The Betrayal of Hope

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Skip and I have been among the most loyal and hopeful defenders of Barack Obama all along, even as he has disappointed us with his failure forcefully to stand up for the people and, indeed, the country, in the class struggle he has acknowledged exists.  Back in 2006, after discussing a meeting with Warren Buffett, who he said displayed a “willingness to put our common interests and the interests of future generations ahead of short-term expediency,” he said this:

More particularly, we will have to stop pretending that all cuts in spending are equivalent, or that all tax increases are the same.  Ending corporate subsidies that serve no discernible economic purpose is one thing; reducing health care benefits to poor children is something else entirely.  At a time when ordinary families are feeling hit from all sides, the impulse to keep their taxes as low as possible is honorable and right.  What’s less honorable has been the willingness of the rich and the powerful to ride this anti-tax sentiment for their own purposes, or the way the President, Congress, lobbyists, and conservative commentators have been able to successfully conflate in the mind of voters the very real tax burdens of the middle class and the very manageable tax burdens of the very wealthy. [1]

When I read that, I wished I had written it myself; and I confess that I have always trusted that Obama believed in what he was saying as much as I do — as much as we all must — and that he was motivated to act on it.  Indeed, in so many words, he led us to believe that economic justice was among the main reasons he wanted to be the president.

To me, correcting the imbalances between the rich and everyone else was central to American survival, and I assumed that Barack Obama saw it that way too.  But as Skip and I opined in yesterday’s blog post “Another Obama Term?” in budget battles over this very issue, the President has left the minds of the voters pretty much to the mercy of the rich and the powerful, their Congressional representatives, their lobbyists, and their commentators.  And now voters are turning away from him.

What’s the alternative, we have asked, when our friends and colleagues have given in to cynicism?   In our recent joint post we suggested that however precarious this situation has become, the alternative to a second Obama term will be unacceptable.  Candidates like Michele Bachmann advance extremely dangerous ideologies, which as Skip argued yesterday in “The Alternate Reality of Language” are nurtured by religious acculturation and have become impervious to informed, rational, reality-based evaluation.

These are the people, after all, who threatened to force the United States government to default on its debt for the first time in American history (and probably one of the worst times imaginable) if they did not get their way in the budget discussions.  And now, it turns out, the Tea Party terrorism has worked, and they pretty much did get their way.  There will be no increased taxes on the very rich.  And the President has not been heard at this juncture, to my knowledge, to complain about how “dishonorable” it has been for the “very wealthy” to avoid “very manageable tax burdens.”

Skip and I continued to suggest in our latest post that Obama remains better than the Republican alternative, about whose intentions there can be little doubt.  We argued that Obama’s extreme penchant for compromise and governing from the center is what has led him tragically astray.  Now, however, we all watch helplessly as distance between him and our radical right wing adversaries narrows before our eyes.

We urge everyone to read Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman’s recent posts on this topic.  In last Thursday’s “The Centrist Cop-Out” [2], Krugman argues:

The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.

But, Krugman continues, this reality is not reported as such by the media:

News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.  Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom? 

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault. (Emphasis added.)

Krugman describes perfectly the “spin” we sadly knew we would see after the announcement Sunday evening that a deal had been reached.  The Associated Press article by David Espo headlining today’s Albany Times Union is entitled:

Its’ a deal! Washington averts default.

Characterizing the agreement as “emergency legislation to avert the nation’s first-ever financial default,” this report contains no hint that default was averted not by a budget “deal,” but by raising the debt limit, something that did not depend at all on agreeing on spending cuts.  The “emergency” was caused by Republicans refusing to do something that had been done repeatedly in Republican administrations, as a matter of course and without political opposition, when the debt limit had been reached in the past.

The article continues:  “The agreement would slice at least $2.4 trillion from federal spending over a decade, a steep price for many Democrats, too little for many Republicans.”   Here is the “cult of balance” of which Krugman speaks, the inference that this is somehow a reasonable result because neither side is delighted.

Playing his part on queue, John Boehner said: “It isn’t the greatest deal in the world.” But he added, no doubt with great pleasure, that it “was all spending cuts.  The White House bid to raise taxes has been shut down.”

Harry Reid, for his part, reenforced the cult of balance:  “Sometimes it seems our two sides  disagree on almost everything,” he said, “but in the end, reasonable people were able to agree on this: The United States could not take the chance of defaulting on our debt, risking a United States financial collapse and a world-wide depression.”

Really?  If “reasonable” parties could agree to this “in the end,” why not at the beginning?  How could such a draconian possibility still be on the table, if one side wasn’t holding out for it?  To call a spade a spade, Mr. Reid, wouldn’t you have had to point out that your side was being blackmailed by economic terrorists?

This extorted “deal” is in fact a major victory for the “very wealthy.”  In the next round, reportedly, even cuts to Social Security (which is not even a discretionary budget item) will be on the table.  This, Krugman suggests, was inevitable given the President’s approach of centrist conciliation throughout:

President Obama initially tried to strike a ‘Grand Bargain’ with Republicans over taxes and spending.  To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter’s preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter’s preferences.

But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? “Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.”  A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side — or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over — is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance! (Emphasis added.)

We have objected that the President’s video “Compromise” isn’t a dirty word” is really just a prescription for capitulation.  As Krugman puts it: “Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself.  I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing”  (Emphasis added).

Let’s focus on the merits of this “compromise” deal:  Folks, this is no minor disaster, and more crises of this nature are yet to come, soon.  In yesterday’s Op Ed “The President Surrenders,” [3] Krugman had this to say:  “Make no mistake about it, what we’re witnessing here is a catastrophe on multiple levels.”

An economic disaster:

We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.

A political disaster:

Most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.  * * *  It is, of course, a political catastrophe for Democrats, who just a few weeks ago seemed to have Republicans on the run over their plan to dismantle Medicare; now Mr. Obama has thrown all that away. And the damage isn’t over: there will be more choke points where Republicans can threaten to create a crisis unless the president surrenders, and they can now act with the confident expectation that he will.

In the long run, however, Democrats won’t be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t.

Not democracy as we have known it.  But we need to remember that the economic and political situation has not changed much since 2008, and certainly not since the 2010 elections.  The American people were losing then and are still losing.  As we said at the outset:  Everyone must wake up now and press to rid our governments, at every level, of enemies of the people.   This is no time to sit back and relax.  We’re running out of time.

JHM – 8/1/11


[1] Barack Obama, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” Vintage Books, 2006, p. 227.

[2] The New York Times, Op Ed, July 31, 2011.

[3] The New York Times, Op Ed, July 28, 2011.

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This entry was posted in Budgets, Federal Budget and Spending, Obama and the Alternative. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Betrayal of Hope

  1. Pingback: What Does Obama Represent? « The Graves of the Roses

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