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Obama: 'Tilting at Windmills' or Selling Out the Left?

by Hank Kalet

This paragraph from this morning's New York Times story on proposed financial-sector regulations is becoming all too common in the early days of the Obama administration:

Although it would strikingly reorganize the regulatory architecture, the president’s plan results from many compromises with industry executives and lawmakers, and is not as bold as some had hoped.
It is as if the folks surrounding the president -- and the president himself -- forgot Rahm Emanuel's pre-inauguration comment, essentially the raison d'etre for the Obama administration:
“Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” Mr. Emanuel said in an interview on Sunday. “They are opportunities to do big things.”
I said early on -- more than a year ago, back in the early days of the primary campaign -- that Barack Obama was a politician at war with himself: It was obvious that his instincts were liberal/progressive, coming from his background as a community organizer; that he was cautious to a fault and too wed to the notion of bipartisanship (the basic thesis of his book, The Audacity of Hope).

For voters, however, he represented their hopes and aspirations -- often competing hopes -- his persona being a political Rohrschach test. Many on the left viewed him as a potential progressive ally, someone likely to revive the tradition of an aggressively activist government in the mode of FDR and LBJ (on domestic issues), ignoring his ties to the coal and financial industries, his vote on bankruptcy reform and forgiving his backpedaling during the campaign on telecom immunity and other progressive issues.

The reality is that Obama is, in many ways, a better version of Bill Clinton, less divisive and nominally more progressive, but just as pragmatic and just as committed to that vague third way that too often seeks to split the difference to keep dissent at a minimum. So far, the president has spent far more time trying to appease the more conservative elements of his own party and attract the few remaining moderates left in the GOP than using his strength among his party's progressive base to push his agenda through.

The stimulus, Guantanamo, gay rights, climate change, health care, financial regulation -- on nearly every policy goal -- he has been willing to jettisone the more progressive elements of his policies to keep moderates on the reservation.

Obama doesn't deny this kind of calculus. A quotation of his from the Times story:
“Did, you know, any considerations of sort of politics play into it? We want to get this thing passed, and, you know, we think that speed is important. We want to do it right. We want to do it carefully. But we don’t want to tilt at windmills.”
Progressives are not asking him to "tilt at windmills"; they're asking him to craft tough policy. If they -- we -- want him to be more aggressive, then progressives need to become more aggressive and make sure that the president knows that he can't keep selling the left out.
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