By Adam Serwer
Yesterday, President Obama gave a combative response to criticism he's been receiving from the left for his proposed deal with Republicans to extend both the middle and upper income tax cuts. Sounding a note that resembled his rebuke to neoconservatives regarding the "satisfying purity of indignation" in his Nobel acceptance speech, the president said:
Now, if that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
While there are a lot of easy rejoinders to the notion that, as the president said, America was "founded on compromise" it happens to be true. Not compromise with the British, but compromise between the states. When the president was referring to the three-fifths compromise that allowed slavery to continue in the ostensible land of the free, or the fact that original passage of Social Security essentially excluded large numbers of people (particularly, I might add, black people) he was referencing the reality that the story of progress, particularly liberal progress, has ever been one of noxious, painful compromise. That's a rhetorical flourish that doesn't reflect one way or another on the merits of this particular compromise, but it's accurate.
Following press secretary Robert Gibbs' remarks about the "professional left," I think there's been a general idea in the liberal blogosphere that Obama has contempt for his liberal supporters, a notion that's likely to gain traction after yesterday's performance. But there's a reason why the president invoked FDR and not Ronald Reagan, why he reached for Social Security as a defining American accomplishment, and why he was comfortable invoking America's founding defects so casually -- something that makes conservatives go apopletic. It's because the president, for all his failures and disappointments, whatever his statements in public, largely still sees himself as a liberal. While many commentators have noted his apparent sensitivity to criticism of the left, I think it's probable that such criticism makes the president angry not because he hates liberals, but because he identifies with them. His defense of the Affordable Care Act, whatever you think of it on the merits, was an attempt to place it in the context of other historic achievements of American liberalism.