Another Obama Term?

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The American people, persuaded to blame President Obama and Congressional Democrats for the failure of the economy to recover in only two years after the economic collapse of 2008, shot themselves in the foot big-time when they voted in 2010.  Voting for economic recovery and the creation of more jobs, they mistakenly elected a Congressional majority that is interested in neither.

With the objective of reducing government size and spending, without allowing for collection of more tax revenues from the under-taxed wealthy class and highly profitable multinational corporations, the new majority all year has advanced budget proposals that will reduce jobs even further, weakening the already anemic economy and making future deficits and the national debt increasingly harder to address.

Today (7/30/11), as the August 3 deadline to increase the debt limit approaches, America is poised on the brink of a catastrophic default on its debt.  Agreement nears on a spending-cut only budget bill, a major victory for Republicans, a victory aided in part by Republican pressure for a “cut, cap, and balance” constitutional amendment [1] intended to lock these cuts in place, deter future revenue increases, hamper government flexibility to stimulate the economy.  The plan that nears agreement is harmful to all but the very rich, and brings the country closer to economic ruin.

Defaulting on the debt could lead immediately to a depression, and the government spending reductions sought by the Congressional majority likely would do so as well, a bit more gradually.  One thing is clear: the right-wing “victory” does nothing to create more jobs, to promote economic recovery or growth, or to enhance the country’s ability to cope with the huge Reagan/Bush debt or to balance budgets.

As all of this transpires, it is the President’s approval rating that falls, despite his efforts to gain more revenues and preserve government programs that are critical to objectives that most Americans favor and need.  Thus, it appears that even Americans who want recovery and a return to prosperity are preparing to shoot themselves in the foot all over again in the 2012 election.

Obama’s leadership failure

Much of the blame for the 2010 electoral disaster and the looming prospect of yet another in 2012 lies in voter apathy and ignorance, and much of it lies with the dangerously false libertarian ideology and the callous objectives of the wealthy class and the economic falsehoods spread by their Congressional representatives.  But Obama himself shares a great deal of the blame, for a failure of leadership. Obama had started his first term with swagger and confidence, challenging the opposition to show him a better plan to fix health care.  But the Republicans had no plan and no intention to reform health care.  Without ever having to concede that they didn’t want to fix the broken health care system — only to preserve it and perhaps make it even more profitable for their clients — they hemmed and hawed and filibustered, and in the end the “Party of No” had won.  Though in the minority, they had mostly maintained the status quo.  The majority, the American people who rely on the health care system, were badly disappointed.

Obama also insisted that government should help “Main Street” recover from the catastrophe caused by “Wall Street.”  In the end, though, people saw Wall Street recover, raking in record profits, while Main Street did not.  To be sure, the economy started to turn around after the 2008 crash.  The steady acceleration of job losses was halted, and eventually unemployment peaked at about 10%.  But there has been no real recovery, and thirty months later we sit on the brink of a double-dip recession or worse, with unemployment hovering around 9%.  Instead of complaining, as he should have, that the “Party of No” had prevented him from doing all that he wanted and needed to do, and all that America needed him to do, the President mistakenly took responsibility for the economy and tried to sell people on the idea that acceptable progress was being made — not enough, to be sure, but acceptable progress.

Unfortunately, that only made him look like one of the Republicans whose favor (in the interest of compromise) he had been courting all along.  And people were noticing that he was keeping the Wall Street architects of disaster on in his cabinet, and even bringing on Jeffrey Immelt, G.E.’s guru of job exportation, to head his jobs commission.  Again, the American people were disappointed.

The enthusiasm of “the audacity of hope” that elected him had faded away by the mid-term elections, and he was handed a surly, government-hating, tax-cutting, safety net-slashing Congressional majority of Republicans and Tea Party libertarians to work with.  Now what?  Surely you will fight back now, Mr. Obama?

At some point, we might indeed have hoped for Obama to stiffen his spine and appeal to his base, assuring the American people that he is continuing to struggle, on their behalf, against great odds.  Instead, though, we continue to hear from Obama about the need to compromise, even when confronted with threats to finish the economic destruction Wall Street started in 2008 – either immediately by not raising the debt limit or only slightly more gradually by slashing government economic spending while further absolving the wealthy and corporations of responsibility to provide tax revenues, and permitting them to gather in the country’s wealth at an accelerating rate.

This can fairly be described as “economic terrorism,” but frankly Obama has strenuously defended neither his avowed principles nor the American people against the all-out economic assault by the wealthy class and corporations.

Obama’s Philosophy of Governing

Sadly, the problem appears to lie with Obama’s philosophy of governance: He seems to be determined to govern from the “center,“ wherever that center might be, seeking conciliation and compromise.  As the center has shifted to the right, so has he.  Now, it appears, he finds himself on the verge of “compromising” on the social safety net – Medicare and Social Security.

The President can reasonably claim that in dealing with a hostile Congress, some compromise is essential.  Nonetheless, this record of drifting to the right with Congress seems to be the record of an obsessive, all-too-eager conciliator.  Perhaps hoping to dispel that notion, and at long last offering an explanation of the President’s philosophy of governance as we approach the deadline on the debt limit, the Obama campaign recently offered this video: “Compromise” isn’t a dirty word. [2]

“If you’re only talking to people you agree with, then politics is always going to disappoint you,” he told a group of young adults, acknowledging that he simultaneously looks like “a pretty liberal president” to Republicans but a “right-wing tool of Wall Street” to the Huffington Post.  His basic message was this: “The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100% of what you want.  You don’t get it if you’re in the majority; you don’t get it if you’re in the minority.”  He gave the example of Abraham Lincoln compromising on ending slavery, given that his job was to win the war and maintain the Union.

In the current circumstances, in the face of uncompromising and unyielding opponents, we find this philosophy chillingly self-defeating:  First, he misapplies his analogy to Lincoln: Right now Obama is also in a war to save the Union – a class war of extremely rich capitalists against both its democracy and its people – from a future of economic ruin and potential collapse into a corporatist authoritarian society.  Lincoln had to compromise on ending slavery until he saved the Union.  Obama, however, is compromising on saving the Union, and for no loftier purpose.

Second, Obama has exhibited questionable negotiating strategies.  In the health care reform debate, for example, the American people were opposed only by corporate interests.  No one seriously interested in health care reform could understand why the optimal solution for the American people and the economy — a single-payer system — was taken off the table from the beginning.  Thus, the entire health care debate seemed to be about how badly the American people were going to continue to lose.

Giving Away the Store?

Recently, in working on a long-term budget solution, Obama has only asked for revenue increases 20-25% as high as the spending cuts he will concede, even though the spending cuts hurt the economy and growth and seriously retard future prospects for actually balancing the budget or reducing the debt, and even though the revenue increases are below what fairness would suggest, and probably also below what will be needed for a lasting recovery.  As we near a final resolution of this round of Tea Party terrorism, revenue increases appear once again to be off the table.

Obama says: “[Y]ou don’t get 100% of what you want.  You don’t get it if you’re in the majority, you don’t get it if you’re in the minority.”  However, if you’re in the majority, normally, you should get a hefty share of what you want.  Obama has 70-80 percent of Americans behind him on holding on to Social Security and Medicare, in closing corporate tax loopholes, and in raising the top income tax rate on the rich back closer to a reasonable level.  The majority should be winning.

To be sure, this majority has made Congress harder for Obama to deal with, which as discussed has been partly due to Obama’s own leadership failures.  But voters were clearly misled by the right, who campaigned on job creation.  Alas, the ultra-right forgot to tell the American people until after they were elected that the only way they intended to help create private sector jobs was to cut corporate and rich people’s income taxes even more, and let Americans hope that jobs might materialize in a Reaganomic, trickle-down fantasy.  And as the economy kept getting worse, housing values continued to fall, and state and local governments added draconian cuts and job dismissals to the mix, they continued brashly to refer to their policy agenda as “what the American people want.”

Once they realized they had been lied to, however, many Americans have pushed back hard. Witness the recall of Republican legislators in Wisconsin.  Now we might fairly ask this: What obligation does Obama have to compromise with legislators who lied their way into power over the true will of the American voters?

It’s no wonder Obama looks like a Republican to the Huffington Post.  And unlike Obama the ultra-right does not have a “you-can’t-get-100%-of-what-you-want” philosophy.  They appear to want it all, as soon as they can get it, and they want to relegate Obama to a one-term presidency.

We think they just might.  Some 200,000 progressives recently signed a petition, which was presented by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to the White House on the same day the Obama video on compromise was posted, saying that they would not support Obama in 2012 if he gave in on the social safety net and accepted cuts to Medicare or Social Security. [3]

These petitions are an impressive demonstration of support for real progress.  Nonetheless, this seems like an especially poor time for erstwhile Obama supporters to draw a line in the sand: Some cuts are inevitable, and putting principle above politics, Obama has said he was putting his presidency “on the line” to get through this crisis.  These progressives, who should know better, could end up shooting themselves in the foot (just as disillusioned former Obama supporters did in 2010) if they don’t back down on that threat, no matter what happens in the budget negotiations.  We may not be entirely happy with Obama’s performance, but he’s on the people’s side, and he’s all we’ve got.

To make matters worse, in order to avoid a default on the debt, Obama in two days may have to invoke the 14th Amendment to nullify the debt limit and avoid default.  However, despite a near-universal opinion that Obama should do that if he needs to, the White House seems to be painting itself in a corner:  “This administration does not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said today (7/30/11).  “Congress has the authorities necessary to ensure that we meet our obligations.” [4]

If no budget bill is passed, we have reached a defining moment in the Obama presidency, and in American and world history.  What Obama then does in the wee hours of August 3, 2011, will have huge consequences. If he prevents the United States from defaulting on its debt, he will be able to expose the economic terrorism, and he should have the upper hand going forward.  If he allows that catastrophe, however, he has no chance for a second term.

Avoiding the need to make that choice with a last-minute deal that makes even more concessions to the Tea Party terrorists, however, also seems likely to reduce the prospects of a second Obama term, given the vast economic ignorance of the public and extensive efforts by Republicans to amend state laws for reduced voter registration among the declining middle class and the increasing poverty class.

After a one-term Obama presidency, we may well witness the beginning of a second Great Depression, the demise of the American middle class, and possibly even the end of America’s experiment with popular democracy.  An appropriate, ironic epitaph might read:  “They didn’t get 100% of what they wanted.”

ARC, JMH – 7/31/11


[1] Wall Street Journal, 7/14/11

[2] The White House Blog, Compromise Isn’t a Dirty Word, Posted by David Plouffe on July 15, 2011 at 04:07 PM EDT

[3] Associated Press, July 15, 2011.

[4] “Senate Quickly Kills Boehner Debt Bill,” by Carl Hulse and Robert Pear, The New York Times News Service, July 30, 2011.

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