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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle