Friday, October 18, 2013

Obama and "Obamaism" after the non-negotiating negotiations and budget/debt deal this past week

This is excellent news: Labor puts Dems on notice: Don't touch Medicare and Social Security benefits Washington Post Plum Line by Greg Sargent 10/17/2013.

Robert Reich explains why that timely in What to Expect During the Cease-Fire 10/17/2013:

We know the parameters of the upcoming budget debate because we’ve been there before. The House already has its version — the budget Paul Ryan bequeathed to them. This includes major cuts in Medicare (turning it into a voucher) and Social Security (privatizing much of it), and substantial cuts in domestic programs ranging from education and infrastructure to help for poorer Americans. Republicans also have some bargaining leverage in the sequester, which continues to indiscriminately choke government spending.

The Senate has its own version of a budget, which, by contrast, cuts corporate welfare, reduces defense spending, and raises revenues by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

Here, I fear, is where the President is likely to cave.

He’s already put on the table a way to reduce future Social Security payments by altering the way cost-of-living adjustments are made – using the so-called "chained" consumer price index, which assumes that when prices rise people economize by switching to cheaper alternatives. This makes no sense for seniors, who already spend a disproportionate share of their income on prescription drugs, home healthcare, and medical devices – the prices of which have been rising faster than inflation. Besides, Social Security isn’t responsible for our budget deficits. Quite the opposite: For years its surpluses have been used to fund everything else the government does.

The President has also suggested "means-testing" Medicare – that is, providing less of it to higher-income seniors. This might be sensible. The danger is it becomes the start of a slippery slope that eventually turns Medicare into another type of Medicaid, a program perceived to be for the poor and therefore vulnerable to budget cuts. [my emphasis]

President Obama's remarks on Thursday after the debt ceiling crisis had passed for the moment (Remarks by the President on the Reopening of the Government, 10/17/2013) don't give defenders of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid a lot of comfort.

There are a number of disturbing things about the speech.

There's consistency. He gets harsh with the Republicans here: "But probably nothing has done more damage to America's credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we've seen these past several weeks. It's encouraged our enemies. It's emboldened our competitors. And it's depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership."

But a few sentences later, he's saying: "And when we disagree, we don't have to suggest that the other side doesn't love this country or believe in free enterprise, or all the other rhetoric that seems to get worse every single year."

My fingertips would no doubt burst into flames if I were to say anything that sounded like it was even slightly taking the Republicans' side of this. But it is Obama's chronically inconsistent messaging to the Republicans. I actually doubt that the budget debacle "encouraged our enemies." What, the hardcore Islamist militants in Yemen trying to avoid drone-strike assassination have spent the last two weeks charged up over the US debt ceiling?

But if you're going to slap the Republicans with that kind of thing, you don't then need to turn around and say, oh, it's naughty "to suggest that the other side doesn't love this country." It certainly would be reasonable to conclude that the Tea Party Republicans don't have much love for the people of this country, at least the ones that aren't filthy rich white Christians.

He cites a credit-rating agency as an authority that he thinks we should actually pay attention to:

And you don’t have to take my word for it. The agency that put America's credit rating on watch the other day explicitly cited all of this, saying that our economy "remains more dynamic and resilient" than other advanced economies, and that the only thing putting us at risk is -- and I'm quoting here -- "repeated brinksmanship." That's what the credit rating agency said. That wasn't a political statement; that was an analysis of what's hurting our economy by people whose job it is to analyze these things.
First of all, the credit ratings agencies proved that they had, shall we say, quality and accuracy issues in the run-up to the start of the depression in 2007-8. Their ratings would have real-world effects if they downgraded US government bonds to non-investment grade, because it would force pension funds and others who have requirements for maintaining a certain portion of investment-grade securities. Otherwise, why is the President citing one of those organizations as an authority? It just reinforces the non-chronic Democratic habit of apologizing for being a Democrat, i.e., his statement implies that people should believe a solid bitness organization (in this case one of the clueless credit-rating agencies!) over the Democratic President. Just stop it, please!

He repeats the tiresome, abstract complaint about "Washington": "And, of course, we know that the American people's frustration with what goes on in this town has never been higher. That's not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington."

It was "this town" that caused the problem. Not, you know, the Republicans who wanted to force the world into a new financial crisis. It was "Washington." How did the President and head of the Democratic Party deal with the opposing party that was fully responsible for the recent crisis? Here are his mentions of the word "Republican" in this statement:

Because Democrats and responsible Republicans came together, the first government shutdown in 17 years is now over.
And I want to thank those Democrats and Republicans for getting together and ultimately getting this job done.
First, in the coming days and weeks, we should sit down and pursue a balanced approach to a responsible budget, a budget that grows our economy faster and shrinks our long-term deficits further.

At the beginning of this year, that’s what both Democrats and Republicans committed to doing.
Again, the Senate has already passed a solid bipartisan bill. It's got support from Democrats and Republicans. It's sitting in the House waiting for passage. If House Republicans have ideas that they think would improve the farm bill, let's see them. Let's negotiate. What are we waiting for? Let's get this done.
I understand we will not suddenly agree on everything now that the cloud of crisis has passed. Democrats and Republicans are far apart on a lot of issues. And I recognize there are folks on the other side who think that my policies are misguided -- that's putting it mildly. That's okay. That's democracy. That’s how it works. We can debate those differences vigorously, passionately, in good faith, through the normal democratic process.
The American people's hopes and dreams are what matters, not ours. Our obligations are to them. Our regard for them compels us all, Democrats and Republicans, to cooperate, and compromise, and act in the best interests of our nation –- one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
How many times is he going to rehash his famous 2004 no-red-America-no-blue-America speech? Forever, apparently. In the face of the most blatant attempts to politically sabotage the national government since before the civil war, the Democratic President presents the Republican Party as:

  • A party that deserves equal credit with the Democrats for ending the crisis (Mark Shields on the PBS Newshour 10/18/2103, Shields and Brooks on who will come out ahead after the shutdown 'cease-fire': "John Boehner, after all of this, standing at the precipice, about to plunge over, to send the country into default, only one-third of his entire caucus supported the resolution and the compromise crafted by the Senate.")
  • A party that contains some meaningful faction that deserves the label "responsible"
  • A party with which the Democrats share a commitment to concentrate on reducing budget deficits in the middle of a depression, with a weak recovery already seriously endangered by the drastic cuts made just this year
  • A normal party that can be expected to work in a "bipartisan" basis, at least on farm legislation
  • A party committed to "democracy," to debating differences "in good faith," a party willing to work within "the normal democratic process"

Only one of these even comes close to describing the real existing Republican Party as we've seen it in action this year, the part about an irresponsible joint commitment to focusing on minimizing federal spending during a depression and weak recovery. In other words, the one on which the corporate Democrats have successfully persuaded the People's Party to adopt a Herbert Hoover austerity economics perspective.

We just do not need any more Democratic Presidents that spend so much time trying to minimize the partisan advantages that the Democratic Party stands to gain from the most irresponsible kind of behavior by the Republicans. We really do not need another one.

I don't recall noticing the phrase "Obamaism" before I saw Rick Perlstein using it recently. "Even if Obamaism works on its own terms," he wrote, "it can't stop Republicans from wrecking the country. Instead, it may end up abetting them." (Why Obama Needs to Change to Win Rolling Stone 02/28/2013)

For me, there are two basic elements of "Obamaism" in the sense Rick uses it. One is his habit of framing issues in Republicans terms. In his Oct. 17 statement, he defended a moderately-conservative deficit policy by invoking the hardcore Reaganite attack on earned-benefits programs, "The challenges we have right now are not short-term deficits; it's the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security."

Second is his obsession with bipartisanship with the Republican Party as a good thing in itself. Bipartisan agreement on policy is only as good as the policy being agreed upon. And by making holy bipartisanship a key goal of his Presidency, he gives the Republicans a club to beat Democratic policy into the ground with. Because if bipartisanship is an end in itself, he by definition has to have Republican cooperation to achieve it.

The two weaknesses of "Obamaism" come together nicely in his drive to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, known in the Beltway Village and the business press as "entitlement reform," aka, the Grand Bargain. It's a Republican goal, and to achieve it he has to have substantial Republican support. Teaming with the Republicans will anger something like 99% of the Democratic Party's voting base, which is a good thing in Obama's view of holy bipartisanship. He regularly brags about his own voting base being upset with him over something. That is a virtue in the eyes of this particular Democratic President.

We see that kind of Obamaism at work when he said during the run-up to the debt ceiling deadline, "When you hear government not compromising, we're compromising so much we're willing to open the government at funding levels that reflect Republican wishes, that don't at all reflect our wishes." (Obama: We're Willing To Fund Government With Republican Priorities TPM 10/07/2013) Rick posted a Facebook comment about that story the same day saying, "Even our wins are losses."

And, in fact, that what this past week's deal did. It funds the government at sequester levels, with new sequester cuts still scheduled, funds it only until mid-January when another continuing resolution will be needed, and sets up another debt ceiling fight for mid-February.

Obama endorsed the false equivalence the Beltway Villagers love so much: "There's a lot of noise out there, and the pressure from the extremes affect how a lot of members of Congress see the day-to-day work that’s supposed to be done here." It plainly was not "the extremes" that brought on the debt ceiling crisis, it was the "the extreme" otherwise known as today's Republican Party in Congress.

The following is a statement of a key idea of the neoliberalism that is not a distinctive features of Obamaism, it's the ideology that has corrupted large portions of the Democratic Party, as well as center-left parties in Europe:

And we shouldn't approach this process of creating a budget as an ideological exercise -- just cutting for the sake of cutting. The issue is not growth versus fiscal responsibility -- we need both. We need a budget that deals with the issues that most Americans are focused on: creating more good jobs that pay better wages. [my emphasis]
Now, he's right that we should be reducing the federal budget "for the sake of cutting." But the striking thing is his comment that "creating a budget" should be no "ideological exercise." This is the neoliberal idea, the End of Ideology, the End of History. Issues of government become non-ideological, a matter of technical management - because both "left" and right should agreement with Calvin Coolidge's ideal that the bitness of America is bitness, and that what's good for the Koch Brothers and Goldman Sachs is good for America. Everything else is the whining of malcontents who worry about labor rights, jobs, decent pay, women's rights, etc. Unimportant distractions from the Real Business of making gubment the best servant possible to bitness.

In an interview with Jann S. Wenner in the spring of 2012, Obama expressed this hope for the period after his reelection (Ready for the Fight: Rolling Stone Interview with Barack Obama 04/25/2013):

My hope is that if the American people send a message to them that's consistent with the fact that Congress is polling at 13 percent right now, and they suffer some losses in this next election, that there's going to be some self-reflection going on – that it might break the fever. They might say to themselves, "You know what, we've lost our way here. We need to refocus on trying to get things done for the American people."

Frankly, I know that there are good, decent Republicans on Capitol Hill who, in a different environment, would welcome the capacity to work with me. But right now, in an atmosphere in which folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist are defining what it means to be a true conservative, they are lying low. My hope is that after this next election, they'll feel a little more liberated to go out and say, "Let's redirect the Republican Party back to those traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system."
It doesn't seem to me that the post-election Republican Party reflects any of those hopes. Yet there was the President on Thursday, talking about them in much the same vein. Dwight Eisenhower? Interstate highway system? There was no good reason to expect that in 2012 and even less to expect it now.

Kathleen Hennessey wrote of those groundless 2012 hopes recently (Obama's reelection did little to 'break the fever' in Washington Los Angeles Times 09/30/2013), "Whether the president’s thesis misjudged his opponents or was merely wooing supporters with wishful thinking is an open question." Actually, I don't think it's much of an open question. While he put up more resistance to being jacked around over the debt ceiling this time compared to 2011, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his hopes for Republican rationality are boundless.

She also wrote:

Now, several months into his second term, with Washington on the cusp of the first government shutdown since 1996, the fever of brinkmanship has spiked. ...

Even as Obama campaigned on the notion, few in Washington agreed with the president’s analysis. The 2012 election never looked like a power-shifting election, and it wasn’t. Republicans lost a handful of seats but easily maintained their majority in the House. The Democratic majority in the Senate grew only slightly. The balance of power remained the same, and for the most part so did the politics.

Charlie Pierce (The Reign of Morons: The Presidenting Esquire Politics Blog 10/17/2013) take on the notion of non-ideological federal budgets:

This is, of course, ridiculous. Everything in politics is an ideological exercise. That's the way it's supposed to be. Paul Ryan's objection to social-welfare programs is entirely ideological; he does not believe that things like Medicare and Social Security are legitimate exercises of the power of government. He wants them eliminated. He wants the ideas behind them defeated, forever. His approach is more tactically nuanced than that of Louie Gohmert -- so is a tackhammer -- but the goals are the same. If one side of these negotiations is utterly ideological, and the other side if ideologically fastidious, on which side would you put your money? [emphasis in original]
Obama's neoliberal ideology paired with his obsessive pursuity of sacred bipartisanship would be bad enough if the Republican Party were actually conservative. Since at the moment and for the foreseeable future they are screaming reactionaries with a strong tendency to bouts of collective insanity, Obama's reverence for bipartisanship bears a disturbing mirror-image relationship to the reality-denial rampant on the Republican side.

Sadly, I don't think Obama's concluding words in his post-debt-ceiling-crisis speech were just a rhetorical flourish. I think he's actually expected the Republican Party in Congress to be able and even willing to rise to them:

And those of us who have the privilege to serve this country have an obligation to do our job as best we can. We come from different parties, but we are Americans first. And that’s why disagreement cannot mean dysfunction. It can't degenerate into hatred. The American people’s hopes and dreams are what matters, not ours. Our obligations are to them. Our regard for them compels us all, Democrats and Republicans, to cooperate, and compromise, and act in the best interests of our nation –- one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are good things. Obama and the Republicans want to cut them. Every month and every year that goes by without that happening is a real victory for the great majority of Americans.

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