Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

House GOP Escalates Attack on Elizabeth Warren, Consumer Bureau

Congressional Republicans have frequently attacked Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) she’s setting up, which officially launches on July 21. The House GOP escalated its anti-Warren, anti-CFPB campaign at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee today, chaired by Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC).

McHenry was once known as Tom DeLay’s “attack-dog-in-training,” a title he more than earned today. Before the hearing had even begun, McHenry went on CNBC and brazenly accused Warren of lying to Congress. He claimed that Warren had misrepresented her role in advising state attorneys general who are seeking a multibillion-dollar settlement with the country’s largest mortgage service providers, who stand accused of massive and widespread foreclosure fraud. As evidence, McHenry pointed to a leaked internal document prepared by the CFPB that laid out different settlement options for the state AGs. McHenry claimed this went beyond the scope of the “advice,” that Warren had already admitted to providing, at the behest of the Treasury Department, in earlier testimony to Congress in March. “We’ve given advice when asked for advice,” she reiterated this afternoon.

The subcommittee hearing devolved into a linguistic discussion of the true meaning of the word “advise,” as the Merriam-Webster definition (“to give [someone] a recommendation about what should be done”) flashed on large TV screens in the hearing room. But given that Warren had already copped to giving such advice, it was difficult to find any meaningful contradiction in her remarks. Nor has she or the CFPB played a leading role in the settlement talks. “It’s simply not accurate to say the CFPB has masterminded this,” Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who’s leading settlement talks for the AGs, told me recently.

Despite his thin paper trail, McHenry was intent on making Warren look bad. The Western North Carolina Congressman frequently interrupted her answers and accused the CFPB of possessing “virtually unchecked” power. Near the end of the hearing, Representative John Yarmouth (D-KY) apologized to Warren for the “rude and disrespectful behavior of the chair.” Incidentally, McHenry has accepted generous campaign donations this year from big banks and industry trade associations opposed to bureau, including $1,000-plus checks from the American Bankers Association, Mortgage Bankers Association, American Express, American Financial Services Organization, Cash America International, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director at US PIRG, said the hearing was just another attempt by the GOP “to try to weaken Warren’s credibility.” He invoked an old saying from law school: “If the law is on your side, argue the law. If the facts are on your side, argue the facts. If you don’t have either, just argue.”

The hearing was titled “Who’s Watching the Watchmen? Oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” but Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) argued that it should be dubbed “Let’s Pretend the Financial Crisis Never Happened.” Indeed, Congressional Republicans spent no time on the lax oversight and corporate deception that led to the financial crisis—and how a consumer agency dedicated to policing the murky financial services sector might have prevented or mitigated a prolonged recession. “Too often consumer protection was the second thought, third thought, or not even thought of at all,” Maloney said. That’s why Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration created the CFPB as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.

“I’m begging you to keep the fire,” Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) told Warren. “I’ve had constituents who’ve lost so much they don’t even know why…. We need your passion and concern. Thank you for syncing your conduct and conscience.”

At the end of the testy hearing, McHenry told Warren: “I admire your service to our government. I do.” He and the House GOP certainly have a funny way of showing it.  

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Former Top Obama Economist: 'National Debate Over Economic Policy is Way Off Track'

For more than two years, Jared Bernstein was Joe Biden’s chief economic adviser and the sole progressive economist on President Obama’s economic team. He stepped down in April to work for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and just yesterday launched a blog, which will be a must-read for analysis of these turbulent economic times.

In his introductory post, Bernstein denies that he left the administration “because ideas that I was associated with, like more stimulus, are off the table… I left because I was frustrated. Not with what was going on inside the White House, but with what is going on outside. The national debate over economic policy is way off track and the stakes are as high as can be.

“As the 2012 election season gears up,” Bernstein writes, “we are poised to have a fundamental debate about the size and role of the federal government.” Yet neither party, he says, is leveling with the American public about the choices we face. Explains Bernstein:

“Conservatives essentially argue we can have it all for less: get government “out-of-the-way” and health care, job growth, investment, upward mobility, would be enhanced, not diminished.   These claims are difficult to defend using facts—as opposed to assertion—and part of this blog will be devoted to sorting through them.

Democrats lately seemed to be trapped in a position that amounts to: ‘sure, we have to cut and shrink—just not as much as the other guys want.

There’s got to be a better way—a way to widen this terribly narrow debate.

Why couldn’t I do more to help from the inside? One reason is that in order to move the ball forward, you need consensus, and in today’s politics, that is particularly elusive. And that makes it especially hard to call out people and their arguments. There’s a reason why Jon Stewart can speak truths that highly-placed elected officials cannot. When you’re on the inside at a time like this, you’re constantly balancing the risk of losing the support of people you need to lead.”

Today Republicans are rapidly distancing themselves from Paul Ryan’s plan to gut the social safety net and redistribute income upwards. But the Obama Administration has been faulted by its own supporters—including Christina Romer, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers—for not doing more to stimulate the economy, and for not taking a harder line with Congressional Republicans during negotiations over the budget deficit and debt ceiling. The public could fairly conclude the neither party has a plan to end the recession. Let’s hope that Bernstein’s blog will shine a light on how Washington works—and doesn’t.  

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Pakistan's K Street Connections

The $1.5 billion Pakistan receives in US aid per year has helped the country become well-connected inside the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Based on lobbying records, the Pakistani Embassy paid the law firm Locke Lord Strategies more than $1 million in 2010. According to The Hill, “the firm’s lobbying team for Pakistan has been led by Mark Siegel, a veteran Democratic Party operative, Carter White House aide and close friend to Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister."

Politico Influence reported that in March and April Locke Lord “accompanied the Pakistani ambassador on meetings with House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Buck McKeon, Mike Rogers and Kay Granger,” as part of a bid to “effectively deliver messages regarding the role Pakistan plays as an important strategic partner of the US” 

That partnership, of course, has frayed in recent days, as US lawmakers are questioning whether Pakistan knew if Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, an expert on bin Laden, wrote earlier this week that circumstantial evidence suggested “that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control.”

In the coming weeks, the US Congress is certain to probe this matter. “I think that the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location to the Pakistani army,” said Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services committee. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) believes the US should re-examine the $3 billion in aid scheduled for Pakistan in President Obama’s 2012 budget. “Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism. Until Congress and the American public are assured that the Pakistani government is not shielding terrorists, financial aid to Pakistan should be suspended,” Lautenberg said.

Expect Pakistan to mount an aggressive lobbying campaign to defend itself. “We have some education to do on the Hill,” Mark Siegel admitted. “We don’t want this speculation to end up being considered as fact.” He’s got quite a task ahead of him.

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News for Obama: Public Cares About Jobs, Not Deficit

Two major new polls show that Americans are increasingly anxious about the direction of the US economy. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this week, 44 percent of Americans said the economy was getting worse, not better, while 57 percent disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the issue. Now comes a New York Times/CBS News poll indicating that “Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office.” A stunning 70 percent of Americans believe the country is headed on the wrong track. And only 29 percent of Americans think that a major reduction of the federal budget deficit—the stated top priority of leaders of both parties—will create jobs. Fifty-six percent of Americans say cutting the deficit will cost jobs or have no impact.

That stat alone provides what Greg Sargent calls “the clearest evidence yet that official Washington’s prioritization of the deficit over jobs is completely out of sync with public opinion.” It also lends credence to John Judis’s argument that “Obama has chosen the wrong economic message.” Writes Judis today:

[Obama] has allowed Republicans to make a case that things are getting worse, and he has cooperated with them in taking measures that will actually make things worse. He has allowed Republicans to set the terms of the debate. It has been about the perils of deficits and debt. That is not just bad economics; it also leads Democrats into a political cul-de-sac....

Obama has tried to carve a liberal niche within this retrograde political framework by charging that the Republican plan to cut the deficit would get rid of Medicare and would keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s all well and good, but Obama is still playing on Republican turf. And it might not work. The last Democratic presidential candidate who based his campaign on deficits was Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale probably would have lost to Ronald Reagan in any case, but he would have won more than Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The other Democratic candidate who tried to make deficits an issue was Al Gore in 2000, and he lost to a candidate he should have defeated easily. And you can be sure that Bill Clinton in 1992 didn’t focus on deficits in running against George H.W. Bush.

I know Obama and his political advisers think that by emphasizing deficits they are going to win over independent voters. But as I have argued earlier, Obama is pursuing a political fiction. The independents he needs to attract are primarily white working-class voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They may care about deficits as a stand-in for what they see as wasteful spending on undeserving groups. But their primary concern, as they demonstrated in 2008, is jobs and the economy.

Of course, you could still argue that deficits really do matter and that even if Obama is acting in a way that is politically stupid, he is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case either. We need a long-term plan for curbing deficits as a percentage of GDP, but what we need to do now is ensure that a full recovery takes place. That requires just the opposite of what Obama has agreed to do. If you think budget cuts will revive the economy, look at what is happening in Tory England as a result of Prime Minister David Cameron’s budget cutting. Britain, which had been recovering from its recession, is now projected have grown .3 percent over the last six months.

What should Obama have done and be doing? He should focus relentlessly on creating jobs and speeding economic growth. He should have presented programs to do so, and if the Republicans blocked them, then they would have to take the blame if the economy stalls or actually turns down again. And above all, the president should not acquiesce in, and even praise, measures that will harm the economy and his own re-election chances.

A lethal cocktail of soaring gas prices, stubbornly high unemployment and a lingering foreclosure crisis has the country in a sour mood. Convincingly addressing those issues, rather than embracing the Republicans’ alarmist rhetoric about the debt, will help Obama firm up the country’s shaky recovery and solidify his own re-election prospects for 2012.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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Howard Dean: US Should Leave Afghanistan

Though he rose to prominence by opposing the war in Iraq as a presidential candidate, Howard Dean has always been more hawkish than his antiwar reputation suggests. Dean supported the Clinton administration’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, along with the Obama administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan and military campaign in Libya.

So it’s noteworthy that Dean no longer backs Obama’s Afghan mission and believes US troops should begin to withdraw. “I actually supported the president when he sent extra troops to Afghanistan,” Dean told the Daily Beast over the weekend. “But I’ve come to believe that’s not a winnable war.” Dean cited Karzai’s corruption, weak record on women’s rights and the US quagmire in Vietnam as the reasons for his change of heart.

From the article:

“I supported (ramping up troop presence) because I was concerned with what would happen to the women in the country” if the Taliban took control, Dean said. “But I recently read about Karzai saying some very sexist, terrible things, and it’s become obvious that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two sides.”
He continued: “As much as I feel terrible about what’s happening to the women there, Karzai has shown he can’t be trusted any more than the Taliban to help them.”…
“The Vietnam War showed us we shouldn’t prop up corrupt governments, and that’s what we’ve got in Afghanistan.”

Polls show the country has been skeptical of the war in Afghanistan for quite some time. In the latest Pew Research Poll, 50 percent of Americans said the US and NATO should “remove troops ASAP,” while only 44 percent wanted military troops to stay until the “situation has stabilized.” Yet Afghanistan has remained a backburner issue in the American public’s mind, and the link between America's soaring debt and the $10 billion the US government spends per month in Afghanistan has often been missed. As Bill Hartung wrote recently, “If the Afghan war ended and the funds allocated for it were returned to the states, no state in America would run a deficit next year.”

Perhaps Dean can add some visibility to the US antiwar movement and push for the Obama administration to spend its finite budget resources where it matters most—back home.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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Obama vs. Ryan: Who's Winning the Deficit Debate?

Democratic strategists believe that House Republicans committed political suicide by voting to approve Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan last week. “When we win back the majority, people will look back at this vote as a defining one that secured the majority for Democrats,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

Obama skillfully framed Ryan’s budget during a major speech on the deficit earlier in the week, contrasting his vision of “shared sacrifice” with Ryan’s “deeply pessimistic” plan to gut the social safety net and redistribute income upwards. After a week of enjoying the limelight, the “bold” and “courageous” Mr. Ryan, an instant media darling, suddenly looked like something of a fool. Ryan complained that Obama had characterized his proposal as “basically it's un-American.”

Obama plans to talk up his deficit plan in a series of campaign stops this week in Virginia, Nevada and California, and a virtual town hall hosted by Facebook. Obama’s advisers believe the president is finally on advantageous terrain on this issue. Reported the Post: “Obama faces a political necessity—claiming the debt issue as his own—and a political opportunity. Recent polls show that Americans disapprove of his record on the deficit. But sizable majorities agree that a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes on the wealthy—Obama’s vision—is the best prescription for the nation’s fiscal malady.”

Yet Obama’s deficit hawk transformation carries risks for the president. By arguing that spending and debt are the biggest problems facing the country, his administration no longer makes the case that the government has a significant role to play in boosting the economy—even though many economists believe additional stimulus is still needed. “We do possess many tools for curing cyclical unemployment, both monetary and fiscal, and I feel it is shameful we are not using them more aggressively,” said Christina Romer, former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Though his speech included a stirring defense of progressive governance, Obama’s plan is actually quite conservative in substance, largely modeled after his Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Next month, Vice President Biden will convene a bipartisan debt summit with members of Congress to “begin work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction,” according to the White House. Any deal the administration strikes with Congressional Republicans will likely incorporate major elements of Ryan’s plan, making it much harder for Obama and Democratic candidates to campaign against it in 2012. Moreover, the bipartisan “gang of six” Senators will soon release their own deficit plan, which Senator Dick Durbin says will fall somewhere between Obama and Ryan—i.e., squarely on the center-right, which is further evidence of how the debate on the deficit is playing out on the GOP’s turf.

The disconnect between deficit-crazed Washington and the concerns of the American public—high unemployment, rising gas prices—appears to be increasing. Poll after poll shows that the country favors job creation over deficit reduction, but neither party seems to be listening. A new Post poll reveals heightened anxiety on the economy—44 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting worse, not better, while 57 percent disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the issue. Despite the radicalism of Ryan’s plan, if the economy does not significantly improve by November 2012, Obama, rightly or wrongly, will likely get the blame.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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Obama Blasts House GOP, Paul Ryan’s 'Deeply Pessimistic' Budget Plan

In his inaugural address, President Obama sought to reframe the conception of government in America, breaking from the philosophy of both Bill Clinton (“the era of big government is over”) and Ronald Reagan (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”).

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” Obama said. The president spent much of the first two years of his presidency pushing ambitious programs that would level the playing field in our society—the stimulus bill, healthcare and financial reform, equal pay for women.

But since the 2010 election, Obama has largely abandoned his argument about the constructive role government can and should play in American society. The entire debate since then has been on the GOP’s terms—first came freezes for discretionary spending and federal pay by the Obama administration, followed by a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, a budget plan for 2011 that included significant cuts to core Democratic programs, and a budget agreement last week that cut billions of dollars more at the expense of middle-class and low-income Americans.

So after months of feebly compromising with the GOP, it was refreshing to hear Obama blast the budget proposal unveiled by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan last week in unusually blunt and forthright language.

Here’s the key section of the speech:

One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.

Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.

A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s what they’re proposing. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.

It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America—the greatest nation on Earth—can’t afford any of this.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck—you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each to pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.


The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.

In contrast, Obama defended progressive governance, saying that without a social safety net, “we would not be a great country.” He called for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next twelve years, under “an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle-class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future.” Some of his recommendations were progressive in nature—cutting defense spending, raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans, lowering drug prices—while others were more conservative—enacting a three to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, continuing a freeze on discretionary spending, cutting corporate taxes, leaving the door open to major changes in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

For weeks, all anyone in Washington has wanted to talk about is the deficit, even though poll after poll shows that Americans want the president and Congress to focus their attention elsewhere. As Deepak Bharghava, director of the Center for Community Change, told the Washington Post today: “The fundamental problem in our country right now is unemployment and a jobs crisis, not a deficit crisis. It appears the president is fighting on the wrong terrain and is conceding that the only thing we should be talking about is how to bring down the deficit.”

The president didn’t completely reframe that discussion today, nor did he offer many details to illuminate his own vision. The president has been a historically weak negotiator with Congressional Republicans, so these details will matter a lot in the months and weeks ahead. But at least the president offered the country a choice between two different philosophical visions about the role that government should play in our society. The public can now decide whether they’d like to gut the social safety net or protect it. I’m guessing they’ll choose the latter.

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Budget Agreement Reflects Reverse Class Warfare

The White House and Congress reached an agreement to avert a budget shutdown late Friday night, passed a short-term extension of the budget Saturday morning, but did not release the actual details of the agreement until this morning. So much for a new era of transparency in Washington!

We learned today that the budget agreement includes steep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (targeting programs that combat global warming and protect clean drinking water), international food aid and high-speed rail. Half of the $40 billion in cuts come from the Education, Labor and Heath and Human Services departments, for things like community development grants, HIV/AIDS prevention and low-income heating subsidies. The Pentagon will receive $5 billion more than it did in 2010. This agreement disproportionately harms lower-income and middle-class Americans while asking no sacrifice from the rich and powerful.

How will such cuts impact our economic recovery? As Ezra Klein pointed out, economists projected that the $60 billion budget passed by House Republicans in February would eliminate anywhere from 200,000 to 700,000 jobs. Under that same logic, Klein writes, “$39b in cuts would mean about 120,000 to 450,000 jobs lost.” Though no one has yet done a thorough economic analysis of the latest cuts, the plan could slow economic growth by 1 percent, according to a sample of economists interviewed by the New York Times.

Tomorrow President Obama will give a major speech on the deficit and is expected to highlight the report produced by his deficit-commission, Simpson-Bowles, in November. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that plan could cost the country 4 million jobs over the next three years. “Premature implementation of austerity policies and slowing economic growth would mean two things: more job losses and less deficit reduction,” EPI writes. (For a progressive take on deficit reduction, see Representative Jan Schakowsky’s plan.)

The debate in Washington over the deficit is between a center-right plan (Simpson-Bowles) and a truly right-wing one (Paul Ryan). No wonder the center is moving to the right.

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Why President Obama Is Losing the Budget Fight

Friday night’s dramatic budget agreement represented a major defeat for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. On substance, John Boehner and Congressional Republicans received $7 billion more in spending cuts than they originally asked for. From a messaging standpoint, the entire debate unfolded on the GOP’s terms (excerpt for a brief interlude concerning Planned Parenthood)—the discussion was about how much to cut, not whether to cut or who would be impacted by such cuts or if such cuts would depress economic growth. The word “jobs” was practically absent from the debate.

Wrote Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent:

By agreeing to steep, if temporary, cuts in advance, Dems acceded to the GOP’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame at the very outset, and the debate unfolded entirely on that rhetorical turf.

President Obama’s advisers apparently believe that his best route to reeelection is to acknowledge the need for more fiscal discipline, while picking a fight with the GOP over the need for targeted government investment in our future and painting the GOP’s cut-at-all-costs vision as out of the mainstream. In fairness, his advisers, as Paul Krugman noted recently, may very well be right about this.

But it’s still worth appreciating how far to the right the debate has shifted, in part because of Democratic acquiescence. The idea that government spending should be a job-creation tool in our arsenal was entirely marginalized, to the point that it was simply not part of the discussions; meanwhile, the insane conservative demand for $100 billion in cuts was treated as a kind of outer right-wing boundary of legitimate discourse. The result: Giving Boehner more than he originally asked for in cuts became the stuff of middle ground compromise.

Obama, as Krugman, put it: “has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas.” Wrote Krugman today:

Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion—a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay.

The president is following the example of Bill Clinton after the 1994 election, who brought in Dick Morris to “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.” Often lost in this story is how Clinton, en route to a balanced budget, fought Gingrich over steep spending cuts and vowed to protect “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” as part of the budget deal. Clinton confronted, then compromised. Obama has fast-forwarded the Boehner agenda with no pushback, even bragging about enacting “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” The president is practically doing Boehner’s job for him!

The White House is obsessed with positioning Obama as a president who stays above the fray during partisan disputes. But the president’s unwillingness to take sides has its own cost. “For Obama, it is not good enough to cast himself as the school principal scolding competing congressional gangs,” wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. “He needs the courage to defend the government he leads. He needs to declare that he will no longer bargain with those who use threats to shut down the government or force it to default on its debt as tools of intimidation.”

Heretofore, debates over economic policy between Obama and Congressional Republicans have followed a familiar script. Said Jon Cohn of The New Republic:

Obama starts off with a flexible, center-left position. The Republicans start off with a rigid, far-right position. Obama’s commitment to bringing people together seems absolutely sincere; the Republicans’ interest in shredding the welfare state seems absolutely sincere. The two go back and forth, eventually reaching a compromise that is somewhere between the two ideological starting points—which is somewhere on the right.

This week President Obama will deliver a major address concerning the deficit, responding to the plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan last week. Ryan, by introducing a truly radical blueprint that would gut the social safety net and drastically redistribute income upwards, has given Democrats a major opening to present an alternative economic vision to the public. But thus far Obama has been content to meet Republicans in the middle, even as the middle moves sharply to the right, instead of laying out a bold economic narrative of his own.

House Republicans are now determining the priorities and direction of the entire US government. Until that changes, Obama and Congressional Democrats will continue to find themselves on the defensive.

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Advice for Obama: Confront, Then Compromise

Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent makes a good point about parallels between the budget battle of 1995 and today. While conventional wisdom correctly holds that President Clinton trumped House Speaker Newt Gingrich in that fight, less attention has been paid to why that was the case—because Clinton pushed aside his strategy of triangulation and challenged the scope of Gingrich’s cuts. As evidence, Sargent unearths a Washington Post story from December 24, 1995, explaining Clinton’s triumph:

The only time Clinton’s ratings have improved substantially the past year as a result of his actions has been when he adopted a strategy of confrontation, not triangulation.
All through the summer and fall, Clinton’s favorability numbers stagnated in the 46 to 48 percentage point range. The Republican leadership in Congress was pushing ahead on the drive to balance the budget, including substantial reductions in projected Medicare spending. On Oct. 19, the House approved seemingly controversial changes in the Medicare program.
Through Nov. 1, however, Clinton’s numbers did not change.
Only when the battle lines were abruptly drawn—as the federal government was shut down Nov. 14 and Clinton began to turn Medicare into a polarized issue pitting himself and congressional Democrats against the Republican congressional majority—did his poll numbers begin to go up and stay up.

I elaborated on this point in a Nation article earlier this year, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0?” Here’s the key section:

During his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress—over the 1995 budget—Clinton ignored [Dick] Morris’s advice, according to [Paul] Begala, and refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, “If you want to pass your budget, you’re going to have to put somebody else in this chair.” Begala wants Obama to study that Clinton, not the Morris concoction. “It is that Gary Cooper type of leadership,” Begala says, “that people are now looking for in President Obama.”
Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton’s sagging poll numbers upward…”What Obama should take from the Clinton experience is that you absolutely have to pick some early battles to stand strong on,” says Mike Lux, Clinton’s special assistant to the president for public liaison. “The Republicans will give us a hundred different opportunities, between bills they introduce and crazy shit they say…. The hardest decision will be picking which ones to focus on.” Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama “should be drawing red lines on things that are central to the purpose of his presidency and ought to be looking to get work done with the Republicans in other areas.”

In recent days, Obama has played the role of negotiator-in-chief, huddling with John Boehner and Harry Reid in order to avoid a government shutdown. Yet by failing to thematically challenge the GOP’s cuts or advance an alternative narrative on the economy, he’s made it easier for Boehner to keep demanding larger and larger spending cuts. Even if House Republicans are unhappy with a final agreement, any deal that is struck will include major concessions by Democrats.

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