The Party Line – July 8, 2011: A Broadside? That’s Rich

By now, many of you have probably read Frank Rich’s inaugural piece for New York Magazine. Freed from the bean counters and word counters of the New York Times, Rich pours forth pages (and pages) on what he calls “Obama’s Original Sin.”

That sin, as the story explains, is that the Obama administration’s failure to properly investigate the causes of the financial crisis, its failure to hold anyone accountable, and its embrace of some of the very people that helped push the US economy into the, uh, ditch have left the president’s reelection prospects on shaky ground.

Matt Taibbi (who is quoted in the Rich piece) has called the NY Mag article “Rich’s broadside,” and cites it as one of a growing list of “not quite mainstream media” stories on the epic failure that is the president’s approach to Wall Street. Taibbi sees Rich and raises him, but both are playing roughly the same hand: Frank Rich is being tough on Barack Obama.

I am not going to say that Rich is not being tough, per se, just that he isn’t as tough as he thinks.

I am sure that Frank thinks he is being tough now because he was once much less so. As Matt notes in his post, Rich was once one of Obama’s biggest cheerleaders. In fact, if I may add a personal note, I had always enjoyed reading Rich during the Bush years, but as the November 2008 election drew near, even I started to blush from the Times columnist’s overt man-crush on the Democratic nominee.

In other words, Frank Rich’s opinion of Obama has fallen a long way because Rich’s opinion had a long way to fall.

To be fair, Rich does point out that Obama has a truly dreadful record on jobs creation. Rich also bemoans how many Robert Rubin acolytes the president appointed to his economic team. And, the article rightfully chastises Obama’s embrace of the deficit peacocks and their TEA-infused austerity framing.

But Rich spends a good chunk of his piece trashing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Now, Romney deserves trashing—he is an even bigger jerk than he is a phony—but focusing on the big, bad Republican that waits in the wings plays into the Obama team’s own defense strategy—things might be bad, but they would be worse under President Jerkoff. And that not only lets the current president off the hook a bit, it hampers those that want to organize to push Obama leftward (as in, at least somewhere back near the center).

What Rich misses is that the birth of the Tea Party (or the TEA-colored parties that we lump under that one rubric) owes something to the very positions Obama has taken with regard to the economic crisis. The Tea Party that Obama and his defenders blame for his difficulties in governing, that O & Co. warn us about as the hellish alternative to “four more years”—though in many ways incubated and manipulated by rightwing corporate interests—found fertile ground in a scared and angry population that saw a president who promised change and delivered more of the same.

That Obama ran with the Bush bailout of the banks, demanding nothing in return, while shorting his own stimulus package and marginalizing the voices that clamored for pump-priming and accountability—failing to a) produce enough jobs, while b) trying to sell the “how much worse it would have been” argument, and c) holding no one accountable—sent a message that if Obama was on a sinking ship with too few life boats, it would be Wall Street first, not women and children. . . or any of the other inhabitants of Main Street. Obama may have started as a poor kid from Hawaii, but he has cemented himself in many Americans’ minds as just another eastern elite.

I know Rich thinks he is being rough on the president—partly because, a few months back, I overheard Frank telling a table of bold-faced dinner companions sitting near me at a midtown restaurant how tough one of his columns (one of the last he’d write for the New York Times) was going to be on Obama. . . only to read the column that Sunday and find it not so tough at all. I also know Rich thinks he is being tough because he ends with a warning that no one but Obama can save Obama (and so, save America from Mitt). But only four paragraphs before that, Rich writes that “There’s not much Obama can do about the economy by 2012 given the debt ceiling fight. . . and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs. . . .”

Granted, this was written before the Thursday bombshell about Social Security being put on the table by a president eager to make a deal—any deal—on the debt ceiling, but anyone paying attention saw that (along with hits to Medicare and Medicaid) coming weeks if not months or years ago. But even so, even if Rich, like so much of the liberal establishment, has been willfully ignorant to that, the declaration that the President of the United States is fated to just sit on his hands and watch Americans suffer for the next 17 months because the big banker elites and the tea-party rabble won’t let him help America and so help himself—well, so help me, how is that being tough on Obama?

Let me be a little tougher: I never expected a hero or a real progressive when I voted for Obama in 2008, but I expected some kind of leader. I hoped that, though not my idea of a liberal, Obama was smart, would see what the great crisis of our time demanded, and would rise—at least in part—to the occasion.

Obama might think he has done that. Obama might think he is a leader, or if not quite that, at least a transcendent, post-partisan facilitator, but, if I may borrow from Apocalypse Now, Obama is neither. He is an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks—in this case, Wall Street and the corporate elite—to collect a bill.

What’s on that bill? Yes, there is real money—in the trillions. Perhaps Obama’s own downfall, too. (How ironic.) Quite possibly, the bill also demands the destruction of the Democratic Party, and even more likely, the destruction of the social safety net that Democrats have built and defended for over two generations. That’s what Team Obama has put on the table.

That’s my humble take on being “tough on Obama.” But, be it Rich or me, no matter—what Obama has delivered will be tough on all of us.

(A version of this post has been crossposted to Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 1, 2011: Dick Move

I feel like adapting a joke from Thom Lehrer, who once remarked that a debate over the MLF (look it up) happened during the baseball season, so readers of the Chronicle might not have heard about it. The incident I want to talk about happened during MSNBC’s Morning Joe, so if you have no stomach for that show (or morning television in general)—like me—or if you only watched MSNBC the rest of the day, you might have missed it. . . but plenty of others are talking about it: MSNBC’s “senior political analyst” Mark Halperin was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after calling President Obama “Kind of a dick” on Morning Joe. (You want a laugh—another laugh? Check out how the Washington Post wrote this up: “kind of a [vulgarism for male organ].”)

If you want, take a look at an unedited version of the exchange, it is really pathetic for about a dozen reasons, but let me focus on what might be (as it usually is) the most pathetic part, which is the sizzle becomes the story, and not the steak—the real meaty part being what is actually going on in Washington.

Mark Halperin (whose father, Morton, yes, did defend US bombing during the Vietnam War, but later went on to champion civil liberties and open government, and has always been articulate and exhibited a real gravitas—so who knows what happened with his son?) said the president was all genital-like because Obama, in his Wednesday presser, dared to get the slightest bit snarky about corporate jet-users and their GOP guardians. . . and that, in my considered opinion, was wrong. It was wrong because getting annoyed (or, more likely, “acting” annoyed) with the greedy and their handmaidens is the very least we should demand in this ravaged economy, and it was wrong because, even if that behavior was somehow beyond the pale, it wouldn’t make Obama a dick, and certainly wouldn’t make it intelligent commentary to have some lightweight “analyst” call him one.

One of the first rules of civil debate (and child-rearing—perhaps that is where Mort went wrong) is that you criticize the action, and not the actor. Ad hominem attacks do nothing to advance an argument, and they are certainly not analysis.

The president is not a dick—but, that said, the president did make a dick move. No, not the one that got Halperin to put in for a few extra weeks of summer vacation—that, as I said, was sub-minimal—the dick move was cutting the legs out from under congressional Democrats in an effort to prove his worth to whomever it is Obama looks to for approval (still trying to sort that one out), and improve his standing for his 2012 run.

Obama’s dick move actually comes in two thrusts (did I just write that?): First, the White House undermined the negotiating posture of Democratic members of Congress by a) continuing to move to the right on budget cuts in an effort to forge something the president can call a “compromise,” and b) offering up some sort of “trade” of cuts to what, for lack of a better word, are called “entitlements” in exchange for what (and not for lack of a better word but for lack of a spine) are called “revenue enhancements.” And, second, Obama kneecapped congressional Dems’ election strategy by setting in motion a process that will likely tie Democrats to a vote that will inoculate Republicans from the charge that only the GOP wants to cut Medicare.

Democratic leadership in Congress wants to send a clear message that they are the protectors of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—and increasingly, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) indicated this week, Democrats also want voters to know that Republicans are looking to benefit politically from an economic crisis and so, are not negotiating in good faith. The White House muddied that message with the specifics outlined above, and with the general posture that it is in some sort of negotiation with GOP leaders.

Will anybody be talking about any of that heading into the holiday weekend? (Present company excluded, of course.) Doubtful. But will tongues be wagging about Lil’ Mark and, perhaps, how his “analysis” was stifled by the “librul media?” Yeah, that feels like it has legs. . . maybe three of them.

The Party Line – June 24, 2011: The Play’s the Thing

I spent Thursday evening at New York City’s Town Hall—which is a theater, complete with stage, and not a government building—attending the multi-media launch of “Rebuild the Dream,” an attempt to shape a movement around a push for economic justice and against the corporatist forces that have so skewed the political debate in recent decades.

Yes, decades. While the keynote speech by Van Jones was likely referencing the very obvious injustices of the last decade or so, one of the graphs projected behind him on stage showed that the disparity between worker productivity and wages (the former increasing sharply while the latter barely edged above flat-lining) started in about 1980.

That 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan ran successfully for president is not a coincidence.

It has long been my contention that the 1980 election, and the Reagan presidency that followed, forever changed America’s perception of itself. Prior to that time, Americans saw their country as a land of plenty. There were pitched political battles to be sure, but they were over how to distribute that plenty, how to husband the bounty that was the USA’s fortunate combination of vast natural resources and forward-thinking spirit of innovation. That is not to discount the great disparities that existed, but, at least since World War II, those disparities were not the product of national privation.

All that changed with Reagan. Suddenly, our resources were scarce, the American pie was finite, and if one didn’t hustle to get a slice, someone else would get it first. Making it in America became a competitive sport. Those that made a point of questioning the theory of evolution championed social Darwinism as the natural order.

Beginning with Reagan, too, America started looking backward. When a Reagan campaign ad declared it was “morning in America,” it was not looking forward to a new day, better than the previous one. Instead, the “morning” was one of nostalgia for a mythic place where life appeared simpler and race and gender roles seemed more clearly defined and enforced. For Ronald Reagan and his ilk, America’s best days were found in the past.

In other words, Reagan was a pessimist, and all those who have followed in his footsteps, claimed his mantle, or praised his presidency—Republicans and Democrats—are also selling America short.

Enter the seemingly unflappable optimist, Van Jones. Jones indeed put up a picture of a pie (apple), and noted that it wasn’t the whole pie that was shrinking, just your slice. America wasn’t broke, Jones said, it had just been robbed. And, over the next hour, Jones did a nice job detailing some of the myths—“lies,” he rightfully called them—that have promulgated the pessimism and stood in the way of economic justice.

But after that hour, after the explication of the current situation, beyond Van Jones’s own infectious spirit, what did we have?

And there’s the rub, for it was an evening long on diagnosis, but short on prescription. Yes, all were told that ideas were to be submitted to a website on July 5, and that house meetings to discuss those ideas would follow, but the evening left me with more questions than answers. What is the goal, in concrete terms, of this movement? What kind of action(s) will it use? What are the targets of those actions? Is this a play at the federal level, or will it focus on state politics? Or local governments?

I suppose Jones and his coalition would tell me that is up to me. . . to me, you, all of us who participate in something bottom-up and grass-roots—but I would hope that someone on the inside has a little more of plan than that.

One need only pick up on the name not spoken—not once that I can recall in the entire event—that of President Barack Obama, to begin to grasp the problems any attempt at a broad coalition will run into at the federal level. Jones made two oblique references, first saying that in 2008 we voted for “Peace and prosperity, not war and austerity”—a nice turn of phrase (and a true one) that left me thinking about who embodied those ideals. And, second, Obama’s momentary “green jobs czar” stated that the movement to rebuild the American dream was “not about an individual person” because we had learned what that got us.

Pointed in its way, I suppose, but still far from a direct attack, and I fear that times are bad enough—as the event tried hard to make clear—that a direct attack is most certainly what is needed. I am not talking about a primary challenge for Obama, or a national third party up-and-running by 2012, but a direct acknowledgment that Obama and the Democrats need the support of the people this nascent movement hopes to empower. For without that recognition, without that willingness to use the power “Rebuild the Dream” hopes to acquire and shape, then there is nowhere for the movement to move. There is no play—not state or federal—and as another fond of the stage once said, “The play’s the thing.”

The Party Line – June 10, 2011: Hope Floats

The Obama administration has a problem. As much Republican good will or corporate campaign cash as they expect to gain from their reinforcing of the deficit hysteria meme (which, let’s face it, will not be very much at all), even the most cynical of the president’s economic team realizes that all this budget cutting isn’t going to do squat for the current economy. Without something directly stimulative, the recovery likely stalls. Without some sort of jobs program, the unemployment picture continues to look grim. There is no “car” to worry about putting in reverse—it has been spinning its wheels for some time now, and, as most Americans see it, it never did drive out of that ditch.

Yes, with 2012 shaping up to be another “it’s the economy, stupid” election year, O & Co. has a problem—but with the same deficit hawks and scorched-earth partisans controlling Congress, what is a president obsessed with bipartisan-like process to do?

A natural place to look would be the deal the White House cut last December with House Republicans—and indeed, Obama went to that well earlier this week. During an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president floated the idea of extending a central part of that deal, the two-percent payroll tax cut for employees, for another year. Then, never failing to miss an opportunity to negotiate with itself, the White House later posited an employer-side payroll tax break (instead of the employee-side cut? in addition to? hard to say, but it is fairly easy to guess which would be favored by the GOP) as an incentive to business for some sort of job creation.

Payroll taxes, however, are not some sort of rainy-day fund the government puts aside when it can, there to use if it needs a new washing machine. . . or the economy is in a ditch. These payroll taxes—the ones Obama is offering to cut—go to fund Social Security and disability. The 2010 deal cost roughly $112 billion, and it figures extending the cut another year will cost the same. If the employer-side cut is comparable, and it is paired with an extension of the employee-side holiday, Social Security could be out close to $400 billion by the end of next year.

The Obama administration has assured us that the Social Security shortfall will be made up from the general revenue, but if the White House does not think it has the political capital to push through a more straightforward (and almost certainly more effective) money-for-jobs stimulus plan, why are we to grant that they can engineer a repayment of the Social Security fund? And even if that transfer were politically possible, what $400 billion cut in the federal budget will have to be made to appease the deficit peacocks?

All of this—or any of this—puts additional pressure on Social Security, or, more accurately, lends ammunition to those already taking pot shots at the long-term viability of the program. If there are already “serious” people trying to shock-doctrine in changes to the retirement plan, how much more shocking could they make things seem after taking a two-, three-, or four-hundred billion-dollar bite out of its reserves?

None of these cold calculations likely come as a big surprise to the White House. In fact, this is all possibly part of the political calculation—that one of the reasons Hill Republicans might go along with an Obama-proffered plan of any sort is the resulting dent it puts in the Social Security trust fund.

That might seem like a successful trade to administration insiders, buying themselves some small bit of help for an economy on the skids and sure to suffer from any “deficit reduction,” but it comes at a heck of a price. Not only does the economic upside of this bargain look relatively small, the political downside is potentially huge. As both the recent Medicare scare and the 2005 Social Security privatization push have taught us, American voters hate it when you threaten their “entitlements.” If Republicans can muddy the waters, or actually drag the White House into the mud with them, on Social Security “reform” (read: benefit cuts), they will have taken away one of the Democrats’ most effective salvos for the coming campaign.

And that will come in addition to a litany of “wins” for the corporatists, deficit hawks, party hacks, and TEA-totaling ideologues—more tax breaks, less federal spending, a dead-weight economy, and a damaged social safety net. To counter all of that, the Obama administration offers its float of payroll tax cuts and the hope that this and a little economic luck will change things for the better. . . or at least keep enough voters from noticing how they have gotten worse.

(A version of this post appears today at Firedoglake.)