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Morning Jay: Why Is the Left So Frustrated with Obama?

6:00 AM, Jul 29, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Liberals are unhappy with the president over the debt ceiling battle.

For the moment, most Democrats are a lot more united than Republicans on the debt debate. But they are increasingly restive as they balance loyalty to Obama and their commitment to preserving entitlement programs and tax equity, core principles they see as being chucked overboard in the interest of appeasing tea party Republicans.

Even the least painful resolution to the crisis — a plan backed by Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that is a cocktail of deep cuts in discretionary public spending and infrastructure improvements without a whiff of the tax-the-wealthy agenda that has been a staple Democratic demand — is poison to many progressives.

This is not the first time we’ve heard liberals complain about President Obama. They were upset over the health care bill (particularly, the abandonment of the public option), as well as the extension of the Bush tax cuts in December.

This is a difficult frustration for conservatives to understand – because Obama appears so liberal to them. But I think some broader perspective will help clarify why liberals feel so aggrieved.

Between 1968 and 2004 liberals did not win a single presidential election. Republicans won seven of the ten elections held during this period, and Southern, moderate Democrats won the other three. Worse for liberals, both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton regularly governed without much regard for the liberal flank of their own party – as can be seen in Carter’s opposition to a universal health care bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton agreeing to NAFTA, a balanced budget, and welfare reform.

That’s not to say liberals never won the party nomination. They did, plenty of times – Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry were all from one part or another of the liberal wing. And Al Gore, who had been a moderate in Congress, reinvented himself as a “people versus the powerful” populist to head off the Ralph Nader challenge. The problem for the liberals is that in each of these instances, Republicans were more or less able to paint the Democratic nominee as out of the mainstream, particularly on cultural issues.

Then along comes Barack Obama, an extremely appealing candidate for liberals. For starters, his background as a state senator in Hyde Park indicated pretty clearly that he was on the left-hand side of his party. Yet at the same time Obama proved himself extremely adept at avoiding the kind of entanglements that undermined candidates like Dukakis and Kerry. There was no Willie Horton furlough flap. No Kerry moment – “I voted for it before I voted against it.”  And, unlike Al Gore, Obama could articulate traditional Democratic themes without sounding like an over-rehearsed imitation of William Jennings Bryan.

Obama had two hugely important assets in this regard. First of all, his rhetorical skills are impressive in many ways. It’'s not just that his stump speeches inspired the left; it is also nearly impossible to pin him down in interviews. He is easily one of the best filibusterers in modern political history, able to dodge tough questions while seeming to answer them. This is a rare talent; I've never seen another politician as naturally skilled at this as Obama.

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