Satisfying the left (but not just the left)

When the White House announced a few weeks ago that President Obama would present a new economic agenda — featuring both a jobs plan and a deficit — few were as nervous about the details as the left. Through a likely combination of satisfaction and relief, liberals seem to be feeling a lot better now.

As Dana Milbank put it, Obama “has given his side a reason to fight.”

Let us begin by stipulating that President Obama’s new budget plan is unrealistic, highly partisan and a non-starter on Capitol Hill.

That’s what’s so good about it.

At last, the president hasn’t conceded the race before the starter’s gun, hasn’t opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn’t begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morning delivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum.

It’d be a stretch to say support from the left has been universal, but as the Huffington Post noted, the new agenda has, for now, “managed to placate a community of progressive activists, Democratic operatives and congressional offices.” Among those praising the president yesterday were Howard Dean and James Carville, neither of whom are steadfast Obama allies. For that matter, when both MoveOn.org and Third Way are responding positively, it’s safe to assume much of the Democratic mainstream is on board.

Politico added that Obama has “finally gave his liberal critics exactly what they wanted,” by making a pivot “from appeasement to partisanship.”

His tough opening bid on deficit reduction and his feisty, defiant speech from the White House Monday were greeted with almost incredulous joy by progressives who have urged Obama to take this kind of hard line with Republicans since the day he was elected. […]

He called for $1.5 trillion in new taxes on the wealthy. He protected Social Security. And he declined to include a conciliatory offer to raise the Medicare eligibility age — a decision that thrilled “the professional left,” as his aides have long derided them, whose advice on policy and strategy was often ignored by a White House deeply committed to the legislative middle road.

I think this analysis is accurate, and when it comes to both policy and politics, I think the White House has made a smart move. I’d add just two other angles to keep in mind.

First, if the president and his team are looking at this as an opening bid for talks with congressional Republicans, it’s likely that a completed deal — in the unlikely event a completed deal ever comes together — would include measures the left will find disappointing. (Of course, if there is no agreement, the president will run throughout 2012 on the GOP’s failure to do the right thing.)

Second, while the fact that much of the left is feeling satisfied with the White House for a change, it’s important to realize that Obama isn’t just “playing to his base” with this economic agenda. National polls show the American mainstream — including plenty of moderates and independents — support the ideas in the American Jobs Act and support higher taxes on the wealthy as part of a debt-reduction plan. Indeed, it’s not even close.

I mention this because these “Obama makes liberals happy” stories are accurate, but incomplete. It’s true that progressives feel good about the president’s direction, but as Greg Sargent explained very well yesterday, if the media misses the fact that the White House’s approach enjoys broad national support, it’s missing the context that matters. The agenda that Obama has proposed, Andrew Sullivan added, “is simply where the American people are at.”