Two Cheers For Barack Obama, AKA: Update On The State Of The Economy…?

Apologies for the long delay between the last post and this one. I’ve had my mother visiting for the past two weeks – always a pleasure, but means I have much less time for doing other things like, say, keeping up with current political happenings by posting here.

So, last time I posted, I had the then-breaking news that the President was supposed to have endorsed most of the deficit-reduction/spending cut recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission (the “Catfood Commission”). Instead, what we got as a welcome semi-surprise was an Obama who seemed at the top of his game, oratory-wise. He hit all the high notes (we’ve come to expect no less of him) stylistically, but it was the substance of his speech which truly drew praise in progressive circles (some of them, anyway).

Instead of endorsing Catfood lock, stock and barrel, Obama came out swinging against the GOP, particularly against Paul Ryan’s ruinous deficit plan. Obama did not budge an inch on cutting Social Security benefits, and while he said Medicare needed to be addressed, it was not from the standpoint many feared of expecting the old and infirm to accept benefit cuts while the wealthy are not asked to shoulder any additional financial burden. Best of all, Obama said this, in regard to the increasing wealth inequality in America and the Bush tax cuts:

In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes?

They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right. And it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

Fine words, Mr. President. I say that without hesitation, equivocation or snark. I really mean it: those are indeed fine words which together form a fine goal. Unfortunately, those words would have been equally fine (and an equally fine goal) last December, when you agreed to the GOP’s blackmail of extending those Bush tax cuts for the top 1% in return for a historically noncontroversial extension of unemployment benefits.

That fight is now over, and I’ve no desire to re-litigate the arguments for and against why Obama’s decision to strike this particular deal was or wasn’t a good idea at the time. Suffice it to say that I believe the arguments of the eternal “take-half-a-loaf”-ers (that keeping people from being thrown off unemployment, which would indeed be ruinous, mattered more than staying firm on letting the tax cuts expire for the top 1%) were defensible positions. I didn’t agree with that position then, but it’s certainly not without merit.

However, perhaps the biggest reason I disagreed with it then had to do with the sort of precedent it set. I felt that old Matthewsian tingle-up-the-leg, listening to Obama excoriate the Republican budget shenanigans (with Paul Ryan sitting right in the front row, squirming uncomfortably). Yet I couldn’t escape wondering if Ryan, for all his apparent irritation at having to be publicly chided by the President so directly, wasn’t secretly thinking something along the lines of: “we’ll see, cave-man. He who laughs last, laughs best.” Obama’s words may have stirred progressives and annoyed hypocritical Republican deficit hawks, but I can’t be the only person – especially in the partisan atmosphere of capitol hill – to observe that if Obama was willing to cave on those tax cuts once, why wouldn’t he cave again? It’s just a matter of finding the right leverage or pressure point. After all, when questioned in the aftermath of that last budget fight about relenting on his support for letting the Bush cuts expire for the top 1%, Obama himself put it thusly:

I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.

That’s clear enough. In fact, it’s crystal clear. Not just to me, but – I’m betting – to congressional Republicans as well. The GOP of today plays the political game too well to leave money on the table in the form of such an admission. Indeed, what they’ve likely already realized is that if President Obama was willing to bend on tax cuts for the top 1% once, then it logically follows he would be willing to do so again, given the right circumstances.

Let’s not forget that this is the same President Obama who said, in one of his weekly addresses to the nation during the contentious health care fight of 2009:

Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans – including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest – and choose what’s best for your family.

I think we all remember how THAT turned out. And yes, I know that Presidents must constantly adapt their goals and strategies to take into account the shifting political landscape and the realities of unforeseen events.

The reality of the President’s Wednesday speech (a week ago) on the budget deficit and related matters absolutely must be viewed through the lens of these abandoned goals and compromises. To pretend otherwise is to stick one’s head in the sand. I’d be lying if I said I knew why Barack Obama abandoned the public option. Perhaps he never wanted it in the first place and only said so to ensure the continued support of the democratic wing of the Democratic party. Perhaps he desperately believed in it, and simply felt he had no choice but to abandon it in the interest of getting half a loaf, of not letting the best be the enemy of the good. Or perhaps Obama just got rolled by the GOP, who outplayed him on every level in the political arena, causing him to abandon the one thing which would truly have addressed cost increases in health care. In the end, it doesn’t matter much: the reality is that both myself and the GOP and anyone else who cares to observe understands that the President is “flexible” (read: willing to abandon) some of the most progressive (read: effective) measures on the table, whether the subject in question is health care or budget deficits or defense spending. And because the GOP knows this, they will not fail to push the advantage granted by this knowledge to its fullest extent. If Obama caved once on extending the Bush tax cuts, despite all his chin-thrust-forward rhetoric last Wednesday, why wouldn’t he do so again, if the right pressure is applied?

I’m not convinced President Obama WILL, absolutely, cave in to GOP extortion on this issue. I hope that he will hold firm and say in no uncertain terms:
once was (more than) enough: NO MORE. But it all comes down, in the end, to the question of whether the President is as good as his word. I’d like to believe he is. Certainly, watching his speech last Wednesday, it was easy to imagine he would be. But, distressingly, at critical times in the past, he hasn’t been. And it’s not out of the bounds of permissible thought to wonder whether that might be the case again on this round of the budget battles.

So, how ’bout it, Mr. President: can we count on you this time? Or is this steel-jawed insistence that the Bush tax cuts for the top 1% be allowed to expire worth as much as it was the last time the President made it? Because I think America would REALLY like to know.