Krugman to Obama: You're getting rolled

Progressives want the president to show some backbone on health care... and everything else

Published August 21, 2009 1:26PM (EDT)

Proving once again that Paul Krugman doesn't care what party a president belongs to, the New York Times op/ed columnist and Nobel-prize-winning economist lambasted Barack Obama on Friday with a column that rips into the White House's newest occupant with more vehemence than anything he's written this year.

The topic, of course, is healthcare reform. Some samples:

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 ...

... It's possible to have universal coverage without a public option -- several European nations do it -- and some who want a public option might be willing to forgo it if they had confidence in the overall health care strategy. Unfortunately, the president's behavior in office has undermined that confidence.

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 ...

Now, politics is the art of the possible. Mr. Obama was never going to get everything his supporters wanted.

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.

I have one quibble: Who was more important to Obama's general election victory -- progressives who would have had little problem voting for Hillary Clinton, or independents who took Obama's message of Red State/Blue State unity at face value? I'm also still holding out hope that the White House strategy is a cagey ju-jitsu display of what Eric Alterman calls "fake bipartisanship" in the Daily Beast. The Republicans have been successfully exposed as totally unwilling to participate in the process. Now it's up to Democrats to pass some legislation, and we would do well not to overreact to the day-to-day rhetoric that comes out of the White House and Congress as this incredibly complex undertaking moves through the legislative grinder. No one ever said passing real healthcare reform would be easy.

But Krugman is dead right on the main point. A great many people who voted for Obama are itching for a fight, waiting for Obama to draw a line in the sand, spend all his political "capital" and say here is where we make our stand! We want to see some backbone, and we aren't getting it. Instead, we are faced with a far more depressing scenario. Obama's political capital seems to be slipping away, without a struggle.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Barack Obama Healthcare Reform How The World Works Paul Krugman