By now you probably know that, in a truly impressive display, Mr. Obama told the world that folks who criticize his grand "compromise" with Republicans on tax cuts are "sanctimonious" and "purist." Although I'd find it grotesquely easy to argue that Mr. Obama is a "sanctimonious" "purist" himself in his mania for "compromise" and "bipartisanship," or smack down the "concessions" he supposedly wrung from Republicans, or question what he means by "getting things done," I'll confine my remarks to some of the unstated implications of his words.
First, let me be clear: folks who criticize the Obama "compromise" aren't "sanctimonious" or "purist." Does Mr. Obama understand where the "sanctimonious" and "purist" folks really are in politics? Do cops who complain about big government at Tea Party rallies somehow fail to strike him as "sanctimonious" or "purist"? How about preachers who protest at Elizabeth Edwards's funeral? When Sen. Shelby complained about imposing a "nanny state" on the same banks who destroyed our economy, Mr. Obama didn't find that "sanctimonious" or "purist"? Plenty of right-wingers want all taxes, all regulation, all gays, all non-Christians, and all non-Republican Hispanics out of their way, and plenty of liberals want everyone to be able to get abortions and no one to be able to buy guns. But the next time I hear Mr. Obama complain about the "sanctimonious" "purism" of any of these folks will be the first.
It gets better. Letting tax cuts for the top two brackets expire isn't a particularly "purist" position -- liberals do not, as a bloc, demand the return of the 91% tax bracket (which that noted arch-liberal, Dwight Eisenhower, never lifted a finger to change). But when liberals merely petitioned Mr. Obama to do the same thing that polls consistently tell us a broad majority of Americans want him to do, Mr. Obama got to redefine a position held by as many as two out of three Americans as a "purist" position. Not incidentally, in the course of his remarks he also redefined the public option as a "purist" position, a position standing in the way of progress, when single-payer -- yet another position which registers majority support in poll after poll! -- seems far more like a "purist" position than the public option. Thus Mr. Obama has (at the very least!) acquiesced to the corporate strategy wherein all positions popular with the people but bad for CEO compensation somehow become extremist.
How has Mr. Obama reached his late forties without learning that, if politics is the art of the possible, then fighting for positions that reek of "purism" widens the pallet of the possible? Especially when those "purist" positions, like single-payer or higher taxes for the rich, are actually popular? Even Max Baucus says that if he'd put single-payer on the table, he could have gotten the public option (of which he was a nominal supporter) into the final health-care bill, since a public option would have seemed like the compromise position it actually is. But Mr. Obama seems to start every negotiation with what he'll settle for, guaranteeing that he'll get less. It's almost like that's the idea. But in real life you don't negotiate that way with anyone, let alone a negotiating "partner" who understands that fighting for more extreme positions always gets you more of what you want. And this is the main reason American politicians move rightward, as the bulk of America moves leftward -- the right-wing party fights to the death for what it wants (or, more precisely, what its corporate paymasters want), while the nominally left-wing party tries to make sure everyone's "happy."
What is a citizen to do, then? Simply, keep fighting -- keep calling and writing your Congressfolk, keep talking to the members of your community, keep demonstrating in public for the causes you believe in and the country you love. I don't guarantee victory all the time, or even, frankly, very much of the time -- the powerful do not relinquish their power to the people very easily. But I do guarantee that fighting for what you believe in always gets you more of what you want and deserve than giving up and wallowing in cynicism does. And having consecrated my life to the notion that democracy works, I'm hardly ready to declare it dead, even if a nominally Democratic President thinks his most important job isn't doing the will of the American people, but compromising with Republicans who are out to destroy him. We just need to communicate our will until he gets it, and if it takes Sarah Palin kicking his ass in 2012 for him to get it, then let that be his fault.