Obama's Speech: Another Meaningless Line in the Sand

We liberals are finally learning what conservatives have said all along: Ignore the President's pretty speeches and judge him by his actions.

Of course, liberals and conservatives are judging from two very different directions. While criticism from the Right sees him as a socialist-leaning bleeding-heart, we on the Left wish he were what the Tea Party accuses him of. Instead, we see a President that continues to adopt conservative frames, extend Republican wars (and start one of his own), and buy into the advice of a coterie of Wall Street executives.The proud progressive we wanted to elect never put single-payer healthcare on the table, hasn't fought for meaningful mortgage reform and didn't draw a line in the sand when it came to allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

Well, he did draw a line in the sand… but seems to think of it as his starting line for compromise, which is how the Bush-era give-away to our wealthiest citizens continued while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.

All of which leads us to yesterday's address (check out the transcript and It's A Free Country's live commentary), which was classic Obama. As he did during the healthcare debate, he allowed the other side to post a few runs to the scoreboard before he stepped up to the plate ready to swing for the fences.

Sure enough, he delivered a great speech.As he articulated the values that animate America, he described a country I believe in. He objected strongly to conservative plans and committed to important government programs.

During the lead up, liberals worried he was about to do what no Republican president had been able to accomplish: Suggest cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Activist groups like the PCCC called on Obama supporters to put pressure on the man they had helped elect. After the speech, though, a number of writers admitted it was better than they expected. Paul Krugman in the Times called the substance "much better than many of us feared" (a compliment coming from Krugman). As reported on this site, he took a clear stance on the need for the wealthy to pay their share. Blogger Chris Bowers, while skeptical, did acknowledge that "this appears to mean President Obama is refreshingly taking a harder line in response to Republican hostage-taking." 

In short, the president drew a line in the sand…and that's exactly what makes me nervous - because he always draws those lines shortly before he capitulates.

While I cheer a harder line on letting unnecessary and wasteful tax give-aways to the wealthiest Americans expire, why should we believe the president will accomplish that in the future when he had the chance in the past? He claims to have a vision to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid and control costs without privatizing or cutting the programs. However, the healthcare reforms he signed into law are so convoluted that their potential savings are years off, and the reforms didn't fundamentally challenge the grip of for-profit insurers. And while it's wonderful to say we'll close corporate loopholes, his chief economic advisor is the CEO of a company that proudly found every loophole in order to pay no corporate taxes this past year. Why would that adviser recommend any change in current policy?

My conservative colleague at It's A Free Country, Karol Markowicz, asks Obama's supporters to stop believing in magic and to look seriously at his record. I have to agree.

The president who delivered yesterday's address is the one who excited regular Americans in 2008 and who won progressive support for his candidacy. But where was that President as Republicans shaped the terms of this debate? And, more importantly, where will that President be as we fight over the debt ceiling, the next budget, the attacks on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and the need for wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share.

The President delivers great speeches, but doesn't always find a way to deliver on those commitments. And the gap between his promises and compromises is the long-term deficit that concerns me the most.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."