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The Surrender President

Obama's "deal" isn't a compromise. It's capitulation. And there were alternatives.

We got 98 per cent of what we wanted.

That's the verdict of Republican congressman and House Speaker, John "dark side" Boehner, on the debt deal that was agreed yesterday between Barack Obama, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans.

The deal, as the BBC summarises, involves:

* Government spending cuts of $900bn, split between defence and non-defence spending

* Bipartisan Congressional "super-committee" to recommend $1.5trn of further spending cuts, spread out over ten years, reporting by November

* Cuts to key spending areas, including education and defence spending, to be enacted automatically if committee fails to reach a deal

It's difficult to disagree with Boehner. Obama started off asking for a "clean" rise in the $14.2trn debt ceiling and then switched to pleading for tax revenues to match spending cuts. He got neither. He couldn't even get the Tea Party crazies to agree to the abolition of the tax exemptions on private jets. The US budget deficit will be paid off the backs of the poor. Here is the opening para of a news report on the website Hedgefund.net:

Hedge-fund managers and others in the investment world breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama announced Sunday night a tentative deal to raise the county's debt ceiling.

Obama defenders have also railed against critics of the president, asking again and again: "Well, what was the alternative? What is YOUR alternative?"

Well, to begin with, as the Irishman said, "I wouldn't have started from here."

But Paul Krugman offers some details:

Did the president have any alternative this time around? Yes.

First of all, he could and should have demanded an increase in the debt ceiling back in December. When asked why he didn't, he replied that he was sure that Republicans would act responsibly. Great call.

And even now, the Obama administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options. In ordinary circumstances, this might have been an extreme step. But faced with the reality of what is happening, namely raw extortion on the part of a party that, after all, only controls one house of Congress, it would have been totally justifiable.

At the very least, Mr. Obama could have used the possibility of a legal end run to strengthen his bargaining position. Instead, however, he ruled all such options out from the beginning.

As Robert Reich, the academic and former US labour secretary (under Bill Clinton) points out:

But another part of the answer lies with the president -- and his inability or unwillingness to use the bully pulpit to tell Americans the truth, and mobilize them for what must be done

Barack Obama is one of the most eloquent and intelligent people ever to grace the White House, which makes his failure to tell the story of our era all the more disappointing and puzzling. Many who were drawn to him in 2008 (including me) were dazzled by the power of his words and insights -- his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his autobiography and subsequent policy book, his talks about race and other divisive issues during the campaign.

We were excited by the prospect of a leader who could educate -- an "educator in chief" who would use the bully pulpit to explain what has happened to the United States in recent decades, where we must go, and why.

But the man who has occupied the Oval Office since January, 2009 is someone entirely different -- a man seemingly without a compass, a tactician who veers rightward one day and leftward the next, an inside-the Beltway dealmaker who doesn't explain his compromises in light of larger goals.

In his inaugural address, Obama warned that "the nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." In private, he professes to understand that the growing concentration of income and wealth at the top has robbed the middle class of the purchasing power it needs to keep the economy going. And it has distorted our politics.

He is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home values, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining real wages -- a decrease in consumption that's directly responsible for the anemic recovery.

But instead of explaining this to the American people, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit, and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised.

Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his number one economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct -- that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

And here's Bill Clinton, the Bubba himself, earlier this month, saying what he'd have done were he still in the Oval Office:

Former President Bill Clinton says that he would invoke the so-called constitutional option to raise the nation's debt ceiling "without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me" in order to prevent a default, should Congress and the President fail to achieve agreement before the August 2 deadline.

But Obama shied away from using the 14th Amendment. Perhaps, as Reich suggests, because:

. . . he simply lacks the courage to tell the truth. He wants most of all to be seen as a responsible adult rather than a fighter. As such, he allows himself to be trapped by situations -- the debt-ceiling imbroglio most recently -- within which he tries to offer reasonable responses, rather than be the leader who shapes the circumstances from the start.

Obama cannot mobilize America around the truth, in other words, because he is continuously adapting to the prevailing view. This is not leadership.