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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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His second asset was the thinness of his record. Having spent just two years in the Senate prior to declaring for the presidency, Obama really did not have to take the tough votes that Democrats from Illinois have to take to secure reelection. Beyond that, he had spent a decade in the Illinois state senate, which was not a good background for Republican oppo researchers. The record he did compile was one of a behind the scenes dealmaker, looking to get something, anything, signed into law. To appreciate just how little firepower the McCain campaign had on Obama, consider this rather lame attack on his education record. Without going after Jeremiah Wright, that was about the best McCain could do. Compare that to Bush-Quayle’s hard-hitting ad on Willie Horton. (And for liberals who are still angered over that ad, guess who was the first candidate to bring him up in 1988…!)

And whenever somebody attacked him for a lack of experience, Obama would just respond with a smile: "They say I need to be seasoned and stewed, so they can boil all the hope out of me!" Like I said -- he's a natural. Nobody could sell a non seqitur as well as Obama in 2008!

Combine all this with the messianic overtones of the Obama campaign, and it is not hard to understand why so many liberals believed that Obama could lead them out of the political wilderness in which they had been wandering for 40 years. Here was a real liberal who actually could get elected. How exciting!

The problem for the left is that the very qualities that enabled Obama to win in 2008 have kept him from being the savior they have long dreamed of.  The advantage of having a great filibusterer is that you can’t pin him down; the disadvantage is that he does not like to push his own plans. The stimulus bill was not his plan. Neither was cap-and-trade or the health care bill. He blasted the very tax deal he agreed to last December. This year he submitted a budget, then walked it back, and didn’t replace it with anything. And most recently in the debt ceiling fight, there is no Obama plan. Why? Because Obama doesn’t do plans.

Instead, Obama likes to “lead from behind,” but that ultimately leaves him at the mercy of his marginal supporters in Congress. So, on each of those aforementioned issues, Obama has agreed to have the initial proposal watered down to win over some crucial bloc -- because above all he prefers to get a deal, any deal, done. From a narrow perspective, this might make for smart politics – but for liberals hoping that Obama would be the successor in the New Deal/Great Society tradition, it is quite disheartening.

Obama’s inexperience has also been a problem now that he is in charge. There is no better example of this than the health care battle. The legislative process was dominated by a wide variety of interest groups – the AFL-CIO, the AMA, NARAL, the NEA, the SEIU, and all the other acronyms permanently encamped around Capitol Hill. And let's not forget the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and all the other side deals that had to be brokered to secure enough votes. The significance of this cannot be underestimated: the interest groups moved in, and the independent voters who swing elections started to come to the conclusion that their interests were not represented in the finished product.

If Obama had spent more time in Washington, he might have appreciated just how easily special interests can capture the legislative process, and how important it is for a president to keep that from happening. Indeed, that was what made the New Deal and Great Society so powerful: their key reforms were ostensibly designed for the benefit of everybody. And liberals who believe that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is preferable to the status quo no doubt recognize how inferior it is to Social Security and Medicare – and that reflects ultimately on President Obama.

That's not to say the left will primary Obama. No incumbent has ever been successfully primaried in the post-reform era, and Obama is not nearly as disappointing to the left as Carter and Clinton. Still, he actively encouraged them to believe that his tenure would be a new era of progressive governance, and he has failed to live up to his own hype. How could they not be frustrated?

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