Of all the issues, why this one?

OF ALL THE ISSUES, WHY THIS ONE?…. I saw a tweet this morning that captured a fairly common liberal sentiment recently: “@BarackObama I am very afraid this one issue is the real make or break issue for you. You will NOT be re-elected if you compromise tax cuts.”

I noticed a prominent progressive senator said something similar the other day. Just 24 hours after Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he could support a deal with an extension of all Bush-era tax rates, Harkin then said President Obama would be in huge electoral trouble if he supports a deal with an extension of all Bush-era tax rates.

“He would then just be hoping and praying that Sarah Palin gets the nomination,” Harkin replied, insinuating that there would be few other Republicans that Obama could assuredly beat in 2012.

The left’s frustrations are obvious and well-reasoned, but I’m curious: why has this one policy become the make-or-break issue?

Personally, I’ve been far from thrilled by how the president and his team have handled the tax debate, but if I’m making a list of things the White House has done lately that have annoyed me, I’d put the pay freeze for federal workers ahead of the likely deal on tax cuts.

In fact, my level of frustration over the tax debate is directed more at congressional Dems than Obama. The president wanted Congress to deal with this — voting on the middle-class-first plan he championed all along — before the midterm elections, which was good advice that Democrats ignored for reasons I still can’t figure out.

As recently as early September, Republicans were prepared to cave on taxes and lose the larger fight — right up until Dems on the Hill (not in the administration) got nervous. The caucus splintered, and the GOP took advantage, leaving Obama to try to make the best of a bad situation after Congress. Insisting that the president can’t win re-election in two years because he’s fighting for extended unemployment benefits in exchange for tax cuts seems like an overreaction.

In contrast, the president’s call for a federal worker pay freeze is really annoying. It’s a bad policy, executed in a foolish way — the White House got nothing in exchange for a major concession to the right. It’s the kind of move that Obama’s made before, and I find it increasingly frustrating every time.

And yet, most of Obama’s liberal detractors seem to find a tax deal far more infuriating.

The larger debate over tax policy went off the rails a while ago, but seems especially baffling to me now. For the president’s progressive critics, $3.2 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, all of which would be added to the deficit, is a good, sound policy, but a two-year extension of existing tax rates is a political fiasco that should end Obama’s career? The president’s the one that came up with the preferred tax policy in the first place, and would have preferred that Congress hadn’t dropped the ball. Now he’s trying to get something worthwhile out of the negotiations, and it’s the deal breaker on his future?

There’s a reasonable case to be made that we’re looking at a cumulative effect. For much of the left, the concessions, many of which seemed wholly unnecessary, are just becoming intolerable. The party’s messaging, tactics, and inability to compromise effectively are just exasperating, and the apparent fact that Republicans will get an extension of a failed tax policy has led some to throw up their arms in disgust and proclaim, “I’ve had it.”

I get that. It’s a sentiment that obviously makes sense. But I nevertheless think making the tax issue, in isolation, the “real make or break issue” for Obama’s presidency is a mistake. He badly flubbed the pay freeze issue, but I’m not convinced the tax mess is his fault.