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Why Obama Is Breaking Up With Democrats

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you need proof that President Barack Obama got what he absolutely had to out of the tax-cut deal he made with congressional Republicans, listen to the sound of silence coming out of Sarah Palin's Twitter feed.


That she and Republicans couldn't find anything to immediately blast Obama for explains why he took the ass end of a "compromise" that swapped two more years of Bush-era tax rates for an extension of expiring unemployment benefits. He figured out that Republicans didn't really want tax cuts — they wanted to beat him up with a six-week argument about tax cuts that would run right up until five minutes before the State of the Union.

Obama didn't give it to them. That's what he got out of the deal.

Writing for the Washington Post, the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote that doing the tax deal would be "political self-immolation." Wrong. On Saturday, Senate Democrats couldn't pass a bill raising the top marginal rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent for households making over $250,000. They couldn't even pass it when the line was drawn at $1 million.


No, "self-immolation" would have been Obama's barnstorming around the country at Christmas trying to sell a middle-class tax cut and then having every Republican and the same five Democrats who voted against the deal in the first place vote against him again.

So the president took — er, left — the money and ran. If he's smart, he'll take this opportunity to make a clean break with progressives. OpenLeft's Paul Rosenberg is cautioning progressives that the president isn't their boyfriend: "Ergo, he didn't dump you." But Obama might be an eHarmony match who caught their eye and then turned them down for a date. If progressives are smart, they'll accept a few realities that will make the end of their affair with Obama a little easier to take.

Obama Is Not Progressive

Call him a big-government conservative or call him America's City Manager. Liberals have to disabuse themselves of the idea that Obama is caving in on his core principles, because his core principle is being reasonable.


Sometimes it works and sometimes not, but as long as progressives keep thinking that he'll "fight back" or "draw a line in the sand," they're doing themselves a disservice and, ironically, clinging to the same belief held by the right: that a Hawaiian with an extra consonant at the end of his name must be a progressive. He's not, and he never really was.

Congress Is Spineless

The president isn't dealing just with stuff that happened before he was president; most of the problems he's wrestling with accrued before he was even a member of Congress.


2012 Starts Now

We're either two years away from the start of Obama's second term or two years from the start of a Romney/Christie/Pence/Daniels/Gingrich/Barbour/Pawlenty administration.


With polls showing a majority of Americans favor ending tax cuts for top earners, Obama is taking a risk by agreeing to a two-year extension, because it means that the issue comes back in 2012. But first he's got to get to 2012, and that means grabbing the initiative before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives.

He's going to have to veto something eventually, but he probably doesn't want his first order of business in 2011 to be vetoing a tax cut that the GOP somehow sneaks past Senate Democrats.


What remains to be seen is whether the tax deal is a one-off or part of a concerted effort to put some space between himself and liberals in Congress and start doing his own thing. It wouldn't exactly be a replay of Bill Clinton's 1994 "triangulation" strategy because Clinton didn't have wars and bank bailouts to deal with. And Clinton didn't pass health care reform — he just talked about it a lot.

Many progressives would disagree, but Obama has taken the big-ticket progressive issues about as far as he can go. There's still an opportunity to lead on matters of pure principle, like ending "Don't ask, don't tell." But for now, a tax increase is DOA. Even billionaires like Warren Buffett who are OK with higher taxes probably wonder whether the government would spend the money wisely. 


If you knew what was on Obama's iPod in the White House gym Wednesday morning after he announced the deal, you might be able to predict what his next move is going to be. Maybe it was Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

Or maybe it was an old-school break-up song. Picture Obama: Too-high sweatpants, lip busted, face tight, head down, handcuffed by two years of hyperpartisanship, pushing play on Ray Charles' "Hit The Road Jack" as he steps on the treadmill. Now the door is wide open, and to reset his agenda, he might want to make a run for it, go his own way, not look back and holler at progressives over his shoulder: "It's not you. It's me."


David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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