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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Egypt's K Street Connections

Given that the repressive government of Egypt received $1.5 billion in military and economic aid from the US government in 2010, it’s not surprising that it is also well represented in Washington’s lobbying community on K Street.

Chris Good of TheAtlantic.com notes that since 2007 the Egyptian government has paid the DC-based lobbying firm PLM Group $1.1 million per year. PLM is run by Democratic powerbroker Tony Podesta (whose brother John is a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and current head of the Center for American Progress), former Democratic Rep. Toby Moffett (who represented Connecticut’s 6th district from 1975-–83) and former Republican Speaker of the House Bob Livingston. According to their contract, PLM was hired to provide assistance in all facets to the Egyptian embassy and “identify, as early as possible, any weakness and/or problem areas in Egypt's image within Congress or the Executive Branch and advise on ways to deal with such areas of concern.” Presumably that image makeover is kicking into high gear right now, as the Egyptian government attempts to downplay the images of tear gas being directed at pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Cairo.

The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica add more details about how PLM lobbyists have helped the Egyptian regime on military matters:

Lobbyists for Egypt had at least 279 contacts on military issues, the bulk of which occurred when PLM Group accompanied delegations of Egyptian military officers to meet members of Congress, administration officials and representatives from defense contractors including BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. All five have done business with the Egyptian government, selling tanks, fighter jets, howitzers and radar arrays to its military. At the time of the meeting with the contractors, Podesta Group counted BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin among its clients, while the Livingston Group represented Raytheon.

Last year James Gibney of The Atlantic provocatively called on the United States to cut off aid to Egypt and Israel, pointing out that the billions of dollars in aid spent annually on each country has brought the US government little in return. Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to strike a balanced tone toward the recent protests in Cairo, urging both the government and protesters to exercise restraint, while pressing Hosni Mubarak to respect “universal human rights” and “engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reform.” But on K Street, that balance of power is decidedly in favor of an increasingly discredited Egyptian regime.

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At White House, Axelrod Outlines Obama's Post-SOTU Strategy

Yesterday afternoon, I was fortunate to attend a roundtable discussion at the White House with Obama strategist David Axelrod and a small group of left-leaning reporters and bloggers. A day after the State of the Union Address, Axelrod offered few specifics of how the president planned to move forward on his call for new investments in technology, education and infrastructure alongside a five-year domestic spending freeze, but signaled there could be a major showdown with Congressional Republicans over how to fund the federal government in a few weeks, perhaps reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s clash with Newt Gingrich in 1995. (You can read the whole transcript over at Daily Kos).

While indicating that Obama will focus on cutting the deficit “in a responsible way” in the coming years, Axelrod also stressed that the president would not wholeheartedly embrace the rigid austerity politics currently being pushed by the GOP. “Dealing with spending is part of the equation, but it’s not the only part of the equation,” Axelrod said from the Roosevelt room. “And reducing the debt and dealing with spending is not in and of itself a growth strategy. And that’s where we may maybe have a philosophical difference [with Republicans].”

He continued:

The president doesn’t believe that it is enough simply to cut the budget or reduce the debt or reduce the size of government. In the world in which we live, if we do that and don’t educate our citizens and lead the world in that; if we don’t innovate; if we don’t have kind of basic infrastructure that we need to be competitive, then we’re not going to prevail.

 

And so as we cut, we’ve got to do it in a responsible way and make sure that we’re not cutting those very things that are going to allow us to continue to be a dominant economic force and create opportunity for our people.

 

Axelrod seemed confident that a debate over these differing approaches to the coming budget, which will be released in mid-February, would work to the administration’s advantage.

 

Part of what the President did last night and what he’s doing today in Wisconsin and what he’ll continue to do relentlessly is make the case for this growth agenda, for this strategy, to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the world. 

 

And hopefully there will be public pressure and support on Democrats and Republicans to support this strategy. If you don’t support this strategy, then the question is what is your strategy? What is your strategy for growth? 

 

I think people are going to be asking that question. And we have an answer.

 

And presumably Congress is going to then turn their cards over and say how they would do it differently. And we can have a discussion, the American people can participate in that discussion, as to the priorities.

 

You can’t just swirl around in the land of the theoretical forever. 

 

Beyond the budget, Axelrod promised that Social Security privatization, of the kind proposed by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, was a “non-starter,” though he did not unequivocally rule out future cuts to the program.

Said Axelrod:

In the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.

 

And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The president laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.

This is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff. 

 

There’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward.

 

Axelrod also emphatically rejected the rampant conventional wisdom that Obama was repositioning himself politically after the midterms to appeal to the center of the electorate, saying that Obama has always been a "progressive" but "he has never been particularly dogmatic."

I give you, as God is my witness, my word that we have not had a repositioning discussion here.  We have not talked about let’s move three degrees to the right.  That’s not the way we view this.

My reaction to the election is we have to go back to first principles and really think about what it is that drives us and what it is that has been so central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook, because some of that has been sort of ground down in the minutia of day-to-day governing here. 

 

And it’s important to project your principles and not just your plans, because the plans don’t mean anything unless people know where you’re going.  And so, I mean, there’s nothing that the president said last night that I couldn’t draw a straight line from to speeches that he has made way back to 2004. 

There’s no doubt he is progressive in his outlook and that’s what he believes in. 

 

But he has never been particularly dogmatic. That was true in the legislature. It was true when he was in the Senate. He has always been willing and able to work across party lines and find areas on which people could work together. His fundamental view is you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things. 

 

And so there was no sort of grand repositioning, there was just a desire to (a) make sure that we lead with our principles, and (b) look for opportunities, particularly in the new world in which we were living, to find those areas on which we can agree and move the country forward. And that’s what we did during that lame duck session. That’s what he wants to do now.

Axelrod admitted that some major topics were left out of Tuesday night’s speech. “His strong feeling was that last night’s speech should be focused as much as possible on the economy,” Axe said of the president. “And so it wasn’t the typical State of the Union speech, which is generally like seventy one-off issues connected by some weak connective tissue. This was an argument and it was an argument about a specific challenge facing the country.”

What to do about guns in the wake of Tucson was one of those missing issues. Axelrod promised the president “will engage in that in that debate…. this is an important issue and he’ll speak to it.”

The foreclosure crisis was another major omission. Axelrod said the administration would have more to say about housing “in the next few weeks.”

He also signaled the president would veto the House Republicans' "No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act” if it passed the Senate. “His position on this issue is well known,” Axelrod said. “And we believe that it was addressed responsibly in the health care bill in the first place.”

After two grueling years in Washington, Axelrod is excited to soon be returning to Chicago, where he’ll advise the re-election campaign. “When I think about Washington, I think about what my mother used to say to me when I was a kid. She used to say, ‘I love you, I just hate the things you do.’” 

And he had this piece of advice for incoming White House adviser David Plouffe: “I’m going to tell Plouffe, we’re doing great right now, don’t screw it up.”

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Obama Reassures Democrats (Mostly) in SOTU Address

On the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I queried a number of prominent Democratic political strategists and policy experts and asked them to name the most important issue for the president to focus on in year three of his presidency. The answers included: reduce everything to jobs and put people back to work, reclaim economic populism from the Tea Party, help struggling homeowners, and protect Social Security and Medicare. So how did Obama do on these fronts? Did he address the concerns of Democratic voters and position himself favorably for the next two years? Or did he miss a prime opportunity to tell the nation what he believes in and will fight for?

Let’s review the issues one by one:

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

“Jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010,” President Obama said in his last State of the Union address. Then he spent much of the year ignoring the issue. This year, the president made it clear he won’t make that same mistake again.At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else,” he said.

As the core of his speech, Obama outlined a three-part plan to “win the future,” consisting of “Investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure.”If enacted, these investments would amount to Stimulus 2.0. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” Obama said.

Toward that end, Obama called for (1) Investments in biomedical research, information technology and clean energy technology; (2) hiring “100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math” over the next ten years and extending a $10,000 tuition tax credit for students who finish four years of college; and (3) Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. “America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system,” Obama said. “Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the twenty-first century.… Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.”

These spending proposals will excite Democrats who believe the Obama administration needs to do more to help spur a true economic recovery. At the same time, Obama pledged to “freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.” So it’s unclear where he’ll find the money to fund all the critical investments he called for. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear Obama emphasize, at least for one night, jobs, jobs, jobs alongside cut, cut, cut.

Reclaiming Economic Populism

After making a JP Morgan exec (Bill Daley) his chief of staff and appointing the chairman of GE (Jeff Immelt) to head of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama continued his outreach to the business community in his speech. He noted that “the stock market has come roaring back [and] corporate profits are up,” and pledged “to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in twenty-five years,” double exports by 2014, finalize a new trade deal with South Korea and review government regulations. “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation,” said the CEO-in-chief.

But the president also called for an end to corporate tax loopholes and called on Congress “to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.” In addition, he made it clear that he does not want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which he temporarily renewed in December, beyond the next two years.

Despite the GOP’s unabashed corporate conservatism, many Americans still see Obama as a friend of the banks rather than as an advocate for Main Street Americans. I’m not sure last night’s speech will change that perception.

Protecting Social Security and Medicare

The president praised his bipartisan debt commission, which recently proposed significant changes to Social Security and Medicare. “I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress,” Obama said. Many progressives were worried that Obama might embrace cuts to these beloved programs, but he chose not to, at least for now. Howard Dean credited a “huge progressive coalition” for convincing the president to stand firm.

“To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations,” Obama said. “And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Obama was less clear when it came to protecting Medicare, speaking vaguely about “reducing healthcare costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit.” He noted that his healthcare reform law will help solve this problem, but sided with Republicans on the need for “medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.”

Obama mostly played it safe in his remarks on the deficit, but he can shore up his standing among Democrats by simply affirming that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are no longer on the table.

Helping Homeowners

Mike Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies, calls the foreclosure crisis “the great sleeper issue” in American politics. Well, it’s still a sleeper, since Obama didn’t say a word about housing in his speech, even though a million homes were lost to foreclosure last year. There are only so many topics a president can address in the State of the Union, but chalk this up as a missed opportunity in an otherwise solid, if somewhat bland, speech.

 

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In Arizona, Obama Appeals to Our Better Angels

At his best, Barack Obama is a leader who appeals to our better angels, who rode to the White House on a campaign of "hope." Nowhere was Obama's empathy more needed, and more appropriate, than in Tucson Wednesday night. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost," the president said. He led by example in a powerful, emotional and poetic address. He consoled not only those grieving in Arizona, but tried to unify the "American family, 300 million strong."

Said the president:

"When a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations—to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

"But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

The contrast between Obama's stirring and spiritual rhetoric, and today's bizarre and defensive video by Sarah Palin, could not have been more striking. "What we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another," Obama said. "As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."

Perhaps the most memorable part of the speech came when Obama disclosed that he'd just visited Gabrielle Giffords in the hospital and "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time." There were wild cheers inside the auditorium, accompanied by a stream of tears from those watching at home.

At some point soon Obama must tackle the tough questions resulting from the horrific shooting in Arizona: was it only a matter of time before a horribly violent incident occurred, given the current political climate? Did the extreme rhetoric on the right contribute to that culture? What can we do to prevent the next Tucson?

He'll have ample time in the coming weeks, especially with the State of the Union address on January 25, to address how to restore tolerance and dignity in America, both in terms of our words and our laws. But first, we needed some closure on this tragedy, to help heal what are still very open wounds.

Speaking of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama said: "I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it." Tonight was a good start.

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After Arizona Shooting, Obama Should Fight Fringe Extremism Like Clinton Did

On May 6, 1995, two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton gave the commencement speech at Michigan State University and used the opportunity to assail the rise of antigovernment, pro-militia sentiment among America‘s far right. "There is nothing patriotic about hating your government," Clinton said, "or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."

In the wake of Saturday‘s horrific shooting in Arizona, those words are as true today as they were fifteen years ago.

Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to change the tone in Washington beyond the partisan bickering that defined the Clinton and Bush years, so that Americans could "disagree without being disagreeable." But his political opponents never agreed to play by those terms. Apocalyptic depictions of Obama and ludicrous rhetoric about his record, which turned the president into a foreign-born socialist intent on destroying free enterprise, became a standard critique for much of the Tea Party and its acolytes.

"Relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right," wrote The New Yorker‘s George Packer blogged on Sunday. "And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders."

Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center found that "the number of extremist groups in the United States exploded in 2009 as militias and other groups steeped in wild, antigovernment conspiracy theories exploited populist anger across the country and infiltrated the mainstream." So-called "Patriot" groups increased by a shocking 244 percent in 2009. "This extraordinary growth is a cause for grave concern," said Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC‘s comprehensive report "Rage on the Right." The "radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism" of the Patriot movement were given legitimacy by the Tea Party and conservative icons like Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman, the SPLC noted.

A report on right-ring extremism released by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 was chock full of similar conclusions. "Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda," DHS found. It‘s scary to read the report today and realize how prescient it was. (Interestingly enough, many conservatives criticized the report, which Michelle Malkin termed a "hit job.")

Four hundred and fifty thousand more guns were purchased in November 2008 than in November 2007, which not surprisingly contributed to an outpouring of violent incidents over the past two years. If you don‘t believe me, see this horrifying "insurrectionism timeline" compiled by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Few places in recent years have combined a more lethal mix of nativism, gun culture and religious right sentiment than Arizona, a place where Ken Silverstein of Harper‘s wrote that "the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party." And it seems like the national Republican Party is following Arizona‘s lead. "Should the Republicans succeed in retaking power nationwide over the next four years," Silverstein wrote in July, "the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become." The GOP has already become the party of Palin and Beck, dominated by anger, ignorance and intolerance. It‘s delusional to treat them as anything but such.

Following the Oklahoma City bombing Clinton displayed signature empathy, but he also aggressively went after those who aided and abetted far-right lunatics like Timothy McVeigh. "Republicans pinpoint this as a moment when Clinton defined them—the party that had just taken Congress—as out of the mainstream," Slate‘s Dave Weigel reported. Without politicizing the current tragedy in Arizona, Obama should be similarly clear about the dangers this country faces if the current climate of right-wing hate is allowed to go unchallenged.

On April 18, 2010, the fifteenth anniversary of Oklahoma City, Clinton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the lessons of that tragedy. "Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy," the former president wrote. "No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws."

Clinton warned that such a line was crossed in Oklahoma City and that it could happen again. "In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma City, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again," he wrote, nine months before Saturday's massacre in Arizona.

 
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Rahm Redux: Top Banker for Obama Chief of Staff

Rahm Emanuel is off running for mayor of Chicago, but his ghost will soon be making a return to the White House in the form of fellow Chicagoan Bill Daley, whom President Obama is naming as Rahm’s replacement today. The post is currently filled by low-key Obama aide Pete Rouse.  

Daley, brother of outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, was commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, the chief architect of NAFTA, chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, a top adviser/fundraiser for the Obama campaign and, most recently, Midwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase. He shares the corporate centrism of Emanuel and, when it comes to economic issues, may be worse. AFL-CIO head John Sweeney once said that Daley stood “squarely on the opposite side of working families.”

Daley lobbied for telecommunications giant SBC, publicly chided the Obama administration for pursuing healthcare reform (he serves on the board of drugmaker Merck), advised the Chamber of Commerce on Wall Street regulation (they wanted less of it) and reportedly urged Obama’s team to drop the most popular provision of the financial reform bill—the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. When Daley joined the board of the corporate-aligned Democratic group Third Way in July 2010, board chairman John Vogelstein said that Daley’s tasks would include “reforming entitlements”—a clever code word for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Yet despite all this, Obama is making Daley the focal point of his White House in year three. Didn’t the president learn anything from Rahm’s disastrous tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

This week Politico reported that Republican House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa brazenly asked over 150 companies and trade associations to specify which regulations and consumer protections they’d like to gut in the new Congress. It was precisely the type of story Democrats should pounce on to paint the GOP as a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate American. Instead, the Obama administration is close to appointing a JP Morgan exec to burnish its “pro-business” credentials. Talk about mixed messaging!

In fact, the Obama administration has tried its damndest to plot the “moderate, centrist course” that Daley accuses them of forsaking—abandoning the public option in healthcare reform, loading up the stimulus with tax cuts, extending the Bush tax cuts, escalating the war in Afghanistan and stepping away from potentially divisive fights over immigration reform and cap and trade. Indeed, it’s amazing that the administration doesn’t get more credit from the business community for saving the banks, rescuing the auto industry, stabilizing the economy and preventing another Great Depression. Americans want jobs and relief from the federal government and Obama administration, not another banker running the show.


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

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Is Obama Really the New Comeback Kid?

The ink was barely dry on the Obama-McConnell tax deal and already Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer had proclaimed the president “the new comeback kid.” Many in the media quickly echoed this new meme. “Political Rebound? Obama sets up as new Comeback Kid” seconded USA Today. “Some now see Obama as the ‘comeback kid’” wrote the Christian Science Monitor. You get the gist.

Six weeks ago, in the wake of the Democrats’ midterm shellacking, many commentators put the Obama presidency on life support; he was weak, spineless, out of touch. Now they’re promoting the exact opposite narrative—Obama is strong, ruthless, willing to put the good of the country ahead of his whiny liberal base.

Time for a reality check: Obama’s presidency didn’t end after the midterm election and it hasn’t been revived during the lame duck session of Congress. Polls currently show a mixed bag of news for Obama. After dropping precipitously in 2009, his numbers have held steady for much of 2010. According to the latest Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing as president, while 45 percent disapprove. He’s facing a divided country and a weak field of prospective 2012 GOP challengers, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, who’ll spend the next year trying to convince Tea Party activists how “Romneycare” is different from “Obamacare.” Good luck with that, Mitt.

 

Yet other numerical indicators don’t paint a rosy picture for the president. No president since FDR has run for re-election or been re-elected when the unemployment rate was over 8 percent. Nearly six in ten Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest Marist poll. Obama’s approval ratings among liberal Democrats—his strongest and most reliable constituency—fell below 80 percent for the first time last week, after the tax deal was announced. He’s losing his base but failing to bring independents back into the fold. (I made these points last week on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell. Posting clip below.)

Both substantively and politically, the tax deal was hardly a courageous move by Obama. His negotiation strategy came straight from the Rahm Emanuel school of politics—take the path of least resistance (extending all the Bush tax cuts), get what you can in return (unemployment benefits, the continuation of some progressive tax cuts), declare victory and move on. Or, in the case of this deal, kick the can down the road another two years and hopefully make the tough choices then. 

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a more clear cut victory for the president, a policy change that would have been unthinkable under George W. Bush, who spent much of his time in office trying to prevent equality for gay and lesbian Americans. Passage of the START treaty will be trumpeted as another major victory, even if most Americans don’t know what that is or care. But the tax cut deal, not the repeal of DADT or passage of START, will likely be the precursor of things to come in the new Congress. A hostile GOP House will want to negotiate on their terms and will be determined to make Obama’s life a living hell.

We don’t know how the president or Congressional Democrats will react to this new reality. The Obama administration accomplished a lot in the past two years but it also disappointed and alienated a good chunk of core supporters. Did Democrats make the most of their legislative supermajority, in terms of the breadth and scope of legislation passed, or did they unnecessarily compromise on too many top priorities? Obama supporters are debating this very question today and historians will continue to for years to come.

In the past two years Obama has been uneven on offense—determined to do big things but often ambivalent about how hard to push and the best path to get there—and untested on defense (that elbow he took on the basketball court was a bad sign). Can he outmaneuver his opponents or will he fall victim to the ideological extremity of the right, agreeing, for example, to cut Social Security benefits and shred a core platform of the Democratic Party?

Let’s hold off, please, from anointing Obama the comeback kid until we know what the full extent of that “comeback” actually entails.

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

 

 
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Senate Priority #1: Fix the Filibuster

Last night, Rachel Maddow ran a very interesting segment on the broken nature of the US Senate, which I’m posting below.

We’ve become accustomed to reading headlines like “DADT Repeal Fails in Senate, 57 to 40,” but that doesn’t make them any less surreal. Only in the Senate does winning by 17 votes constitute defeat. That’s because Republicans now require that every piece of legislation in the body receive 60 votes before it even comes up for a formal vote, let alone becomes law. The incessant misuse of the filibuster has turned the Senate into an increasingly dysfunctional body where, quite frankly, it’s miraculous that anything ever gets done.

The filibuster once again made headlines last week during Bernie Sanders’s dramatic nine-hour speech against the tax deal on the Senate floor. But Sanders’s stirring performance was a rare exception to the rule. These days, one senator can merely object to a bill moving forward and slow Senate business to a crawl as leaders scramble for 60 votes. In fact, the last Sanders-esque filibuster occurred in 1992, according to the LA Times, when New York Senator Al D’Amato held the floor for 15 hours and 14 minutes after an upstate New York typewriter maker sought to move its factory to Mexico.

A few years ago, Republicans threatened to shut down the Senate because Democrats were blocking George W. Bush’s judicial nominee. But the level of Senate obstructionism has skyrocketed in recent years, mostly off camera. The number of cloture motions—the requirement that a bill get sixty votes to proceed to a binding vote—has more than doubled since 2006, when Republicans assumed the minority.

Four hundred and twenty bills passed the House in the last session of Congress but died in the Senate, including the Employee Free Choice Act, cap-and-trade, pay equity for women, an audit of the BP claims fund, a plethora of critical jobs bills, and the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell.” DADT repeal failed in the current lame duck session, as did an extension of just the middle-class Bush tax cuts. Passage of even a few of these critical bills would have made Barack Obama’s presidency far more transformative.

“There have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980,” notes New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. Udall was a guest on “Maddow” last night, where he explained his plan to change the Senate rules, known as “The Constitutional Option,” at the start of the new session of Congress on January 5. The Constitutional Option requires only a simple majority, 51 votes, to trigger a rule change. Maddow called it “the single most important thing that could be done to change Washington on a single day in the legislature.” The freshman Democrat outlined the specifics of his plan in a spiffy video released by his office last week.

 

Udall’s “Constitutional Option” has begun to pick up steam. This week a broad array of groups, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, United Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice, unveiled the “Fix the Senate Now” coalition and released an eight-point plan for reforming the Senate rules. “Far from fostering deliberation and bipartisanship, the current rules prevent matters from ever being considered, remove incentives for bipartisanship, and make it impossible for the Senate to fulfill its responsibilities,” they wrote in a joint letter to senators. As step one, the coalition backs Udall’s plan to change the Senate rules at the start of the next session, an idea that is garnering increasing support inside the Democratic caucus. (Common Cause will soon file a lawsuit in district court alleging that the filibuster is unconstitutional.)

So what should the new Senate rules be? Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has a proposal that would curtail lengthy filibusters and encourage genuine compromise. “On the first cloture attempt, sixty votes would be required,” Harkin explained in The Nation in June. “But, over a period of days or weeks, the number of votes required would fall to a simple majority of fifty-one senators.”

“Under my proposal, the minority would have ample opportunity to debate an issue, try to shift public opinion and attempt to persuade their colleagues,” Harkin writes. “However, the minority would no longer have the power to brazenly block the majority from legislating.”

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley also has a plan to restore the Senate’s reputation as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” by encouraging senators to follow the lead of Bernie Sanders and actually be forced to stay on the Senate floor for hours and hours to “explain to the American people why they think they are right and a majority of Senators are wrong.” Ezra Klein calls Merkley’s plan “filibuster reform that even the filibuster’s supporters can love.”

Udall, Harkin and Merkley have introduced thoughtful and reasonable proposals worthy of consideration by the Senate and its leadership. Harry Reid has said in the past that he believes “the filibuster has been abused” like “the spitball was abused in baseball.” It’s within his power to push to change the status quo—and put a stop to endless gridlock and dysfunction—on January 5.

Obama Supporters 'Dismayed, Betrayed, Insulted' by Tax Deal

In his press conference yesterday, President Obama testily defended his tax cut deal with Republicans and labeled Democratic opponents of the plan "sanctimonious" and "purist."

So do Obama supporters agree with the president's assessment that this was the best compromise he could get and he did all he could to fight for middle-class tax cuts and not those for the wealthy?

The answer seems to be a pretty resounding no. A poll commissioned by MoveOn.org yesterday found that 74 percent of Obama volunteers or financial backers in '08 oppose the deal. More than half said they'd be less likely to support Democrats in 2012 who back the compromise and would be less likely to donate to Obama's re-election campaign. Pretty sobering statistics for the president and his team.

Yesterday I asked Obama supporters on Twitter and Facebook (an admittedly unscientific sample) what they thought of the deal. Were they satisfied or dismayed? Would it effect how they'd vote in 2012? The responses I received strongly rebuked the president's position.

"I feel betrayed and insulted," wrote Casey Erixon from Des Moines, Iowa, who volunteered for Obama in Council Bluffs and worked for the Iowa Democratic Party in 2008. "Why should I have to apologize for expecting courage and progressive leadership?"

Ashish Java from Atlanta said he was "horrified with Obama's inability to fight." Mark Bunster from Lake Oswego, Oregon, called the tax deal the "final straw" and said he'd support a primary challenge to Obama in 2012. Judith Chambers of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, expressed a similar sentiment: "I'm upset by tax cut deal. I'm tired of ‘compromises' Obama has made on most major legislation. I won't vote 4 a compromiser."

Andrew G, an Obama volunteer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he was "dismayed, but not enough to risk Obama losing in '12 with a vote for anyone else." A number of responders concurred, saying they'll still vote for Obama in 2012, despite their unhappiness with the current policy.

Not everyone was upset with the president's deal and rhetoric. Melissa Achtien, an Obama Republican from Hamilton County, Indiana, liked what she heard. "I appreciated his comments to the left today. If you look at the chart at thinkprogress.org it looks like he did pretty well in his negotiations. He has to compromise and govern more from the center. It is just a fact of life that the liberals have to accept."

But Pam Williamson, a longtime Democratic activist in Boone, North Carolina, who led her local party to big victories in 2006 and 2008, only to suffer major losses in 2010, took strong umbrage to the latest deal, which she saw as a symptom of a much broader problem with Obama. "I'm done with him," Williamson wrote. "Have learned not to expect anything from him. I try to get educated about issues, and I think with few exceptions he is much more interested in the deal than the particulars. Problem is: he's not good enough to beat the Republicans at...that game. I think he's hurting the Party, and I'm in it for the long haul. I am going to be more particular about what candidates I support. Fact is, even if I did support him, I know my county pretty well. We are going to have to run away from him hard to try to recoup here in 2012."

Beyond her frustration with Obama's politics—and how it's playing in a key swing state Obama won in 2008—Williamson makes a very good point about why the latest tax deal could haunt Democrats and progressives in the future. "This most recent sellout is very serious," she writes. "We are going to have to pay the $1 trillion it costs with borrowed money, and then the Republicans are going to start screaming again about the deficit to slash education, student loans, health care, childcare, you name it to pay for it all. Obama is also going to fall for cutting social security benefits—that's what that payroll tax cut is a set-up for. This is a political coup by the Republicans. I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, but apparently President Obama did."

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

 

 

 
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Obama Caves on Tax Cuts, Endorses 'Bush-McCain Philosophy'

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said over and over that he was running to "put an end to the Bush-McCain philosophy." Campaigning in Colorado just days before the election (see video below), Obama clearly stated his opposition to Bush-era economic policies and ridiculed the idea that "we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that it trickles down on everybody else. It’s a philosophy that gives tax breaks to wealthy CEOs and to corporations that ship jobs overseas while hundreds of thousands of jobs are disappearing here at home."

Now Obama, in a blatant reversal, is preparing to do just that, agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which my colleague Chris Hayes accurately calls the "single defining domestic policy of W."

In 2008, Obama presented himself as a clean break from the Bush and Clinton dynasties and a fresh face for the nation and the world. Yet once in office he packed his White House with holdovers from the Bush and Clinton administrations and continued or even accelerated key Bush-era policies, whether in the realm of counterterrorism, Afghanistan or offshore drilling. The latest "compromise" on the Bush tax cuts, extending the upper-income tax cuts for two years in exchange for the continuation of unemployment benefits, is simply the latest in a series of capitulations from the Obama White House.

Obama and Congressional Democrats bungled the tax debate from the start, even though it was clearly a winning issue for the president and his party. Even though everyone knew the Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of this year, Democrats failed to develop an overall strategy for this issue last summer or force a vote in the Congress before the election—at a time when even Republicans like John Boehner said they’d vote to extend only the middle-class tax cuts if that was their only option. Yet Democrats refused to put the GOP on the spot or talk about the tax cuts during the campaign, blurring what should have been a core distinction between the parties; Democrats for the middle class, Republicans for the rich. As former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said recently: “If we can't win that argument we might as well just fold up.”

Once Democrats finally decided to vote on only the middle-class tax cuts, last week, Republicans had all the momentum and the issue had become mere political theater. Even as Congress was voting on the Democrats’ plan, Obama signaled to Republicans that a more favorable deal was just around the corner, giving the GOP no incentive to side with Democrats. The Obama administration’s posture on the tax cuts is eerily similar to its stance on the public option during healthcare reform—the president says he wants the policy, but does absolutely nothing to fight for it, either through his own bully pulpit or on Capitol Hill. Last week, Organizing for America asked Obama supporters to phone bank in support of the DREAM Act, repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell," and a pay freeze for federal workers (yet another concession to the GOP), but did nothing on the tax front.

So now Obama is planning to spend $60 billion a year on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires rather than, for example, a national infrastructure plan that would rebuild America and put people back to work. It’s hard to see how the president will benefit either politically or substantively from this latest reversal of policy—caving on the tax cuts will only embolden GOP leaders, who already see Obama as weak and unprincipled, and will further deflate restless Democratic activists and Obama supporters. If this is how Obama plans to govern in the future, we’re in for a rough next two years.

UPDATE: Five major progressive groups--MoveOn, Democracy for America, TrueMajority, Credo Action and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee--are now urging the Senate not to ratify the imminent Obama deal. Says DFA chair Jim Dean: "Voters - and activists - are not buying the notion that tax cuts for high income earners are the only path to extending the middle class tax-cuts. As for any Democratic members of Congress who are going along with extending the tax cuts for high income earners -- this is the stuff that primaries are made of."

 
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