The American Debate: Obama under fire from right - and left

President Obama announces Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) as his nominee for commerce secretary. Part of the deal: Gregg's replacement will not be a Democrat. More grist for those who don't see the point in placating the GOP.

There are significant rumblings of discontent on Barack Obama's left flank.


Liberals in his own party can't understand why the guy who posted the biggest Democratic victory in 44 years seems so eager to placate the Republicans whom he so recently banished to the political wilderness.


Liberals - or, as they prefer to be called these days, progressives - can't understand why Obama keeps chasing the "post-partisan" dream despite the reality that Washington remains a pit of vipers and that every time he reaches out to opposition members, they treat it as a sign of weakness. He may not be interested in playing hardball, but they are. Two successive electoral thrashings will hardly change their nature.


In other words, while Obama has seemed so focused on wooing the people he defeated, on somehow winning their approval of the economic-recovery package (fat chance), he might be well-advised to pay more attention to the people in the Democratic base who got him nominated and elected. They're already restive.


Rachel Maddow, the left-leaning MSNBC host, wondered the other night: "Is it really that important to bend over backward to try to make the Republicans in Congress happy right now?" That's the polite way of putting it. After Obama excised family-planning money from the stimulus bill, to mollify the Republicans who were railing about "contraceptives," feminist Katha Pollitt said it was "bewildering that he sacrificed low-income women's rights and health in a vain bid to woo antediluvian right-wing misogynist Republican ideologues who will never, ever vote his way."


I heard some of these concerns the other day, when I lunched with Mike Lux, a Washington strategist who, in a previous life, worked in the Clinton White House. He has a new book, The Progressive Revolution, which argues that America typically changes for the better only when progressive reformers are bold enough to defeat conservatives in partisan battle. He sees the same opportunity today.


"There is no such thing as 'post-partisanship,' " he insists. "Conservatives are going to oppose progressive policies, period. If that's the way they want to play it, that's OK. . . . Our problems right now are so big that Obama is going to have to go with more progressive, bolder, unconventional thinking. At the end of the day, he won't have a choice."


Lux and his brethren, of course, are pleased with many of Obama's early moves - particularly his executive orders on Guantanamo, labor, civil liberties, and abortion rights; and his signing of new laws that expand children's health insurance and make it easier for working women to sue for sex discrimination. There were also murmurings of approval when Obama finally reminded Republican critics of the stimulus package that a record number of Americans "went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."


But the left has been queasy about Obama on a number of fronts. He has wobbled on his campaign pledge to speedily revoke the Bush upper-income tax cuts. His foreign-policy team is made up of people who voted for the Iraq war. Even before he took office, he named so many centrists and Republicans to the Cabinet that prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers lamented, "Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?"


The big complaint today is that Obama has seemed far too willing to indulge the GOP partisans who think it's fine for the government to spend upward of $1 trillion on a war in Iraq, but who consider it a scandal to spend the same amount to confront an economic crisis at home (and who have a vested interest in thwarting Obama's priorities, because a successful recovery plan might doom them indefinitely to minority status).


It's not unusual, of course, for Democratic presidents to get heat from their left. It happened to Clinton, as Lux well remembers. It happened to Jimmy Carter. It happened to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But liberals today are hungry after long years in exile, and their technological reach is certainly stronger than before.


Lux said, "With all the online capability, with the blogs, progressives can push much harder than they did during the Clinton years. They can push Obama with the speed of light. This president won't have as much rope as Clinton did."


Indeed, what's the point of sweet-talking the Republicans when they clearly prefer to fight? Consider Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the GOP 2010 election operation. Wednesday, he publicly shared his party's credo for good governance in these perilous times: "Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes."


He said it, folks. The Taliban.


Obama may soon discover that there's no point in extending a hand to a foe who won't unclench his fist.