What Obama’s Willingness to Deal with the Right Means for Progressive Politics

Obama was willing to make substantial cuts to the crown jewels of liberalism–Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid–in order to get a deficit-reduction deal with Republicans.

Recently, three articles have been published analyzing President Obama’s negotiations with Republicans about a deficit reduction deal (Peter Wallsten, et al., “Obama’s evolution: Behind the failed ‘grand bargain’ on the debt,” Washington Post; Jonathan Chait, “How Obama Tried to Sell Out Liberalism in 2011,” New York Magazine; Matt Bai, “Obama vs. Boehner:  Who Killed the Debt Deal?New York Times Magazine).
All three articles come to essentially the same conclusion: Obama was willing to make substantial cuts to the crown jewels of liberalism—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and get little in return, in order to get a deficit-reduction deal with Republicans.
The details of the proposed deal should be very disturbing to anyone who believes in Democratic core values and protecting the American Dream. In addition to substantial cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the domestic budget, Obama was willing to reduce top-end tax rates, maintain current tax rates on investment income (the reason millionaires like Mitt Romney pay such low tax rates) and prevent the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in return for increasing tax revenues by $800 billion.
That amount is less than half the amount of new revenues recommended by the co-chairs of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Commission, but, as it turns out, the $800 billion in “new revenues” was mostly a mirage. The $800 billion mentioned by the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, would not have come from increasing taxes on anyone, especially not the rich, who would have had their taxes cut even below the Bush tax cut levels, but from nebulous plans to “overhaul the tax code,” which may or may not have ever gotten through Congress, and from projecting new revenues based on the largely disproven assumption that lower tax rates would boost the economy and produce more revenues (the laughable Laffer Curve). As one of the authors, Jonathan Chait, characterized it, “The Republican position was that its higher revenue, in other words, had to be imaginary, theoretical revenue.”
Obama did not reject this proposal. In fact, according to the Washington Post article, “[W]hen Boehner brought up economic growth, arguing that his caucus would not accept tax increases under any other terms,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said, “Yes, we accept that” and Obama’s Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, is quoted in the Washington Post article saying, “We walked away feeling that we were 80 percent there” [to achieving a deal].  Events intervened, including a proposal by a bipartisan group of senators for $2 trillion in higher revenues—real revenue increases, not the imaginary increases Obama apparently was willing to accept in a deal with Boehner.
In fact, the Gang of Six proposal, which was supported by some very conservative Republicans, including Senator Lamar Alexander, then the third-ranking member of the Republican Senate leadership team and senators Tom Coburn and Saxby Chambliss, contained $2 trillion in real revenue increases, including higher taxes and stronger protections for the poor than the deal Obama was negotiating. This caused Bill Daley to say, “We’d be beat up miserably by Democrats who thought we got out-negotiated” if Obama took the $800 billion of phony revenue projections, and no deal was concluded.
Nevertheless, with the prospects of a deal dimming and even with the embarrassment of the much better Gang of Six proposal in the background, two days later, according to the Post, “Working late into the evening, Obama asked someone to get Boehner on the phone. His message: I’ll take your last offer.” At this point. Boehner refused to reopen negotiations and Obama was left at the altar without a mate. But, the Post article reports that, “White House officials said this week [March 17] that the offer is still on the table.”
Obama’s willingness to bargain away core progressive values of the Democratic Party in a deficit-reduction deal comes after his meltdown on a large range of issues dear to progressives: His unconditional support for Bush’s Wall Street bailout; his escalation of the Afghanistan War; his acceptance of Bush-era limits on civil liberties; his shift from supporting the healthcare public option and opposing individual mandates during the 2008 campaign to subverting the public option and backing individual mandates in 2009; his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (in exchange for Republicans allowing an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states); his withdrawal of strong EPA rules on clean air; his gratuitous attacks on “the professional Left.”
At times it has seemed that Obama went out of his way to attack progressives and undermine progressive programs in order to prove he was truly the post-partisan president he claimed to be. Indeed, as I and Andrew Sullivan have previously argued, the evidence is pretty conclusive that Obama has governed as a conservative.
So, the question for progressives is, “What do we do now?”
Obama supporters would answer that question by arguing that now is not the time to criticize the president because the alternative–electing a Republican–would be worse. Now is the time to mute criticism, because criticism can be embarrassing and dispiriting. Buck up, Dems, forget issues and actual performance, now is the time for cheerleaders, not critics. We can reconvene on the issues after Obama gets re-elected
I think exactly the opposite is true. The only leverage progressives have on Obama is now, not later, not after the election. After the election, what is most likely is that Obama will return to his vision of himself as someone standing above politics, capable of making a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans, as a serious deficit hawk, as someone willing to put Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the chopping block before he demands more sacrifices from the rich and well-connected.
The 2012 presidential election is going to be one of the most dismal and depressing presidential elections in American history. Morale among Democrats is low because Obama has not been the savior many people expected and because the 2008 Democratic mandate was squandered so quickly and for so little. Republicans, on the other hand, likely will be led by Mitt Romney, a guy who has been pulling an aggregate of 39 percent of votes in the Republican primaries and who has been strongly opposed by the Tea Party and conservative wings of the party; indeed, if the conservative Republican votes had not been split among conservative candidates, Romney would not be the nominee.
Voters also will be bombarded by $3 billion of negative advertising, which is not likely to increase voting enthusiasm; indeed, much of the Republican advertising will be designed to suppress voting. Low enthusiasm elections mean one thing, low turnout and in low-turnout elections, what do you do? You activate the base voters because base voters are more likely to vote than occasional voters.
Obama already has figured this out, which is why his State of the Union address was so populist and progressive (if you leave out the 15 minutes or so of pure pandering to the military). He is smart enough to realize that he can’t get re-elected talking austerity and cuts to important social programs that many people, especially his base, like. He may want to make a Grand Bargain with Republicans, but he can’t do that now, not with an election looming.
Obama has few progressive achievements to offer his base, but he knows he’s a skilled wordsmith of populist rhetoric. And this is what gives progressives power now that they haven’t had for 3-plus years: Obama needs progressives; he especially needs progressives to vote; he is reaching out to us; he is beginning to talk our talk.
So, now is the time to make demands on him, to push him to make promises and commitments–as MoveOn did recently by demanding that he promise to veto any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and by protests of inaction about mortgage relief at Obama for America sites. This is also what Bill McKibben’s 350.org did on the Keystone Pipeline, putting pressure on the president to reverse a State Department decision to permit the pipeline from Canada and thereby reaching out to the environmental community, which heretofore he had largely ignored, but which he needs in November.
Between now and the election, we need to take the lead from actions like McKibben’s and MoveOn and drive Obama as far to the progressive side of politics as possible, because if we don’t, once he is freed of having to run for re-election again, the Grand Bargain will be back on the table and it will take 20 years, or more, to reverse the damage. Ironically, by pushing Obama to take more populist positions, we will be helping to make him more electable, so there is no conflict between pushing him on issues and re-electing him.
The progressive vehicle for this pressure may now be in sight with plans by The 99% Spring to train 100,000 people in nonviolent direct action April 9 to 15 to push a progressive agenda about foreclosure relief, student debt, protection of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, job creation, poverty, pollution, wealth inequality and the roll-back of tax cuts for the rich. Let us hope this potentially game-changing force puts its allegiance squarely behind real change, not protecting the president, or any other politician.