President Barack Obama is at a unique point in his presidency. This is a place where no one thought he'd be, but then again, no presidency ever turns out the way we would expect. The president is finding that in addition to the burden of dealing with unrelenting Republicans, many of whom can't stand seeing a black man in power, he now has to deal with Democrats who are angry at him for compromising on the latest tax agreement.
I admit that I was shocked to see such strong Democratic opposition to Obama's tax deal with the Republicans. Effectively, the Republicans were holding the nation's unemployed hostage in exchange for having Bush tax cuts extended for the rich. This was a prime opportunity for the Democrats, given that the Republicans were revealing themselves to be working on behalf of the wealthy, at the expense of middle class Americans. Additionally, their push to give tax cuts to those who needed them the least was in stark contrast to their proclaimed objective of embracing fiscal discipline as it pertains to the federal debt.
Obama made a deal with the Republicans that seems pretty good on the surface. Among other things, Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years for all Americans, including those earning more than $250,000 per year. In exchange, Obama gets a one-year extension on unemployment insurance for those who've been out of work for at least 26 weeks, but less than 99 weeks. Republicans also get, among other things, an estate tax of 35 percent for estates worth $5 million or more, while Democrats wanted 45 percent.
Many leading Democrats are angry at President Obama for making this agreement.
"Everything President Obama has done has signaled weakness and has sent a signal to Republicans that if they block tax cuts long enough, at the end of the day he will pass whatever comes across his desk. That is not how you negotiate," said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Green may have a point. Some Democrats argue that had Obama pushed harder when negotiating with Republicans, he could have allowed them to appear to be the party fighting for the rich, which could yield benefits in the 2012 elections. But the White House had to balance these benefits with the gains that could be made by showing that they worked across the aisle to avoid tax hikes that would likely slow down the economy. There is the added benefit that by making this deal, Obama helped to secure the financial future of millions of out of work Americans right before Christmas.
The great challenge for President Obama is that he is perceived by neither Democrats nor Republicans to be a strong leader or effective negotiator. Unlike solid negotiating presidents of the past, like Ronald Reagan, Obama has lost some of the trust initially invested in him by his liberal base. Additionally, while Reagan struck quite a few deals during his presidency, he also took opportunities to show strength and stand toe-to-toe with his enemies. Obama has yet to do much of anything other than bend like a rubber band.
A greater problem for Obama is that while he seems to understand that compromise is the way to get things done in polarized Washington, he's not getting credit from Republicans for his willingness to work with them. The Republican Party is insistent upon seeing Obama out of office, the racists in their party don't want a black president and they are spreading some of the most vicious and irresponsible lies imaginable in the kind of political lynch mob that we haven't seen since the Reconstruction. Liberals, on the other hand, are irritated that Obama has not been as idealistic as they are. All the while, many of them don't have the first bit of understanding of what it takes to actually get results on Capitol Hill. When you try to please everyone, you usually end up in no-man's land. That's where President Obama lives right now.
While Obama needs to show that compromise doesn't imply weakness, we must choose our battles carefully. Becoming engaged in political chest thumping with unemployment insurance on the line would be both politically irresponsible and devoid of human compassion. Leaving families hungry in exchange for a political victory would only serve to remind us of just how far apart our leaders in Washington are from the rest of America. One thing that does hold true for the president is that he needs to find an opportunity before 2012 to draw his line in the sand and show the world that he's not a punk. No one wants to support a weak leader.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.