The Public Eye:Barack Obama: Negotiating With Vipers

By Bob Burnett
Monday December 13, 2010 - 07:01:00 PM

In his inaugural address, John Kennedy said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” JFK was referring to US deliberations with Russia, but his words apply to the current political reality. President Obama’s tax cut “deal” was negotiated out of fear.

The President knows this. In his December 7th Press conference Obama acknowledged: “…the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts. I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed… In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”

Like so many of his excuses, Obama’s explanation doesn’t hold up. This “hostage-taking” didn’t happen suddenly; the Republican hostage takers didn’t burst into the Oval Office with a bomb and announce: “Either you continue the Bush tax cuts for millionaires or this place is dust.” For months, Barack Obama knew that Republicans were cutthroats, who wouldn’t hesitate to hold the working people of America hostage in order to secure a tax-cut “ransom” for the rich and powerful. Obama saw the hostage-taking coming but did nothing to prevent it. 

There’s a familiar Aesop fable about a farmer who finds a viper freezing in the snow, takes pity on it, picks it up and places it within his coat. Revived by the warmth, the snake gives his rescuer a fatal bite and the farmer cries out, “I should have seen this coming!”  

The apt metaphor for the President’s tax cut deal wasn’t hostage taking, but the farmer who takes in the viper. Obama knew he was dealing with snakes and should have seen what was coming. For the last two years, Republicans have been incredibly candid about their intent to do everything possible to thwart his Administration. Nonetheless, ignoring the wise counsel of Progressives, the President took in the vipers and cut an unsavory tax deal. But it was the American people who got bitten.  

The moral of Aesop’s fable is “kindness is wasted on evil.” You and I know this. It’s street wisdom. And Progressives understand that Conservatives are all about greed, they are hell bent on installing a plutocracy. So why doesn’t President Obama understand this? Why didn’t he recognize that he was dealing with snakes before he placed them in his coat? 

There are two harsh explanations: Barack Obama is either incredibly naïve or he is terminally conflict averse. I don’t believe Obama is naïve. Sadly, the experience of the last two years indicates that he will do anything to avoid a fight.  

Negotiating out of fear is bad practice, in general, but wildly inappropriate in an era where Progressives are battling to maintain Democracy in America. In September, new Census figures showed that the income gap between America's richest and poorest was the widest on record. Recently Senator Bernie Sanders accused Republicans of waging a “war” against the working families of America. If the Obama tax cut “deal” stands, the rich will have won another major battle. 

So what should you and I do about this? 

The first step is to do everything we can to kill the current tax-cut “deal.” Call our Senators and Representatives and tell them to block the bill unless Republicans compromise. 

But our larger mission is to rebuild the Progressive movement with recognition that the President needs “tough love.” If we’re going to make progress in the war against working families, then Progressives will have to provide Obama with backbone at every step. The past two years have provided one example after another of where Obama pulled away from a fight, claimed he was protecting us from “hostage-takers.” That has to stop, there’s too much at stake. 

The bad news is that Progressives worked hard to elect Barack Obama, who turned out to be a President who negotiates with vipers. The good news is that we now know who are dealing with and have two years to take corrective action. 

Martin Luther King Jr. once observed: “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.” 

Progressives should be fearful about the economy, and more generally, the survival of Democracy in America. Our problem is not to be rid of fear – to attempt to negotiate with snakes – but rather to harness and master this fear. I am confident we can do this, with or without Barack Obama. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at