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Liberals In A Dither Over Whether Obama Blew It, Or Nailed It

President Obama leaves the Oval Office early Wednesday after the House passed legislation to retain tax breaks for most Americans, let tax rates rise for the wealthiest, and delay action on mandatory spending cuts.
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President Obama leaves the Oval Office early Wednesday after the House passed legislation to retain tax breaks for most Americans, let tax rates rise for the wealthiest, and delay action on mandatory spending cuts.

Fiscal cliff week has mercifully ended with a deal done, hurricane relief approved, President Obama vacationing, and both parties bickering internally over what was won — and lost — in the early hours of the new year.

What we have found most intriguing is the vigorous post-facto wrestling within the liberal community over what the fiscal cliff negotiations say about President Obama.

Is he a "wimp" who blinked during fiscal cliff wrangling, failing to pursue a grand bargain and weakening his future hand?

Or a pragmatist who negotiated a "big win" in securing congressional approval for the first tax increase on the wealthy in more than two decades?

The answer we've gleaned from party stalwarts and presidential historians is a resounding "yes."

Two Sides Of The Coin

"He played his hand brilliantly," says Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst whose book, Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption, took a dive into the president's psyche.

"He got the big 800-pound gorilla — a big tax increase, and all of the implications that come from that," Renshon told us Friday.

But then there's this, from presidential historian Joseph Persico, whose new book explores Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership during World War II.

"It pains me to say this, because I support the president, but I don't think his strength is as a negotiator," Persico says, allowing, however, that "half a loaf is better than none — and this is about five slices."

Critics of the deal are disappointed that Obama looks to have squandered a good deal of his big re-election leverage with a small-ball deal.

Liberal supporters of the outcome say the president managed a deal with a dysfunctional Republican House majority, instituting higher taxes for high earners, and preserving programs that disproportionately benefit poor and middle-class Americans, unemployment insurance and tax credit extensions.

Take your pick.

Let's take a closer look at their positions.

Obama As Victor

Critics say the president should have driven a harder bargain, even going over the fiscal cliff if necessary. Not only would Republicans have borne the blame for raising taxes on the middle class, they say, but showing a measure of inflexibility now might have strengthened the president's hand in future negotiations, by proving to Republicans that there are some lines he won't cross.

Renshon doesn't buy it.

"If I were I on the left," he says, "I would quit complaining."

Obama during the fiscal cliff negotiations, he says, was at the "point of his maximum leverage," with his electoral win still playing like "Muzak in the elevator."

"Once you lose your leverage, you don't know where the ball will roll," he said, noting that GOP House Speaker John Boehner clearly wanted to get a deal done, and Republicans were "up against a wall."

"Obama's a very smart guy, and he's playing the long game," Renshon says. "And the long game is clearly that you get almost all of what you want, but by degree."

He describes Obama as a vague, but consistent, maximalist who sees himself as a historic figure — a la Mount Rushmore — and one determined to not be the president who presides over the "demise of the liberal welfare state."

Progressive strategist Robert Creamer says that there is nothing in the fiscal cliff deal not to like. "We made progress," he said. "The president just raised the top tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, and that's a big deal in terms of the American economy and its fundamental underlying problem of economic inequality."

"But what progressives are worried about is did we give up the leverage we need to address serious problems in the next round?" Creamer says.

He argues that the administration was willing to go over the cliff if it didn't get a "good, progressive outcome."

The main criticism, as Creamer sees it, is that Obama argued throughout his campaign for tax increases on a larger swath of high-earning Americans, calling for higher taxes on those with family income of $250,000 or more, which would bring in about $800 billion in revenue.

The deal forged this week lets the taxes rise only on families with income of $450,000 and above and is estimated to produce revenues of about $600 billion.

Obama Shows Tactical Weakness

Persico argues that Obama is no Lyndon B. Johnson, who knew which arms to twist and favors to call in to put together the big deal. Like the civil rights legislation.

"President Obama lacks the seasoning to have that kind of success," he says.

The fact that Obama tapped Vice President Biden, a Senate veteran, to negotiate in the final hours with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the need for that kind of seasoning.

"What's happened here," Persico says, "is typical of the nature of our current government: There doesn't seem to be the will or the patience to deal with the essence of the problem, so they are just chewing at the edges."

It's not that Persico is arguing that failure to address the cliff would have been a good thing. He says it would have been at minimum a psychological blow to the economy.

Instead, he says, Obama could have begun a conversation much earlier, using the report of his own debt commission as a starting point "rather than have this drag on and explode."

No matter how things play out over the four years of Obama's second term, the fiscal cliff deal will be looked at as a turning point, Persico said.

Whether it will be viewed as an achievement or an opportunity lost obviously remains to be seen.

"I'm a historian," Persico says. "If you learn anything from history, if you look too far ahead, you're liable to be made to look foolish."

Obama As Obama

In his singular book, Presidential Power, first published in 1960, political scientist and presidential adviser Richard Neustadt titled his opening chapter, "Leader or Clerk?"

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer this week argued that the fiscal cliff deal left little doubt about where he sees Obama in Neustadt's presidential ledger.

"He's a visionary, not an accountant," Krauthammer wrote of Obama. "Sure, he'll pretend to care about deficits, especially while running for reelection. But now that he's past the post, he's free to be himself — a committed big-government social democrat."

In Krauthammer's world, that is a very bad thing. In Creamer's world, it's something else altogether.

And for Renshon, the words resonate.

"Obama is the least clerklike president we've had in a long time," he says. "The only thing holding him back from a full-fledged policy blowout that reflects where he wants to take the country is the Republican House.

"And he's learning how to neutralize it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.