Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
As much as progressives have been underwhelmed by Obama's first term as President, we have come to expect some soaring rhetoric and a direct appeal to the base in the homestretch of this election year.
But last night, the President debated the way he has too often governed--letting his Republican opponent score point after point, and failing to show up and fight for the interests of working people against the contemptuous, Ayn Randian let-them-eat-cake philosophy of Mr. 47%.
The President punctured our balloon, just when we were feeling enthusiastic again--after a triumphantly progressive DNC. On MSNBC the reaction ranged from apoplectic (Chris Matthews) to despondent (Ed Schultz).
Today, Obama speaks at the U.W. campus in Madison. (At the Progressive, we will be live-tweeting his visit to Madison, as we did the debate last night.
It will be interesting to see how well Obama connects with his base.
Nowhere is progressives' love-hate relationship with the President more palpable than in Madison, Wisconsin.
After labor unions and grassroots activists lost the epic battle to recall Governor Scott Walker, there were a lot of hard feelings.
(Look for signs at Obama's speech that say, "Where were you when we needed you?")
How could the Obama campaign expect people who stood out in the cold for months, went door to door, put their lives on hold, and suffered a heartbreaking defeat in a battle over the core values of the Democratic Party to get up and do it all over again to try to re-elect the President?
After all, Obama didn't come to Wisconsin until the Walker recall was over. He didn't help out at all--except for literally phoning in his support in an election-eve tweet. How on Earth could the President expect people to help him after feeling so stiffed?
The Democratic convention went a long way toward changing all that. The progressive tone was uplifting--with the big UAW presence and the emphasis on the auto industry rescue, labor rights, tax fairness, and making college affordable again.
Putting undocumented immigrants on stage, reaching out to the Dreamers, mentioning marriage equality in speech after speech—these gestures highlighted the cultural canyon between the parties. So did the makeup of the convention crowd. Obama's crowd looked like America. And after the hate-fest on the right, it's a relief to feel part of that.
Sure, Bill Clinton, who gave a brilliant, progressive speech at the convention, also gave us NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, accelerating the decline of middle-class jobs and permitting the banks to go on the binge that sank the economy.
But it's hard to resist a great pitch aimed right at your heart, especially when it looks like that pitch may win the election.
Now, Obama' debate performance has taken us down the other side of the roller-coaster track again.
The most ominous part is not even his failure to score some obvious rhetorical points on Romney (to mention the 47% comment, for example, or attack to the Paul Ryan budget plan).
The most ominous part is in the details of what the President and Romney only briefly referred to when they both embraced the Simpson Bowles plan.
The Simpson Bowles commission, appointed by President Obama, has proposed a deficit-reducing program that would undermine to Social Security and Medicare, as economist Paul Krugman has warned.
In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are working on a bipartisan compromise, with the President's blessing, that would take Simpson Bowles as a starting point and make "changes to Social Security, broad cuts in federal programs and actions that would lower tax rates over all but eliminate or pare enough deductions and credits to yield as much as $2 trillion in additional revenue," The New York Times reports.
In other words, in order to steer clear of the "fiscal cliff" and automatic tax hikes and budget cuts that take effect January 1, Obama may--after winning the election because voters want him to defend Medicare and Social Security and protect the poor and middle class--sign off on a deficit-reduction deal that undermines Medicare and Social Security, makes deep cuts in other programs that help the non-rich , and pushes lower income Americans right over the edge.
Let's hope grassroots activists like those who fought so hard in the battle against Scott Walker in Wisconsin can get through to Obama this time--before that happens.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tommy/Tammy Senate Debate in Wisconsin."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter