The Party Line – July 29, 2011: Those Who Can’t Teach, “Compromise”

I seriously cannot believe I am again writing a post with one eye on the wire, still waiting for a conclusion to the debt-ceiling debacle, looking for real news to read, instead of just thrice re-boiled tea leaves. But here I am—here we are—sweating out a crisis that is as malicious as it is manufactured, knowing that when a “resolution” comes, no matter which version/option/compromise we get, it will be both terrible and impermanent.

That’s not easy to think about, but it is quite easy to say. There are no smart options on the table. There are not even smart planks left to use as bargaining chips. America, with its economy gasping for air, is left having to choose from a trio of plans that are all (as best as we are allowed to glimpse them) comprised of draconian cuts to so-called discretionary spending, no serious attempts at increases in revenue, and seismic blows to the bedrock programs of our social safety net—and none of which do a single, solitary thing to stimulate job creation. The only resemblance to a life preserver here is that all the plans look like a big, fat zero.

That the federal budget deficit is not even our real problem is a message completely absent from the national “debate.” That there is a difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit has been lazily obscured or purposefully ignored. And, again, the interests and desires of vast majorities of the American people—that jobs are more important than deficits, that a higher percentage of taxes should be paid by the very wealthy, and that the military should be cut before Social Security and Medicare—are marginalized as “extreme,” “not serious,” “unreasonable,” or (horror of horrors) “not adult.”

And who is out in front of this march to mindless mayhem? Believe it or not, as flawed and feckless as Congressional leaders seem, as uncompromising or unhinged as TEA Party sympathizers (T-simps?) appear, the guy that must bear the lion’s share of blame is the one with the bully pulpit.

When President Barack Obama took to the primetime air on Monday, many a Beltway pundit huzzah-ed the appearance of “the educator-in-chief.” We were told that the president went over the heads of the Washington elite to explain the complexities of the debt-ceiling debate to the people. We were told that Obama’s continued “eat your peas” tone was just the sort of talking-to that the unruly brood in the people’s house (you know, the House) needed to hear. And we were told that when the president asked folks to call Congress and say they expected compromise, he had scored a political victory (even as some poopooed his “politicizing” the moment).

And no doubt the president believed his own press, for as the week draws to an end and we are no closer to any kind of meaningful arrangement (good, bad, really bad or otherwise) to raise the debt ceiling, there is nothing new coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Well, this might come as a bit of a news flash to President Obama (not to mention the DC press corps), but being “reasonable,” or “unflappable,” or even behaving as the “adult” is not the same thing as being a leader.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noticed this “abject failure” on Wednesday, calling Obama “seemingly without a compass. . . an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals.”

Perhaps this is because the president has no larger goals. It has often seemed that, to Obama, compromise—like “bipartisanship”—is goal enough, an end rather than just a means to an end. Perhaps, as Reich puts it, it is more important to the president that he be “seen as a reasonable adult rather than a fighter.” Or perhaps the larger goals are so singularly unpalatable that he dare not explain them. It is bad enough that the White House is stripping Democrats of a solid campaign issue by joining the GOP in its pursuit of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, if the president had to call such cuts a “goal,” as opposed to a “compromise,” his own re-election might be in peril (or even more in peril).

But the “why” is not as important as the “what”—and what is going on is deplorable, in both practical and political terms. As Reich notes:

[Obama] is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his No. 1 economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct—that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations, we get the type of bromides that issue from any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

Reich is kind in phrasing this as a situation into which Obama has “allowed himself to be trapped,” but I fear he is being too politic. Two-and-a-half years removed from inauguration day, the president has enough of a track record to deserve the label of “active participant” in the trapping.

When the will and wisdom of the electorate has threatened to interrupt what we used to think of as a Republican narrative of “austerity for the many and rewards for the few,” it is President Obama that has time and again jumped in to shore up and shape his theoretical opponents’ frame. It was the new president that negotiated with himself a too-small stimulus and then over-promised what it would do. It was the White House that hamstrung healthcare reform with secret deals, an artificial maximum price tag, and long delays for the start of most programs, and then forced Democrats in Congress to embrace it and defend it straight through disastrous midterm elections. It was Obama that created the Catfood Commission when Congress itself failed to appease the deficit peacocks—and it was Obama that stacked the commission with members predisposed to disemboweling the social safety net. It was the president that forced his caucus to embrace his December budget deal that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and slashed the estate tax—two major factors in our current budget shortfall. And it is Obama that continues Bush’s wars of choice—justifying them with Bush’s climate of fear—another giant drain on federal coffers.

And it is Obama now, throughout the months that this debt-ceiling circus has continued to send in the clowns (along with high-wire acts and performing seals), who has served as ringmaster.

Obama, as I have described in the past, could have argued that we have more than enough borrowing capacity, and that, with interest rates so very low, now is the time to strengthen our economy by creating jobs, expanding our safety net, and stimulating demand. He could have used this crisis to build on the New Deal, to improve his flawed healthcare law, or to help power the next great engine of American economic expansion (by perhaps giving a Kennedy-esque “moon landing” speech declaring we will replace carbon and nuclear fuels with renewables by a date certain, and then funding R&D)—and he certainly could have used all of this to draw a sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans. But instead, the president has embraced the austerity meme, argued only for “compromise,” and has turned the entire debate into a contest over whose plan has more cuts. Obama has failed to explain to anyone how compromise, in-and-of itself, will help create a job or put food on the table, but he has succeeded in enhancing a dangerous and growing cynicism among voters well on their way to dropping out of the political process to devote more time to just making ends meet.

It might not be hard to “mobilize” people around a tactic—Congressional phone lines were jammed the day after Obama’s call to call—but a week (or two?) later, when government services have been sacrificed in the name of saving the country’s bond rating, will any of this telephone army feel like they won the fight?

It’s hard to imagine they will—certainly not the next time unemployment numbers come out, or a bridge falls down, or their kids are forced into a more crowded classroom. It is those real-life “lessons” that will do the teaching absent any true leadership from the “educator-in-chief.”

(A version of this post also appears on Firedoglake.)

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Emancipation and (Self) Preservation

It is perhaps ironic in the extreme to take to the internet to extol the virtues of contemplation, and to do so while discussing a story that, by the time you read this, will be over a full day old (a near-eternity in the blogosphere), but President Obama’s allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation (or more accurately, the release of a months-old talk where he praises Lincoln’s move as a marriage of principle and pragmatism) in the contextual crucible of the debt-ceiling debate, makes me wish we could really spend some time learning, relearning, and discussing the Proclamation and Lincoln’s actions in the context of his time and the lessons they might hold for action in ours.

It would be as fun as it would be enlightening for me (and a lot of others, I’d hope) to have a back-and-forth about what President Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation did and didn’t do—for slaves in Union and Confederate states, for the war effort on both sides of America’s Civil War, and for the future of the (as opposed to “these”) United States—because there is room for argument. And, it would be great if we could first pursue the pure knowledge and understanding before having to turn it into an ironclad metaphor for our current president and his very current “crisis” (another point open to interpretation). But Obama “went there”—first in a March talk with a group of students, and this weekend with the release of tape of that talk and another video alluding to the same issue—and so the metaphor, like a battle, is joined.

Because my preamble ramble is already closer to the pre-internet-age chat than I had intended, let me shorthand a lot of my thinking on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and say that while I feel comfortable in raising an eyebrow about just how few slaves were freed on its first day, January 1, 1863, and also feel comfortable in asserting that Lincoln understood the shrewd politics of the Proclamation’s exact language, a day of looking at recent scholarship on these issues also has me believing that “Emancipation,” such as it was proclaimed, did much to help the Union’s war effort by adding a second “cause” (the eventual abolition of slavery in addition to the opposition to southern secession) to the fight, by painting a stark moral contrast between the warring parties to European powers that had abolished slavery themselves, but still had other reasons to aid the Confederacy (such as Great Britain), and, quite notably, by allowing northern blacks and freed southern slaves to enlist and fight, swelling the ranks for the Union side.

All of this allowed Lincoln to attain his stated primary goal—the preservation of the Union—but it also (along with some very critical acts of Congress) laid the groundwork for the degradation of slavery in Northern slave states, the outlawing of slavery in US territories, and soon after, the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery across all states. (It also helped blunt any thoughts of a challenge to Lincoln’s re-nomination from the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party in 1864, which is interesting even in today’s context, and an attractive grace note to my point here.)

With all of this (all of this) in mind, let us now examine President Obama’s words, as delivered to a politically mixed group of students:

[Obama] noted that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted slavery in border states loyal to the Union, in an attempt to hold the nation together.

“Here you’ve got a wartime president whose making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that ‘right now, my job is to win the war and to maintain the union,’” Obama said.

“Can you imagine how the [liberal news outlet] Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’”

He told the students: “The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100 percent of what you want.”

Again, setting aside just how accurate the analogy is with respect to what the Emancipation Proclamation did and/or was intended to do, and trying, too, to ignore the gratuitous hippy punching, I want to focus on the last paragraph with respect to the broader invocation of Lincoln’s pragmatism.

Obama seeks to praise Lincoln for his ability to attain his goals in light of and in spite of both factional opposition and structural impediment, and in so doing, the current president rather nakedly implies that he is doing the same. Obama essentially says: “Lincoln married his principles to process and achieved his goal, and now, so too, will I. Someday, many will appreciate what I am doing the way we now appreciate Abraham Lincoln.”

But here’s the rub: What principle? And what goal? Obama’s big lesson, he says, is “you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” but what is it that Obama wants?

I don’t think he is concerned about the actual preservation of the Union. Aside from a marginal group of racists and paranoids—and the small handful of opportunist politicians that will claim some common cause even if they intend to do nothing as noteworthy as a Jefferson Davis—few are expecting another war between the states. Is the president then thinking that the fight against America’s current economic woes is the moral equivalent of the fight to preserve the Union? Could be, but then how have his actions moved us closer to that goal? What principle is he marrying to politics?

Deficit hawking will do nothing to create jobs or consumer demand, and laying things his party holds dear on the table (or whatever euphemism Obama is using this week for offering up benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare) not only makes the personal economies of so many Americans that much more precarious, it does nothing—nothing—to affect the deficit, or, much more to the immediate point, the debt ceiling. This would not just be me saying this; this would be the vast majority of our nation’s economists. I would also wager big money that any of the president’s long trail of ex or soon to be ex economic advisors—from Austan Goolsbee to Jarred Bernstein to even (yes) Larry Summers—would agree: if your goal is to usher in a robust economic recovery, cutting trillions from public projects, social programs and so-called “entitlements” will be almost entirely counterproductive.

Is the “goal” compromise itself? Many, including myself, often feel this way. But what is that? How does that marry “principle” to “politics” when it defines them as exactly the same thing?

Which leaves me with two remaining possibilities—both unpleasant.

I am going to give short shrift to the sinister one—that Obama is a sort of “Manchurian Candidate” whose entire career was engineered for the goal of destroying the Rooseveltian welfare state and the Democratic Party that built and defended it. It might be true in practice, but the psychology and construction of this thesis requires more supposition than I am comfortable writing.

To me, it seems the more obvious answer is now the correct one—and maybe the sadder one, too: Obama’s goal, the principle and practice that the president is equating with the Emancipation Proclamation, is in fact his re-election. To Obama, the preservation of his presidency is the same as Lincoln’s preservation of the Union.

How else can we explain Obama’s “leadership” on economic issues, especially since the “grand compromise” of last December when he allowed the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy? What other “principle” dictates that the president insist on moving further and further toward a camp of greedy, rich corporatists and their Washington proxies? What “goal” is achieved by taking away from the president’s own party the one sure-fire electoral winner, the contrast between the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, and the party that openly has suggested cutting them?

These questions are even more pointed, to my ear, if we are to believe (as some keep insisting) that the president does not intend to make these cuts or move as far right as he might make it seem, but is instead just posturing to throw his opposition off balance, to reveal them as the more intractable. It is a posture that does nothing for Democrats in Congress (or anywhere down ticket, really), but it does, in the eyes of Obama’s political team, anyway, project the president as more “independent” and more appealing to some dubious grouping of “independent voters.”

Imagine, then, Abraham Lincoln approaching the same problem. Lincoln was not above politics—as noted, the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd document politically, and during Lincoln’s senatorial and first presidential campaigns, he would address slavery in very different terms depending on his audience—but it was politics toward a goal bigger than himself, and it would eventually come to be politics married to a principle that, even though not as enlightened as our current approach to race, still became steadfast in its alliance with the abolition of slavery.

Would Lincoln feel that simply positioning himself for a second term, giving his re-election the best of all possible chances, was the same thing as preserving the union? That one is a stretch for me. And, even though Lincoln’s initial indication of the impending Emancipation Proclamation (in September 1862) was bad for some Republican members of the House (they lost seats in the 1862 midterms), with the principle of abolishing slavery in hand, the president’s party was given an issue to run on that served them well in many places for the next 100 years.

Can Barack Obama look at his moves in the current “battle” and expect a similar legacy? He can want it, but history will be the judge. It will be, should the republic survive or no, the stuff of future discussions and scholarship. It is for time to decide, not Beltway strategists, not “independent voters,” and certainly not the president, himself.

(A version of this post appears at Firedoglake.)