Leave it to the famously politically incorrect Bill Maher to get to the heart of what's bugging President Barack Obama's supporters these days:
"I thought when we elected the first black president," the host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" told CNN's Fareed Zakaria last Sunday, "as a comedian I thought two years in I'd be making jokes about what a gangster he was."
Instead, "he looks beaten down," said Maher. "That's what disturbs me. ... Where are they going to draw a line in the sand? When are they going to remember who they are?"
That's what a lot of Obama supporters were asking about the deal with Republicans that Obama was about to announce Monday that would extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, regardless of income, despite Obama's offer to extend tax cuts only for the first $250,000 of income.
"An absolute disaster and an insult to the vast majority of the American people," was how Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent and self-identified socialist, described the agreement. He promised MSNBC's Ed Schultz to block it in the Senate.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., a senior Democrat from Michigan, also said he would "do everything in my power" to stop the legislation from passage during the lame-duck session.
"Kowtowing to Republican bluster," wrote Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the left-progressive The Nation.
The sticking point, as Maher mentioned, is uncertainty among Obama supporters about where or when he will draw a line. If he won't fight against more "tax cuts for the rich," what will he fight for? When will he go "gangster"?
Obama could have compromised enough to at least hold his ground at the $1 million threshold suggested by Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. A "millionaire's tax" would be as hard for Republicans to oppose as a "death tax," actually an estate tax, has been for Democrats to defend. Would Republicans howl "class warfare?" Of course. They always do when Democrats propose the taxing of wealthy people at a higher rate than lower-income people.
But, contrary to some of the voices you might be hearing in conservative media, there's nothing "socialist" about a progressive income tax, unless you think Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism, is a socialist. "It is not very unreasonable," he wrote in his classic "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, "that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion."
If Obama wanted to be "gangster," he would have held out. The Bush-era tax cuts would expire for everybody, rich or poor, on Jan. 1 if no action were taken. If everyone's taxes surged up because Republicans were holding the legislation hostage for a tiny but wealthy percentage of taxpayers, that hostage drama might well backfire against the Republicans.
That's what happened in 1995 when a budget fight led to back-to-back government shutdowns and public opinion turned against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich in favor of President Bill Clinton.
But, no. The conflict-averse Obama decided to save that battle for another day. He may soon have his chance. Sometime between January and April federal spending is expected to hit its debt ceiling, the raising of which led to the Clinton-Gingrich clash of 1995. With Republicans energized by new tea-party movement members, that fight is expected to be a "bloodbath," in the words of former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chair of Obama's deficit commission.
For now, Obama cut a deal that doesn't look so bad, upon closer examination. It extends the tax cuts but wins important concessions that amount to economic stimulus directed at workers and families, instead of banks and corporations. He won a 13-month extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits and a cut of about 2 percent or $120 billion in the employee contribution to Social Security and other payroll taxes. Obama also won a two-year increase in the child tax credit and earned income tax credit.
In short, he engaged Republicans in a deal to fund what amounts to about $900 billion worth of economic stimulus in the form of tax cuts and other benefits directed into the pockets of working Americans.
And despite Republican calls to reduce government spending, they didn't mind funding this package by adding to the national debt. Ah, the joys of bipartisanship. The deal wasn't "gangster," but Obama got things done.