as substantially destroy the defined benefit pension system. Now, when the average retiree or younger person with no or low secured income and wealth has less security than any other moment in our lifetimes, we should be OK with Congress taking a machete to our social welfare programs? No.

  • neildsmith on January 06, 2013 2:45 PM:

    We can never raise taxes or slow the rate of growth of government spending because doing so "WILL CAUSE SUFFERING, MALNUTRITION AND DEATH." Perhaps, then, those who risk SUFFERING, MALNUTRITION AND DEATH!!! ought to stop voting for Republicans.

    The GOP base consists largely of senior citizens and southern racists. I'm not sure I care if they suffer or die.

  • LWC on January 06, 2013 10:11 PM:

    I guess Mr. Alter isn't aware that (sadly) for most people nearing retirement these days no longer have a defined benefit pension but instead that wonder of wonders the 401K. I actually have a DBP and am extremely grateful. I also sold my house during the height of the real estate madness but many, many, many, many people in this country are going to be depending very heavily on SS in the near future.

    As for means testing Social Security, as my father explained to me 30 or so years ago, that makes it a welfare program rather than a shared experience as FDR intended it to be. Unless and until some degree of fairness is restored in our country our democracy will continue to be at risk.

    Here is the "silver bullet" needed to rearrange the current income inequality under which we all are suffering: Publicly Financed campaigns.

  • HMDK on January 07, 2013 12:10 AM:

    Alter, it seems, is tone-deaf. And if he sees any of this as a return to pragmatism by the Republicans, he's suffering from a severe case named after a certain Swedish city.

  • Kansachusetts on January 07, 2013 12:18 AM:

    "If liberals are disappointed in Obama's fiscal-cliff deal, imagine how they will feel in late February when he starts making tough choices on spending cuts."

    Can't you just dump this ignorant turkey Alter right now? Does the blogosphere really need another Very Serious Villager to tell us that cutting Social Security is a tough but necessary choice? We can get that kind of crap reading the Washington Post.

  • centerfielddj on January 07, 2013 2:39 AM:

    Classic straw man creations by neildsmith. Even a firm progressive like myself favors slowing the rate of budget growth in areas where the spending in counterproductive, wasteful and not helpful to broad swaths of Americans. Many portions of the Defense Department and the lack of ability to negotiate more favorable prices in the Medicare Part D program fit that bill. There are many tax expenditures, such as the massive subsidizaton of oil companies, which fit those descriptions as well.

    Examples of alternative ways to bring the Federal budget back to eventual balance and surplus are those proposed by the House Progressive Caucus. Their last tow proposed budgets reached projected balances earlier than the Ryan budgets proposed they will, even if you leave in the magic fairy dust of "dynamic scoring" and other gobbledygook that Ryan's number crunchers require in order to make balance as early as they claim that GOP budget would.

    The best way to repair the budget is to repair the economy. This is the way we had budget surpluses as recently as 2000: a more progressive, slightly higher level of taxation, and nearly full employment. Full employment means better tax revenue and fewer people in need of government programs. Would cutting SS/Medi/Medi damage the economy? You goddamn bet it would.

    So why is it being talked about anyway?

  • lexrex on January 08, 2013 7:19 PM:

    Haven't read Alter in awhile. Now I remember why. He needs to outside of the beltway, talk to people, and find out why this economy is weak. They are hoarding their money, because they see no improvement coming. As a matter of fact, Alter confirms that it might get worse for them by telling them they should take a hit on Social Security and suffer some more.

  • lexrex on January 08, 2013 7:21 PM:

    Haven't read Alter in awhile. Now I remember why. He needs to get outside of the beltway, talk to people, and find out what's going on. They are hoarding their money, because they see no improvement coming. As a matter of fact, Alter confirms that it might get worse for them by telling them they should take a hit on Social Security and suffer some more.

  • centerfielddj on January 08, 2013 8:06 PM:

    It's not just that people are hoarding their money. Even more people have no money. That's true of people who have jobs and people who do not. The Reagan Revolution has impoverished both.