The Corner

No Kudos from Krugman

Whatever one thinks of Paul Krugman — and I think his columns are often risible and dyspeptic — among the Left, he’s quite influential. And so his column today, “Obama’s Trust Problem: Behind the progressive revolt,” is very bad news for the Obama administration. Krugman writes:

According to news reports, the Obama administration — which seemed, over the weekend, to be backing away from the “public option” for health insurance — is shocked and surprised at the furious reaction from progressives. Well, I’m shocked and surprised at their shock and surprise.  A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months. The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it’s also a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach.

On the issue of health care itself, the inspiring figure progressives thought they had elected comes across, far too often, as a dry technocrat who talks of ‘bending the curve’ but has only recently begun to make the moral case for reform. Mr. Obama’s explanations of his plan have gotten clearer, but he still seems unable to settle on a simple, pithy formula; his speeches and op-eds still read as if they were written by a committee.

Meanwhile, on such fraught questions as torture and indefinite detention, the president has dismayed progressives with his reluctance to challenge or change Bush administration policy. And then there’s the matter of the banks.

I don’t know if administration officials realize just how much damage they’ve done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing. But I’ve had many conversations with people who voted for Mr. Obama, yet dismiss the stimulus as a total waste of money. When I press them, it turns out that they’re really angry about the bailouts rather than the stimulus — but that’s a distinction lost on most voters.

So there’s a growing sense among progressives that they have, as my colleague Frank Rich suggests, been punked. And that’s why the mixed signals on the public option created such an uproar.

But there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line . . .  It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled . . . So progressives are now in revolt. Mr. Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it. And now he needs to win it back.

A revolt among his liberal base would be bad enough all by itself. But this is happening at the same time that Obama has unified the GOP in opposition and, more significantly, Obama’s support among independents is collapsing. What Obama has done, in only eight months, is two things at once: resuscitated the liberal, tax-and-spend image of Democrats among the general public while also provoking a revolt among his “progressive” base. That’s not an easy thing to achieve — but Obama appears to have done it. And all in his first year. That is an achievement of sorts, I suppose.

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