I'm starting to worry about Barack Obama.
I didn't worry about him before. I thought he was the best Democrat running in the 2008 primaries, and I thought he was far superior to John McCain in the general election. I still think that. (By the way, did you hear the latest on McCain? He blamed the forest fires consuming the southwest on undocumented immigrants. When he opens his mouth these days, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.)
I've defended Obama against his right-wing enemies (that was easy because their charges were ludicrous), and I've defended him against many of his allies on the left (people who yearn for a Ralph Nader-Dennis Kucinich presidential ticket).
My argument has been essentially this: "Yeah, his health care plan wasn't good enough, and his stimulus package wasn't big enough, and he's slow to get out of wars he's promised to get out of, but let's cut the guy some slack. He was handed a terrible situation, with a collapsing economy, two wars raging, and a toxic political opposition dedicated to his failure. He's done reasonably well in difficult circumstances."
But I'm starting to have my doubts.
I find his unwavering attempts to find bipartisan solutions to controversial problems uplifting and all. Inspiring even. But there's such a thing as carrying moderation too far.
Every time he tries to make nice with the Republicans he gets hit in the face with a cream pie. That's not leadership; that's masochism.
Which, of course, is exactly what my progressive friends have been arguing for the past 18 months. Why doesn't he articulate what he believes in and stand up for it, they keep asking.
I'm running out of answers to that question.
What, is he afraid he'll make conservatives mad? You can't make conservatives madder than they already are. They wake up mad in the morning and spend the rest of the day getting really ticked off.
If he fears alienating potential voters he should consider this: People like leaders who aren't walking around with whipped cream on their faces all the time.
I'm particularly worried about the upcoming battle in Congress over raising the debt ceiling. The Republicans have vowed not to raise the ceiling unless the president agrees to cut the federal budget to the bone, then remove the bone.
Obama in turn has vowed -- I don't know, to negotiate, or something. He ignores the fact that the current Republican model doesn't differentiate between negotiation and total surrender.
I'm afraid that Obama and his Democratic colleagues are going to cave in to Republican demands, thus setting the tone for the next two-and-a-half years.
My idea of a sensible negotiation is for the Democrats to give in on cuts to the budget and the Republicans to let go of the Bush tax cuts for rich people.
That's pretty much the formula neutral observers come up with when they discuss deficit cuts.
Another thing neutral observers agree on is that not raising the debt ceiling would be a disaster of enormous proportions.
But I'm not sure Republicans see it that way.
They seem to be willing to let the economy go smash if they don't get their way, which consists of continuing to build a society of great private wealth and equally great public poverty: a society with rotten public schools, pathetic public transportation, and crummy infrastructure.
Those are the stakes in the debt ceiling battle. You would think that a president of Obama's rhetorical skill could convince the public that the Republicans were razing the nation's future in favor of lining the pockets of a few fat-cat political donors.
But he can't do it unless he tries, and I'm not sure he's up for the game. Which is why I'm worried.
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org