Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's New Enemy: The Left

The Left may not approve of most foreign wars, but it is now going into battle. Its target? President Obama.

Congressional Democrats are expressing outrage at his tax compromise with the GOP. Most likely it will narrowly pass. But the damage is being done, at least when it comes to Obama's base. A variety of critics have pasted Obama, including Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, for abandoning the principles that the Democratic party is supposed to represent. Obama, the indictment goes, is a pusillanimous appeaser who has buckled, again and again to congressional Republicans. According to Lerner,

With his base deeply disillusioned, many progressives are starting to believe that Obama has little chance of winning reelection unless he enthusiastically embraces a populist agenda and worldview—soon. Yet there is little chance that will happen without a massive public revolt by his constituency that goes beyond rallies, snide remarks from television personalities or indignant op-eds.

Similarly, Frank Rich has accused Obama of succumbing to a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which he identifies with his captors--in this case, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Co. Rich says,

the real problem is that he’s so indistinct no one across the entire political spectrum knows who he is. A chief executive who repeatedly presents himself as a conciliator, forever searching for the “good side” of all adversaries and convening summits, in the end comes across as weightless, if not AWOL. A Rorschach test may make for a fine presidential candidate — when everyone projects their hopes on the guy. But it doesn’t work in the Oval Office: These days everyone is projecting their fears on Obama instead.

But here's the question: in his press conference, President Obama deliberately lashed out at the Left for demanding the moon and presented himself as a practical, realist. Could it be that Obama actually welcomes the attacks from the Left? Is this part of his campaign strategy for 2012? Is he trying to incur the hostility of the liberal elite?

At his press conference Obama was angry--or appeared to be furious with his critics on the left. "This is a big, diverse country," he said. "Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. This country was founded on compromise."

Well, I guess. I mean most democratic countries embody some form of compromise. But what Obama is asking the Democrats to do is hold their nose and vote for tax cuts for the wealthy, something they've never done--except wait a minute. Who voted for the Bush tax cuts in the first place? Democrats.

The difference is that Democrats were convinced that Obama would usher in a new era. He hasn't. Instead, he does increasingly resemble his predecessor, in substance, if not in tone. Obama is going to make a gamble, which is that his base has nowhere else to go. By and large, he's going to take it for granted. What he's pursuing are independent voters. Lashing out at the Left signals to the rest of the country that he's not a member of it.

The saga of Barack Obama has been an exceedingly strange one. A president elected to usher in change is himself changing. Obama has successively morphed from street organizer to legislator to president with dizzying speed. Now he's adopting a new political coloration. It's one that is causing his former champions to cry betrayal, while he accuses them of being "sanctimonious" and "purists." As Obama and his erstwhile admirers trade unfriendly fire, the next year will show whether the hostilities erupt into full-scale combat or whether they simply remain skirmishes.