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The Conversation: President Obama and the Left


Last week angry House Democrats, meeting to discuss the tax deal President Barack Obama negotiated behind their backs with Senate Republicans, chanted, “Just Say No!” at a meeting in the basement of the Capitol. In exchange for extending unemployment benefits the president agreed to keep the lower tax rates on America’s richest 2 percent that President George W. Bush had helped enact a decade ago—tax rates candidate Obama had promised to let expire. Those on the Left felt betrayed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent/socialist Senator from Vermont, filibustered the bill for 8½ hours on the Senate floor, saying that Obama’s “credibility has been severely damaged.” The president did not appreciate opposition to the compromise from within his own party, calling them “sanctimonious” and unrealistic “purists.” Now there’s talk of someone from the left-wing of the party actually running in a primary against the incumbent, shades of Eugene McCarthy jousting with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968! Has the Left been so dissed it’s time for a third-party challenge? Here to discuss are Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition; Janine Melillo, regional coordinator for MoveOn.org; and Nassau Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead).

Lisa: The idea that we’re purists is just wrong. This is a bad bill, and it’s basically giving everything away to the wealthy. The estate-tax component of it is a bitter pill that we are being forced to swallow. But does that mean we’re going to run a third-party candidate against him? No. What it does mean is that the grassroots need to build our own power, and we need to be more vocal and more organized just like the Tea Party is right now. Look at the health care bill. The president definitely took the Left Wing for granted on that one. We didn’t get the public option. He could’ve pushed harder to make sure that it was a requirement. He has never been a progressive. When he was coming into office, we always knew that. The question is how much to the right or how much in the middle is he. This latest bill really is scary for us because what’s going to happen in the next two years? How much to the right will he move?

Kevan: Well, during the campaign I will say that Barack Obama probably came across more as a progressive guy than I thought. I don’t know if I would technically agree with Lisa because he’s gone to the center on this one issue. He’s been more than progressive, I think, on health care reform. Again, he had to structure a deal with moderate and progressive Democrats. At the end of the day it’s something that other presidents hadn’t been able to do. I think he’ll have an opportunity to prove to progressive Democrats that he is definitely in line with their policies and what they’d like to see from their president.


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Janine: Progressives need to keep reminding Obama that he was elected quite convincingly by a majority of the voters because he talked explicitly and confidently about moving this country forward in a progressive direction.  This is what people wanted; this is what people expect. And so there is a lot of disappointment around his preemptive capitulation on the fight over the Bush tax breaks for the rich. MoveOn members have been extensively surveyed since the tax deal was announced, and most members oppose it. For starters, the lion’s share of the benefit will go to the very rich, and this is not an effective way to create jobs, according to most economists. What’s more, the deal would cut payroll taxes, endangering the long-term funding of Social Security−giving Republicans just the opening they want to gut or even nix the program.

Kevan: My response to progressive Democrats is: What would you have done on January 1 if there’s no deal in place? What do you say to those millions of Americans who are no longer going to be receiving job benefits? I don’t think that now is the time that we should be challenging within our own party. The president’s only been there for two years. From my standpoint he should be judged on his full term. America spoke on Nov. 2nd. Republicans took back the House. And it’s important that progressive Democrats, independents, everybody listen.

Janine: The most frightening thing is that we know this isn’t the end, or even the beginning of the end, of the Republican tactic of holding the middle class hostage to demand huge and unnecessary bailouts for the rich. Rewarding this tactic now will only encourage them to do it again. As for the president, we will keep urging him to articulate and fight for the progressive agenda he ran on in 2008. And whether he does or not, we will keep doing that ourselves.

Lisa: Right now he has basically put his name on a redistribution of wealth. But a third- party challenge won’t help. We need the left to be stand up and be organized in every district across the country. Having a third-party candidate could give the Republicans the win in the next presidential election. We saw the Ralph Nader effect in 2000, and that’s the last thing we need.

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