President Obama: Just Say No

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday December 08, 2010 - 09:48:00 AM

Liberal Negotiation. Only the best people do it. And the outcome inevitably is the worst.

All of my adult life I’ve participated in what is commonly called politics: that is to say, the attempt, often futile, to influence or even control the government(s) that organize or control our lives. Politics sometimes involves compromise, it’s true, but timing is everything.  

I’ve never had any patience with the more-PC-than-thou attempt to define “liberal” as a pejorative, all the while the world becomes more and more Them vs. Us. Most of us around here most of the time are not confused about who Them is, and most of us therefore should also recognize that everyone else, liberal, progressive or radical, by definition is Us. But watching Us fall prey to Liberal Negotiation in action, time and again, is consistently frustrating. 

We’re talking about President Barack Obama here, of course, who has lately provided a graphic illustration of Liberal Negotiation in action (or inaction). Liberal Negotiation is starting off the dialogue with major concessions in the hope that the Bad Guys will recognize your virtue and make spontaneous free will offerings of concessions of their own. It never works. Never. 

Whole encyclopedias of clichés have been built to make this point: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” “We have met the enemy, and He is Us.” “Never lead with your chin.” Etc. Etc. Etc. But most of Us still hope deep down that those nasty sticks aren’t necessary, that virtue really is its own reward. Nope. 

An ocean of virtual ink has been devoted by the chattering classes to their futile attempt to warn Obama not to quit before the battle is joined. Every opinion writer worth his or her salt—Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Frank Rich, E.J. Dionne, Gail Collins, Eugene Robinson, Jon Carroll, even, mirabile dictu, the San Francisco Chronicle’s usually vapid anonymous editorial page—has admonished the Democrats to stand tough on the question of ending tax cuts for the super-rich. Everyone from Krugman on down thinks that the best posture is not to flinch first—to say that none of the tax cuts will be renewed, nohow, as long as the Big Bucks Boys benefit from the bill. 

But the Dems still seem to be caving in record numbers, following their Fearful Leader. 

Of course, this is partly because Democratic legislators in increasing numbers are themselves the super-rich. But even Dianne Feinstein, spouse of the plutocrat Richard Blum who has a finger in every lucrative pie, wrote an op-ed urging Obama to tax the very rich, though she does support all too many concessions for the loosely defined comfortable upper middle classes, who are not hurting the most in this economic crisis. Yet Obama has already announced that he’s bailing even on the topmost tier. 

(For illustrative and comparative purposes local readers might recall the sorry history of Berkeley’s oft-aborted Downtown Area Plan. Some 22 good citizens and true took hours, days and weeks out of busy lives to create a “perfect compromise” on thorny development issues which passed by an overwhelming majority. No sooner had the ink dried on the agreement than the developer-dominated planning commission got to work on a new version which cheerfully accepted all of the concessions made by progressive DAP Advisory Commission members but repealed the ones which had been made by the other side.  

But not satisfied with that, the developers’ poodles on City Council enacted an even more one-sided plan, which voters initially rejected in a referendum. Finally the builders’ claque on council, aided by big bucks from big property owners, came up with Measure R, heavy on motherhood and apple pie and short on specifics, which they hope will give them carte blanche to finally do what they wanted to do four long years ago, when the DAPAC was first convened. So none of the “Liberal Negotiation” concessions made long ago by DAPAC progressives seem to have done any good at all.)  

The spectacle of Barack Obama bowing again and again to moneyed interests has horrified many of his erstwhile supporters. Excuses are offered by the kinder gentler folks among them, along with explanations drawn from sociology and psychology offered by some. 

But regardless of motivational analyses, this is the point—today, not tomorrow or next week—when Obama needs to feel heat from the people who put him in office. Move On and Daily Kos are already at work organizing pressure campaigns based on online action. 

Close to home, Congressman Jerry McNerney squeaked through one more time because of support from progressives outside his district, and he needs the many of Us in Barbara Lee’s district who contributed to his campaign to help him with a backbone transplant on this one. 

It’s even possible—among Us, hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?—that this is all a calculated ploy to get Us to apply enough pressure to congressional Democrats and even to their president that they will have to comply. Good old Nancy Pelosi seems to be trying to Just Say No, and various and sundry congresspersons are demonstrating flashes of courage.  

Perhaps Obama’s show of weakness, this Liberal Negotiation, is designed to appeal not to the heartless Republicans, but to the base, the people who voted for Obama and company two years ago, in the hope that We’ll rise up in revolt. Even if that’s not the case, it behooves Us all to act like it is, and keep the heat on this week.