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With Dems In A Funk, Obama Charts a New Course

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

What's wrong with Democrats? Sure, they got their butts kicked on Nov. 2, but they still control the Senate and the White House, and they remain in charge of the vast bureaucracy of the executive branch. So why do they seem so lost?

"We're uniting," one key House Republican said recently, "and they're disintegrating."

The lawmaker was marveling at the Democrats' inability to come up with a coherent position on the Bush tax cuts. The party has hated "tax cuts for the rich" for nearly a decade, but now that those cuts are sunsetting, they can't decide what to do. Some Democrats want to stand firm against extending cuts for high-income taxpayers, while others agree with Republicans that the Bush rates should be extended for everyone, even the "rich," if only for a few years. Democratic legislators can't even come together on an alternative proposal to extend all the cuts except for people who earn more than $1 million a year. Think about it: If today's Democrats don't stand for raising taxes on millionaires, then what do they stand for?

For some in the Democratic base, the party's current confusion is the last straw. Imagine if you had said this to a lefty activist back in those happy days of January 2009: "By the end of 2010, President Obama will have escalated the war in Afghanistan, there will be 50,000 American troops in Iraq, Guantanamo will remain open, some of the most controversial aspects of the Bush war on terror will still be in effect, there will be no grand climate legislation, no comprehensive immigration reform, no second round of stimulus, and oh, by the way -- they're going to extend Bush's tax cuts for the rich." It's no wonder true believers have sunk into a funk. "I hope President Obama, who's intensely intelligent, understands that he needs to ... stand tall, stand hard, stand tough," the Nation's editor Katrina vanden Heuvel said recently. "It about morality, principle, good policy, good politics to stand tall on these Bush tax cuts."

There has been a lot of speculation among Republicans about Obama's ability to practice Clintonian triangulation in the face of the new GOP majority in the House. Many Republicans don't believe the president can do it, that he's simply too rigidly ideological to pull it off. But if that's so, why did he just announce a freeze on federal workers' pay?

"He is totally capable of triangulating," says a Democratic strategist. "Look at this pay freeze. Having the unions shrieking is great for him. I don't think he'll be politically harmed at all. I think he'll benefit." Now, if Obama makes a deal to extend all the tax cuts and then embraces the recommendations of the deficit commission, he'll horrify the editor of the Nation, but he'll send the message that he can work with the new Republican powers on Capitol Hill. Not just that they can get along; the message will be that they can work together to fix the economy.

At the recent White House summit between Obama and congressional leaders, there was general agreement that the lesson of Nov. 2 was that voters want leaders in Washington to concentrate on jobs and federal spending. So what do Democrats on Capitol Hill do? They signal that they'll push hard for action on gays in the military and the DREAM Act.

It was just a year ago -- Christmas 2009 -- that Democrats pushed through the Senate a healthcare bill the public didn't want. They were full of power and confidence then, with 255 seats in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and with the healthcare law they achieved something that had been a Democratic goal for generations.

Just 10 months later, as the midterm elections approached, Democrats in both House and Senate put off passing a federal budget and took no action on tax rates because they were afraid that doing something would hurt their chances in the midterm elections. They lost anyway, and now everyone is dealing with the last-minute mess they created.

Is there any question that Obama has to triangulate away from these guys? He's tried to make the left happy. Now, he can either keep trying, and blow his chance for re-election in 2012, or embark on a new course that will appeal to millions of independent voters who have abandoned Democrats in the past two years. It would seem to be an easy choice to make.

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