On American politics and policy.
Most of the deficit plans circulating around Washington, whether from Paul Ryan or the Senate’s Gang of Six, call for “shared sacrifice,” yet promote anything but. In reality, these plans allow the rich and powerful to keep what they have while asking those who depend on government—the poor, the elderly, the working and middle class—to make do with less.
President Obama has, at times, reluctantly exacerbated this deficit inequality by acquiescing to spending cuts, flirting with paring back the social safety net and winning no corresponding revenue increases from those who can afford to pay more. The president also made a terrible mistake by prioritizing deficit reduction over job creation for the past year, and bizarrely embracing the Republican fantasy that cutting government will somehow create jobs (in fact, the opposite has occurred—the larger the cuts to government, the more jobs lost).
In recent weeks, however, Obama has sought to change the conversation in Washington away from austerity and toward job creation and real shared sacrifice. His jobs plan, though not big or bold enough, represented an important step in the right direction. And the plan he introduced today to reduce the deficit struck a populist chord, asking the rich to pay their fair share. “We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class,” Obama said in the Rose Garden this morning.
A few of the key lines:
“Middle class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires.”
“I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a teacher or a plumber is class warfare.”
“This is not class warfare. It’s math.”
Ezra Klein summarizes the plan:
Let’s start with what’s in President Obama’s deficit plan: $1.5 trillion in higher taxes, $1.1 trillion in reduced war spending, $1 trillion in non-defense discretionary spending cuts from the debt-ceiling deal, $600 billion in cuts to mandatory spending (of which more than $300 billion will come from Medicare and Medicaid), and $430 billion in reduced interest payments.
Now let’s look at what’s not in President Obama’s deficit plan: There are no cuts to Social Security. There’s no rise in the Medicare retirement age. Instead, the headline policy is so-called the “Buffett rule,” a tax reform principle that holds that millionaires should not pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Moreover, says a senior administration official, Obama issue a veto threat against “any bill that takes one dime from the Medicare benefits seniors rely on without asking the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”
The core of this plan, in other words, is not a major concession to the GOP, or a high-profile display of the Obama administration’s independence from party. It’s a populist proposal for increasing taxes on the rich, and a veto threat against cutting Medicare benefits without increasing taxes on the rich.
At first glance, progressive groups liked what they heard.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus:
We stand with President Obama to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from Republican attacks on the benefits that have built and sustained the middle class. We applaud the President’s good-faith efforts to address the real drivers of our national deficit: tax breaks for wealthy elites, two wars, giveaways to big corporations, and the ensuing Republican recession.
For months, hundreds of thousands of members of the American Dream Movement have been urging Washington to focus on creating jobs and making our tax system work for all Americans, not just the super rich. Today, we’re glad to see this message reach the White House. Americans need jobs not cuts, paid for by making millionaires and corporations pay their fair share. The Tea Party led Republicans in Congress have made their position very clear. They want to eliminate Medicare as we know it just so they can protect tax breaks for the rich, all the while doing nothing to create jobs.
The only way out of the economic hole we are in is to put Americans back to work. The President has laid out a clear vision to do that. Any Republicans, and Democrats, who oppose these common sense, hugely popular proposals will be standing in the way of a real recovery.
Of course, the super-committee still has the real power in this debate, which is why Obama vowed to veto any plan that only cuts spending without raising revenue on the wealthy. He could go further and vow to veto any proposal that doesn’t stimulate the economy and create jobs (or, inversely, any proposal that would cost jobs). “We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable,” the president said.
In the past, Republicans have simply ignored Obama’s calls to raise revenue and demanded only spending cuts, which Obama and Democrats have unhappily agreed to. Speaker Boehner is doing that once again. But Obama is saying, in essence, that this time will be different. Enough is enough. For once, he’s negotiating from a position of relative strength. We’ll see how long it lasts. Remember, if the super-committee doesn’t reach an agreement, across-the-board spending cuts will kick in.
Washington is still way too focused on cutting the deficit at the expense of creating jobs. The president’s rhetoric and actions helped get us into this predicament. Belatedly, however, the president seems to realize that creating jobs, defending the social safety net and appealing to shared sacrifice is both good policy and good politics.
As Kevin Drum notes, Republicans are especially adept at reducing the structural power of their political opponents after taking office, which is a major way the GOP consolidates influence and authority in American politics.
In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I write about how the GOP has launched a “war on voting,” passing laws in a dozen states since the 2010 election designed to impede traditionally Democratic voters at every step of the electoral process, which could prevent millions of students, minorities, legal immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots in 2012.
But Republicans aren’t stopping there. Nick Baumann has a startling and related piece in Mother Jones today about how Republicans in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania are further trying to rig the 2012 election to their advantage, this time by tampering with the Electoral College. According to Baumann, Pennsylvania’s GOP legislature and governor want the state’s twenty-one electoral votes—which Obama won in 2008 and Democrats have carried since 1992—to be apportioned by Congressional district instead of the current winner-take-all system on the books in forty-eight states (the exceptions are Nebraska and Maine). It just so happens that Republicans control the redistricting process in Pennsylvania, which will likely result in “12 safe GOP seats compared to just six safe Democratic seats,” Baumann writes. That means Obama could theoretically win the state’s popular vote in 2012, but still lose overall in terms of electoral delegates.
If the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight—six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for winning the state.
As I mentioned, GOP leaders in both legislative chambers, along with Republican Governor Tom Corbett, support this drastic rule change, which would reduce Pennsylvania’s prestige as a coveted swing state but give the GOP a huge advantage in Electoral College math. Republican State Senator Dominic Pileggi has already sent a letter to his colleagues asking them to co-sponsor the legislation, which could be introduced as soon as next month.
Other states controlled by Republicans that traditionally vote Democratic in presidential elections, like Michigan, could follow suit. As Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, puts it: “State legislatures could gerrymander the Electoral College.”
Think of it as a continuation of the GOP’s war on voting. The most basic of democratic rights should not be a left vs. right issue but one that both parties work to uphold. Unfortunately, instead of improving our democracy, Republicans are working harder every day to undermine it.
After a year of embracing austerity economics—emphasizing cutting spending and government over creating new jobs—Barack Obama belatedly tried to change the conversation with his big jobs speech Thursday night.
The introduction of the “American Jobs Act” was both a policy and rhetorical shift from the administration, away from the above the fray “most reasonable man in the room” strategy aimed at a narrow sliver of independent voters and toward a more aggressive, feistier Obama, one who is not afraid to run against the do-nothing Congress, take his case directly to the American people and ruffle a few feathers. It’s the Obama, quite frankly, that many of his supporters have been waiting quite some time to see.
That’s not to say everything about the speech or his plan was perfect.
Is the $450 billion legislation—an extension of unemployment benefits, an extension of the payroll tax cut, repairing schools and crumbling infrastructure, rehiring teachers and first responders, job training for the long-term unemployed, a tax cut for companies that hire new workers—big enough to spur a true economic recovery? Probably not. Half of it is tax cuts. Ezra Klein tweeted that “White house believes this plan would add one to two percentage points to GDP growth next year.” But Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman, a former Obama adviser, says “we need real GDP to grow at 4.5 percent a year for two years to bring the unemployment rate below 7 percent.” So even if Obama’s entire plan passed as is, there would still be more to do.
Will Obama’s to-be-determined deficit speech undermine the momentum from his jobs speech? Perhaps. The president left open the possibility for significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid, which won’t be popular with many Americans. The super-committee still has the power in Washington. Once its deadline nears, the conversation may once again revolve around deficits instead of jobs, especially since there’s no built-in incentive forcing the committee to focus on jobs, as compared to the triggered spending cuts.
But for now, Obama’s speech was an important first step in changing the conversation and defining the debate on his own terms. I particularly liked the section where he invoked Abraham Lincoln to argue for the essential role of government in America. Think of it as the president’s long-awaited reply to the Tea Party. Said Obama:
We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future—a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.
Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?
How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?
No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.
Obama returned to the theme of shared sacrifice and contrasted the conservative view of the economy, “that the only solution to our economic challenges is to simply cut most government spending and eliminate most government regulations,” with his own. Said the president:
But what we can’t do—what I won’t do—is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe that’s a race we can win.
If the choice next November is between Obama in this speech vs. Republicans in Congress or the GOP hopefuls debating last night, Obama will win.
The most disturbing and telling moment in last night’s GOP presidential debate, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie has noted, came when the audience heartily applauded Brian Williams’s mention of the 234 executions Gov. Rick Perry presided over in Texas.
Here’s the full transcript of the exchange. (Huff Po has the video).
WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. [Applause] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.
But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.
WILLIAMS: What do you make of the dynamic that just happened here? The mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause.
PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.
In fact, the death penalty process in Texas has been irrevocably broken for quite some time. There is ample evidence that Perry ordered the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—a case described in chilling detail by The New Yorker’s David Grann—even when presented with clear proof of Willingham’s innocence, or at the very least persuasive doubt about his supposed guilt. Perry then dismissed members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who were investigating Willingham’s case, in order to try to cover up his cavalier execution of a possibly innocent man. That alone, in my opinion, should disqualify Perry from seeking the presidency.
But Perry’s reckless handling of the most severe power granted to a state executive—the power to take another life—didn’t stop there. According to the Texas Tribune, Perry’s “parsimonious use of clemency is notable because of continuing concerns about the ability of prisoners facing capital charges in Texas to retain quality legal representation, the execution of those who were minors when they committed their crimes, the ability of some prisoners to understand their punishment intellectually and the international ramifications of executing foreign nationals.”
In at least three cases currently before the state, serious questions have been raised about the legal handling of the cases, the guilt of the defendants, and Texas’ refusal to hearing new evidence that may well prove their innocence. Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic has a detailed summary of each case: Duane Edward Buck, Larry Ray Swearingen and Hank Skinner.
Since 2001, forty-one death row prisoners in Texas have been exonerated based on new DNA evidence. One prisoner, Anthony Graves, spent twelve years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. “When we’ve had twenty exonerations in Dallas County alone, obviously someone may have been executed for a crime they didn’t commit,” says Dallas County DA Craig Watkins. The fact that Perry has “never struggled…at all” with these cases tells us something about his moral compass, or lack thereof.
As my colleague Liliana Segura tweeted yesterday, “After Bush, anti–death penalty folks could not fathom a worse presidential candidate. Little did we know.”
When it comes to executing people—innocent or otherwise—Perry is Bush on steroids.
The Obama administration’s selection of Alan Krueger to lead the Council of Economic Advisers was greeted with applause from progressive economists, including Paul Krugman and Jared Bernstein. “Alan is a fine choice as chief economic adviser,” wrote Krugman, who has often clashed with the administration over economic policy. “It’s an inspired choice,” added Bernstein.
Krueger served as an adviser in the Treasury Department from 2009–10, where he designed the successful cash-for-clunkers program, and, as a Princeton University professor, is regarded as one of the country’s top labor economists. His nomination comes at a time when the Obama administration is belatedly realizing it needs to do much more to try to boost the lagging economy. The Wall Street Journal reports that, if confirmed, Krueger “is likely to provide a voice inside the administration for more-aggressive government action to bring down unemployment and, particularly, to address long-term joblessness.”
Next week Obama will lay out his ideas to create jobs, which will likely include the extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, a tax cut for companies that hire new workers, an infrastructure bank to spur new construction jobs and job training for the long-term unemployed, reports Bloomberg News and the Washington Post. Whether these steps are enough to jumpstart an economic recovery, and whether anything the administration proposes can make it through Congress, remains to be seen.
It’s now clear that the administration’s obsession with cutting the deficit did nothing to boost the economy or help the president politically. The economy recovery has ground to a halt and Obama’s approval ratings are at an all-time low. “The White House strategy failed, and it failed pretty spectacularly,” writes Mike Tomasky in the Daily Beast.
Thanks to the Congressional “super-committee,” Washington will still be gripped by deficit hysteria through Christmas, at least. But at least the issue of jobs is returning to the forefront of the conversation, and there seems to be an increasing realization by some in the Democratic Party, including House Democratic committee members, that growing the economy and creating jobs is also the best way to cut the deficit.
Finally, there’s the question of whether Krueger’s nomination will be approved by the Senate. He was unanimously confirmed for the Treasury job in May 2009 and Politico’s “Morning Money” reported today that Senate Republicans will not block his nomination on the second go-round. We’ll see—Senate Republicans have already killed many other well-qualified Obama nominees, including Peter Diamond for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and recently prevented the administration from making any recess appointments over the summer break. Things have gotten so bad that we don’t even have a permanent commerce secretary. If he gets the job, it’s probably an understatement to say that Krueger will have his work cut out for him.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.
An increasing number of Democrats in the House and Senate are calling on Washington to address the immediate jobs crisis at a time when much of the Beltway is gripped by austerity fever.
Representative John Larson, the number four Democrat in the House of Representatives, has called for the creation of a Joint Select Committee on Job Creation, modeled after the newly created debt-focused “super committee.”
“High unemployment poses a very real short-term fiscal crisis, because it drains the federal coffers through increased government spending and reduced tax revenues,” Larson wrote in a letter to his colleagues on August 8. “This [jobs committee] would allow the Congress to simultaneously consider both our near-term (high unemployment) and our long-term (growing debt) challenges later this year.”
The jobs super committee would be set up exactly like the deficit committee, with the same time-frame for recommendations and the requirement that its proposals be given an up or down majority vote not subject to a filibuster. The legislation is being finalized now, a Larson aide told me, and will likely be introduced next week.
No Senate Democrat has yet echoed Larson’s exact proposal but 23 Senate Democrats recently asked the debt super committee to prioritize job creation alongside its debt focus. “For families across the country, the biggest economic problem is high unemployment,” they wrote. “Our fiscal challenge is directly linked to the jobs crisis and we cannot solve the former without tackling the latter.”
None of the three Senate Democrats (Baucus, Kerry and Murray) on the debt super committee signed the letter but two members of the “Gang of Six” (Dick Durbin and Mark Warner) did, indicating that even the most vociferous austerity hawks within the Democratic caucus now realize the unemployment crisis must be a top priority for the Congress. Better late than never, I suppose.
In his speech on Monday, Obama mentioned a few ideas for boosting the economy: extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits when they expire this year and creating an “infrastructure bank” to spur new construction jobs. That’s a start, but many economists believe the president needs to go further to jumpstart the stalled recovery. There’s already some good ideas out there that the president could draw on.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, has announced a plan to create 2.2 million “emergency jobs,” financed through higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.
Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been pushing for a number of significant job-creation measures for months. They include:
Eliminate payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income for two years. Recreate the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The federal government should lend money to cash-strapped states and local governments. Give employers tax credits for net new jobs. Amend the bankruptcy laws to allow distressed homeowners to declare bankruptcy on their primary residence. Extend unemployment insurance. Provide partial unemployment benefits to people who have lost part-time jobs. Start an infrastructure bank.
Last night on the “NewsHour,” former Obama economic adviser Christina Romer advocated a major tax cut for companies that hire new workers.
These are all ideas Obama could draw on. The creation of a jobs super committee could help get some of these measures through Congress. And if Obama can’t pass a jobs plan through Congress now, he can still build public support for it and draw a sharp and favorable contrast between his job-creation ideas and the job-killing austerity agenda of the GOP. If he fails to do so, the president and his party are just as culpable as the GOP for prolonging the current economic morass. As Reich puts it, “the magnitude of the current jobs and growth crisis demands a boldness and urgency that's utterly lacking.”
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.
Yesterday Harry Reid announced his picks for the Congressional debt-reduction “super-committee”: Senators Max Baucus, John Kerry and Patty Murray.
Most notable was who Reid didn’t pick—the three austerity hawk members of the “Gang of Six”—Kent Conrad, Dick Durbin and Mark Warner. Reid’s selections have a natural logic to them. Murray is a member of the Appropriations Committee, the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat and chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which makes her one of the most powerful Democrats in the caucus. Kerry is a respected senior statesman in the party who’s become increasingly vocal on economic policy of late, “delivering ‘some powerful speeches’…in defense of Democratic Party priorities,” according to the Huffington Post. And Baucus, as we all know, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and tax revenue.
At first glance, Kerry and Murray have been reliably liberal votes within the Democratic caucus, while Baucus is viewed with grave suspicion by progressive Democrats. He’s been dubbed “K Street’s Favorite Democrat” by yours truly, enabled much of the Bush administration’s agenda, and notoriously bungled the handling of the healthcare reform, watering down the bill and stalling the process in favor of GOP votes that never materialized. More than anyone else, Baucus is responsible for the continued unpopularity of the healthcare bill today.
Yet, paradoxically, Kerry and Murray could be more problematic than Baucus on the super-committee. Both Kerry and Murray signed a letter in March calling for a “grand bargain” deal, modeled after the Bowles-Simpson Commission, that would include “discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.” Kerry has continued to advocate for such a grand bargain, most recently on Meet the Press, and both he and Murray represent states with major defense interests, which makes it unlikely they’ll vote to significantly curb defense spending. As chair of the DSCC, Murray is also responsible for raising buckets of money from corporate America and embarrassingly solicited campaign cash in June from the Koch brothers.
Baucus, on the other hand, voted against the Bowles-Simpson plan, saying “we cannot cut the deficit at the expense of veterans, seniors, ranchers, farmers and hard-working families.” Specifically, Baucus said he opposed the commission’s recommendations to turn Medicare into a voucher program, raise the retirement age of Social Security and cut healthcare benefits for veterans. It’s hard to believe, but today Baucus might be to the left of Kerry and Murray on economic policy.
The super-committee itself is a profoundly conservative and anti-Democratic entity, immune from public pressure and tasked with deciding between two bad choices—a so-called grand bargain that would significantly reduce the social safety net vs. deep across the board cuts at a time of economic peril. The idea of doing anything to stimulate the economy is totally absent from its purview. The scope of the committee itself, rather than who’s on it, is the real problem.
UPDATE: Republicans have announced their own picks my the committee. They are Senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, and Representatives Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling and Fred Upton, all relative hardliners who are unlikely to agree to any deal that will include new tax revenues. Kyl is the number two Senate Republican and a close ally of Mitch McConnell, Portman is George W. Bush’s former budget director and Toomey is the former president of the militantly anti-tax Club for Growth. Camp is the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Upton is chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Hensarling is a past chair of the far-right Republican Study Committee. All six have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.
The House and Senate left town for a month-long recess with crucial business unfulfilled. Half of the oversight positions mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill are still vacant or occupied by temporary caretakers, including the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can not assume its full authority until director Richard Cordray is in place. Twenty judicial nominees are still awaiting a final vote on their nominations. One of seven federal district and circuit court judgeships are currently or soon-to-be vacant, reports the Alliance for Justice. And, according to House and Senate Republicans, there’s nothing the Obama administration can do about it.
The House and Senate are in “pro-forma” session during the August break for one reason—to prevent Obama from making any recess appointments. (Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has a good primer on the history behind such appointments.) There’s debate over whether a president can make a recess appointment under such a scenario—the Justice Department under Clinton said a president must wait for the Congress to be officially out of session for three days, but there’s no specification in the Constitution about that window, according to a 2004 Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit decision. So Obama could, in theory, make the recess appointments and then fight the GOP in court once they contest his authority.
But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. “Obama has not treated executive branch appointments as a high priority (and has been hesitant to make recess appointments even before this latest GOP tactic),” notes Bernstein. Even though Obama has faced a record number of filibusters from Senate Republicans, he’s filled only twenty-eight vacant positions through recess appointments.
President Bush, in contrast, made 171 recess appointments during his presidency. To catch up with Bush, Obama would have to make roughly twenty-eight recess appointment per year until the end of his presidency, assuming he wins a second term and governs for eight years. Under the current stalemate, Obama can’t even make one.
Republicans counter that Harry Reid kept the Senate in pro forma session from 2007 onward to prevent President Bush from exercising his recess authority. But by that point Bush had already made six times as many recess appointments as Obama.
Republican obstructionism is hurting the president as much as the GOP’s hostage-taking negotiating strategy on the economy. Even if it’s a risk, the time has come for the White House to finally start challenging the broken Congress.
“Our plan includes more cuts,” Chuck Schumer bragged at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday when comparing Harry Reid’s debt plan to John Boehner’s.
The fact that Senate Democrats are trying to out-cut the cut-obsessed Republicans pretty much sums up the current political debate in Washington. “Harry Reid’s plan wins the austerity sweepstakes,” Adam Serwer wrote yesterday. “It's the austerity party vs. the austerity party,” blogger Atrios tweeted.
President Obama has actively shifted the debt debate to the right, both substantively and rhetorically. Substantively by not insisting on a “clean bill” to raise the debt ceiling at the outset and actively pushing for drastic spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs as part of any deal. And rhetorically by mimicking right-wing arguments about the economy, such as the canard that reducing spending will create jobs (it won’t), or that the government’s budget is like a family’s budget (it isn’t), or that major spending cuts will return confidence to the market and spur the economy recovery we’ve all been waiting for (Paul Krugman calls it “the confidence fairy”).
“For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity,” Krugman wrote on July 1. “That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed. This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination.”
In the last few weeks, the austerity hawk choir has only gotten louder. President Obama has successfully used the bully pulpit to undermine the case for progressive governance.
Even after the 2010 election, which supposedly was a referendum on government spending, there was little evidence that the public cared about the deficit and a lot of evidence that they wanted Washington to address the jobs crisis. For example, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress following the election, while only 4 percent named the deficit.
By a two to one margin, according to a July Quinnipiac poll, Americans still believe that reducing unemployment is more important than cutting the deficit. But they only narrowly believe that reducing unemployment is more important than reducing federal government spending, by a 49 to 43 margin. And the public now says that “major cuts in federal spending” would help, not hurt, the economy, a 15 point reversal from March.
Things might have been different had President Obama made an aggressive and sustained argument that the government still has an important role to play in spurring an economic recovery and creating jobs. Instead, the president sided with the austerity hawks and strengthened the elite Washington consensus.
Throughout the debt ceiling debate, Obama keeps touting how he’s bucking the activists in his own party. It seems as if the president wants to run against the Democratic base in 2012 and position himself as the supposedly sensible centrist candidate. As a result, the president’s approval ratings among liberals are at the lowest point of his presidency.
That “triangulation” strategy worked for Bill Clinton in 1996, although he had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. My guess is the 2012 election will be much more like 2004 than 1996, when the country is fiercely divided about the incumbent leader, unsure of the opposition, and in a politically restive mood. If that’s the case, Obama will need his base to knock on doors, make phone calls and persuade undecided voters who to vote for. That’s how Bush won in ‘04, by ratcheting up Republican turnout in states like Ohio. The more Obama bucks his supporters—and keeps ignoring the jobs crisis in favor of deficit hysteria—the dicier his path to re-election becomes, especially if the economy continues to lag.
But let’s forget about the 2012 election for a moment. Right now, the public is being deprived a real and vital debate about how to solve the economic crisis. Obama is governing like a moderate Republican. Republicans are governing like Grover Norquist. The net effect is that US politics keeps shifting further and further to the right.
--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.
In the past few weeks President Obama has made a relentless sales pitch for a “grand bargain” deal to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. He’s persuaded many leaders in his own party, including liberal stalwart Nancy Pelosi, who said yesterday “it is clear we must enter an era of austerity.”
If only President Obama and the rest of Washington’s political class had tried to solve the jobs crisis with such aggressive persistence. The fact is, aside from the stimulus bill, the Obama administration never seriously pushed for a comprehensive jobs bill, even though it’s been clear for quite some time that more action is needed from Washington to help solve the economic crisis. Republicans, meanwhile, always propose the same solution to any problem: massive tax cuts for rich people and giant corporations. No wonder the public is in a restive mood and getting more anxious as the economy continues to lag and both parties ignore the number-one issue facing the country.
According to a new Washington Post poll flagged by Greg Sargent, only 39 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling the economy (the number for Congressional Republicans is even lower, at 28 percent). Voters trust Obama more than the GOP to handle the budget deficit, yet remain incredibly pessimistic about the federal government and the economy as a whole. Only 20 percent of voters feel positive about how the federal government works, the lowest number since October 1992, and 90 percent of voters describe the state of the economy as “negative.” Eighty-two percent of voters say jobs are “difficult to find” where they live. A mere 29 percent of voters say the Obama administration has made their lives better, while 37 percent say worse and 33 percent report no effect.
It goes without saying that these are very bad numbers for the president. “Washington’s obsession with the deficit, at the expense of job creation, is doing nothing to help Obama’s standing on the all-important issue of the economy, where the president continues to slip,” Sargent writes.
The president and his advisors are convinced that massive spending cuts, as part of a larger deficit reduction deal, is the only way for Obama to win back elusive independent voters in 2012. “Obama’s political advisers have long believed that securing such an agreement would provide an enormous boost to his 2012 campaign, according to people familiar with White House thinking,” the Post reported Monday. “In particular, they want to preserve and improve the president’s standing among political independents, who abandoned Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections and who say reining in the nation’s debt is a high priority.”
At a time of rising economic insecurity, the White House is placing a very risky bet. I’d argue that independent voters—and the electorate as a whole—will ultimately judge the Obama administration based on how the economy is performing, not on the size of the deficit. If the jobs crisis doesn’t improve by November 2012, no one will remember the deal Obama struck to prevent an economic catastrophe.