Obama’s Tax Cut Debacle: When Compromise is the Enemy of the Good

Mark Engler Dec 10, 2010

This article was originally published on from Dissent Magazine.

I think we need a new aphorism or analogy to counter the old saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is the principle that President Obama has once again offered up, this time after disastrously caving in to the Republicans over tax cuts for the rich.

A new, contrary adage should warn against compromising to the point at which you end up supporting something vile.

I asked some friends and readers for ideas. “Drowning the baby with the bath water,” was one thought. My younger brother Paul suggested going biblical: “What good is it to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?”

Another friend proposed something a bit less lofty, though eloquent in its own way: “Neither delicious bread nor groaning hunger improves a shit sandwich.”

In the wake of the deal on tax cuts, President Obama has felt obligated to defend himself from a huge wave of revulsion coming from those on his left—in the words of CBS News, to “[Hit] Back at His Liberal Critics.” In a Tuesday press conference he stated:

This notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much—this is the public option debate all over again. We pass something that Democrats have been fighting for for over 100 years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get…somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Well, this time around, Obama won nothing so significant as health care reform. And it came at a terrible political cost. He effectively conceded that, even as they hold the White House and the majority in the Senate, the Democrats will allow Republicans to drive policy over the next two years. Compromise itself has become the enemy of the good.

In the press conference, Obama compared the Republicans with hostage takers for their refusal to extend unemployment benefits without a concession on extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest. The president said, “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers—unless the hostage gets harmed…In this case the hostage was the American people.”

Obama’s analogy failed him horribly. As the National Review’s Dan Foster tweeted, “Don’t negotiate with hostage takers, unless they harm the hostage? Hopefully that isn’t official FBI [Hostage Rescue Team] procedure.” Such a policy, of course, would only encourage the hostage takers to harm more innocents. And as things stand, it looks like that’s what we’ll have coming from conservatives over the next two years.

Back in August, when Obama and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs first unloaded on the Left, deriding progressive critics as impossible idealists, I took the lesson that it was naive of us to expect the president to enjoy being pressured by the social movement constituencies that helped to get him elected. We had been charmed by the mythical FDR parable in which that New Deal president supposedly told a progressive agitator, “You’ve convinced me. I would like to push forward these changes. Now go out and make me do it.”

I think it should be clear by now that this is not a “make me do it” president. We saw with Organizing for America—which was meant to carry forward the activist energy of the 2008 Obama campaign—that the administration did not want a feisty and independent-minded grassroots. It wanted loyal and uncritical foot soldiers to carry water for the White House and its proposals.

Regarding this latest attack, I’m glad that Obama feels it necessary to scold the Left. I think the White House is feeling a backlash to its new compromise that is far harsher than anything it expected. And while I’m not convinced that corporal punishment is generally a good pedagogical instrument, maybe this lashing will stay in the administration’s memory.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website

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