Obama’s deal with the GOP exposes two sad truths

President sacrifices key campaign promise for the sake of political expediency.

It is said that a stereotype gains traction because there is within it an element of truth. This week, we appear to have further confirmation of this idea. In the United States, President Barack Obama has agreed to a deal that sees the economically disastrous tax cuts passed under George W Bush extended for another two years, having campaigned against them in 2008. In this one move, Obama has, for a large number of people, demonstrated the truth in two stereotypes.

First, that politicians from all sides of the spectrum will go back on their campaign promises if it suits them politically. Morals be damned; political expediency is king (another recent example of this was when Obama's predecessor said – with a straight face – that he was not in the business of nation-building). Obama is not bowing to public pressure to appear strong in the face of an enemy as Bush did, however. He is caving in to the pressure from rich Republicans who threatened to filibuster tax relief for the middle-class households of America if the tiny minority of millionaires and billionaires did not also get the same treatment.

Which leads us to the second stereotype: the weak Democrat.

The Democratic Party has been infuriating the American left for years because it appears to be utterly unwilling to fight the Republicans on any issue. The GOP is moving further and further to the right side of the political spectrum, which is dragging what should be the centre to the right. Instead of having a right-left divide, the weakness of the Democratic Party has resulted in a far-right/centre-right divide.

The recent health-care legislation battle is a perfect example. Instead of starting from an absolute position (for instance, a single payer system) and compromising from there, the Democrats started from a compromise position and worked right. The result was a watered-down bill, most of which will not go into effect until 2014.

This tax debate was an example of the same idea. Economists overwhelmingly say that the Bush tax cuts were a major force in the explosion of the national deficit, and that their extension (especially to the super-rich) would only aggravate the problem. Obama could have taken this position and run with it. He could have called the GOP's bluff and told it that the super-rich were not getting their cuts extended and allowed them to filibuster. He would then be able to go in front of the American public and lay the blame at the feet of the corporate-friendly (or more corporate-friendly, at least) Republican Party. They would be responsible for a massive tax rise for everyone, because they wanted to help their already obscenely rich friends and contributors. Now, there is even more fuel on the GOP's "It's Obama's fault for the huge deficit" fire.

Obama has given the Republicans the stick with which to beat him. He claimed when announcing the deal that he would fight the Republicans on this issue, and others, over the next two years.

One question that immediately leaps to mind is this: if he went back on his pledge to fix the American tax system now, what reason is there to believe he won't just do it again in 2012 when the new tax cuts expire? By then, he may no longer be the president. Whose fault would that be? Certainly the Republican political machine and the conservative media outlets will claim responsibility, but honestly the blame would rest mostly on Mr Obama's shoulders.

Yes, we can? Prove it.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.