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Mr. Friedman, Meet Mr. Obama | The Nation

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Mr. Friedman, Meet Mr. Obama

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One of the signal values of the constant drumbeat of obvious nonsense and propaganda that emanates from the Murdoch empire, right-wing talk-radio, Republican presidential candidates, etc., is the way it warps the minds of writers and thinkers who may be independent of such organizations but feel a need to remain relevant to a perverted debate.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Perhaps this syndrome is what is presently afflicting America’s most influential foreign affairs columnist, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman. One hopes so, because explanation number two—temporary insanity—raises a whole host of questions about not only Friedman but also whether anyone at the Times is even paying attention.

As op-ed fans everywhere cannot help being aware, Friedman has been crusading of late for Americans to join in the creation of a third party that would undertake the “grand bargain” of spending cuts and tax hikes he insists is necessary to save the nation from ruin. His deeply purple prose sounds one alarm after another. “Where is the urgency?” he demands. “The code is red.”

Friedman’s insistence that no one of responsibility in the current political constellation recognizes the gravity of the situation and the necessary terms of his proposed grand bargain—the subject, coincidentally, of his most recent (co-written) bestseller—is rendered problematic at best, however, by the fact that the president has been pursuing exactly the strategy Friedman insists is so painfully lacking but has been stymied at every turn by a Republican leadership that is committed, above all, to his failure.

To deal with this inconvenient truth on one occasion—in the context of his wonderment as to whether “our leadership lost its mind”—Friedman writes, “President Obama says that he tried to strike a Grand Bargain with Mr. Boehner on taxes and spending but that the speaker of the House backed off, when it became clear that he could not deliver his own caucus. Boehner says it was the president who undercut the deal, when he asked for more tax revenues than the two of them had already agreed upon.” Friedman is unimpressed. “All I know is this: If either of you had been a real leader truly committed to a Grand Bargain—which you both know is what we need—you wouldn’t have just walked away from your negotiations. You would have taken the issue to the country and not let up until the other guy came back to the table.”

Note that the issue of raising taxes is one that Friedman insists must be part of the grand bargain. Without it, there is no “bargain” to be discussed. Otherwise, it’s just another Obama capitulation to Republican class war against the poor and middle class on behalf of the top 1 percent. The Republicans refuse even to entertain this notion, but Friedman’s solution is for the president to just, um, make them. He writes, “If the president really wants to lead from the front, he should summon the Democratic and Republican leadership, along with all 12 members of the House-Senate deficit ‘supercommittee,’ to join him at Camp David and tell the world that they are not coming back without a Grand Bargain.”

That’s sometimes. Other times, Friedman argues that Obama’s task is not to carry out the grand bargain but “to expose just how radical the G.O.P. has become.” He wants Obama “to put out in detail his version of a credible ‘Grand Bargain’ and then go sell it to the country. But that proposal had to include real long-term spending cuts in Medicare and Social Security.” I see. Obama should give away his party’s political advantages by embracing Republican demands for social program cuts even though there is no hope whatever of their being accepted. And again, never mind that the president has done just this—much to the chagrin of those members of the Democratic Party who face a much tougher election fight as a result. Friedman’s complaint is that Obama has not done so in public “in detail,” as if we live in a universe in which the tiny details of presidential policy proposals actually matter to most voters.

But even here, Friedman is skating on remarkably thin ice. He writes, “I wish President Obama had embraced the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan when it was announced last November and then added his own long-term investment plans on top of it and then built a national mandate for this ‘Grand Bargain’—before we got to this point.” Again, this complaint is inconveniently undercut by the fact that, as Friedman notes, “the president has now embraced such a deal.” Uh, never mind. The president “needs to spell out this Grand Bargain more emphatically, publicly, repeatedly and specifically.” Well, Obama did this too, in his jobs plan, and eventually even Friedman noticed, calling the speech “thoughtful, credible and substantive” on September 10. A month later, however, he was back to complaining that “the paucity of Obama’s audacity is striking.”

As the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen has aptly observed, “Friedman has effectively endorsed the entirety of President Obama’s agenda, most of which has passed, can’t pass, or has to be severely watered down because of unprecedented Senate obstructionism. But instead of calling for reforming the legislative process, or calling on Republicans to start playing a constructive role in policymaking, or calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses, Friedman says what we really need is an amorphous third party that will think the way he does.”

Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf has complained of Obama—accurately, in my view—that he “wishes to be President of a country that does not exist. In his fantasy, US politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony.” This describes Friedman’s fantasy too, but instead of recognizing this he continues to agitate for his magical solution of a third party that will—somehow—make his dreams come true.

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