Jamelle Bouie has this exactly right: Obama deserves criticism for failing to articulate a progressive vision on spending and taxes. But liberals need to accept that any leader -- even a President -- who takes a stand behind a progressive position is, more often than not, going to find Congress distorting or ignoring his vision.
The budget battle puts a fine point on it. Obama's apparent newfound enthusiasm for cuts-cuts-cuts is a pretty striking display of political cowardice. Obama may have found the middle ground rhetorically -- he wants some cuts, but not as many as the other guys -- but it's certainly not the middle ground ideologically. Applauding any short-term cuts at all still represents some degree of acquiescence to fringe Austrian economics with no real pull among progressives or moderates. Progressives have every right to be frustrated with Obama for not giving voice to what is, among informed parties, far and away the majority view.
The majority view, however, isn't very well-represented in the House, and so any compromise was always going to be ugly for Democrats. Democrats simply have more at stake -- they're the ones that suffer politically if the wheels come off the economy, they're the ones that would most prefer that the government not shut down -- and the Democrats are hobbled by their big-tent caucus, which might lead to larger majorities, but encourages defections among the rank-and-file whenever the heat is on.
So if you're going to cheer for the President to take a stand, you also have to be willing to stand by him yourself when he takes a bruising. Given some of the delusions suffered by progressives over the past two years (for example, the eternal left-wing conviction that, Senate votes notwithstanding, the health care bill could have included a public option if only Obama had really wanted it), you might see how the administration wouldn't want to risk an occasional defeat. For whatever reason, the American left seems quite keen to place the blame for political failures on thought traitors within the ranks, and quite reluctant to blame the guys who voted for right-wing policies in Congress.
None of this justifies the President's recent statements, of course. I'd rather progressive causes have a consistent advocate than the President be a perpetual winner. But nobody should delude themselves into thinking that you don't have to choose between the two.