Yes, as it turns out, the deal that Obama cut with the Republicans is not as bad as it could have been. They could have gotten away with the kitchen sink, that is, cuts in medicaid and social security without any tax increases for the wealthy. But instead the Republicans will be getting cuts that won’t really hit the economy until 2013, and medicaid and social security are safe from arbitrary cuts, for now. Perhaps we should be thankful, especially given the state of the economy.
But I don’t feel thankful. I feel like the American people got rolled. The Tea Party activists set the agenda and then engaged in blackmail. Cut now or else…and of course no increase in taxes on the wealthy. Yet without a revenue increase there isn’t a way to bring down the debt that won’t also bring down (almost all of) the American people. But most thoughtful Americans know that we can’t get out of this economic morass through some magic bullet on the reduction side. Most Americans wanted a deal that included budget cuts and revenue increases.
So what happened? Obama and Co. made a set of calculations: Better to give in now and (perhaps) fight another day when there isn’t a sword of Damocles hanging over the country. They assumed that the political costs could be contained. Independents will blame Congress more than the president. And upset Democrats will eventually fall in line. After all, where can they go in 2012? (As I write the House just voted to pass the “compromise” bill on the debt ceiling. Most Republicans voted for it. The Democrats split.) Last but not least, The White House welcomed not having to deal with a new economic crisis.
It all sounds so reasonable and politically expedient. But they may have miscalculated. Take me for instance. I have been a strong supporter of the president. I have viewed his deep (philosophical) pragmatism as a virtue. I never assumed that he was an old-fashioned liberal. I thought he had mildly progressive leanings but was quite capable of centrist or even center right positions. Given our time and place in American history, this was about as much as one could expect out of a Democratic Party nominee. I also liked that fact that he sought to play long ball. That he seemingly wasn’t looking for superficial or quick balms. And that he had the intelligence to play long ball.
But you can’t play long ball (in politics) unless you can move the ball. Or better still, unless you can convince your teammates and the fans that you can do so. What we have seen in this latest round is Obama drawing a line in the sand and then hopping over it when it looked like he might actually have to fight a serious battle. And it was a very important battle. The extortion that took place was not solely about getting the government to spend less. It was about setting an agenda. It was about how Americans understand who and what are responsible for the rut we are in, and who is responsible for helping to dig us out.
Corporations are sitting on mountains of cash. And as the chart above shows, the rich continue to do exceptionally well. Income and wealth disparities are becoming chasms. Yes, we have had fine words from the White House about this. But words are no substitute for actions, unless the words themselves are actions. Obama should have called the Republicans’ bluff. He should have said, ‘you want a default, go ahead and don’t compromise. Go ahead and insist on no new revenues from the wealthy. You will answer to the American people. You will even have to answer to Wall Street when the Market sinks or crashes. And you know what, you will have to answer to me.’ (He could have let them believe early on that he just might invoke the 14th Amendment if he got angry enough. Instead he gave this bargaining chip away.)
Obama should have come into office declaring a national state of emergency. He should have not promised to lower the unemployment rate with “traditional” measures. He should have emphasized that unemployment was actually much higher than the “official” figures, closer to 16%-20%. He should have used the fierce urgency of now to enact emergency measures. He should have done this when he was riding high.
Yes, I know. This is all history now. It’s water under the bridge. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking. Yet it is still relevant. If Obama doesn’t draw a tighter connection between what he he says and what he does, he may win reelection but his presidency will never be known for great things. He will be the president who helped us muddle through our declining place in the world, instead of the one who assisted us in confronting the economic and political realities of the 21st century.