Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Batter Up, Mr. President
Reading Michael Tomasky's piece in The Daily Beast, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu come over me.
My favorite presidential sentence in quite some time was uttered over the weekend by Barack Obama, or whenever exactly he sat down and told The New York Times what it quoted him as saying Sunday: “I want to make sure that all of us in Washington are investing as much time, as much energy, as much debate on how we grow the economy and grow the middle class as we’ve spent over the last two to three years arguing about how we reduce the deficits.”
Seems we've seen this movie before. Obama making a passionate speech about the economy and the middle class. How many speeches have we heard him make - all of them stirring and all of them on the money - only to see everything unravel at the merciless hand of reality.
Tomasky, to his credit, makes many valid points that bear repeating regarding the overly pragmatic and often criticized president:
For a long time, President Obama was throwing plenty of his own chips into the austerity pot. Liberal economists (Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, Dean Baker) and liberal economics writers (Bob Kuttner, notably) were irate. I was a little more sympathetic to the political realities—contra my friend Kuttner, I never thought, for example, that there was a “Rooseveltian moment” in the wake of the 2008 crash. Indeed the vicious irony of the crash, and the resultant havoc, was that it was exactly large enough to piss off the top 5 percent (who lost large amounts of wealth) but not large enough to piss off the top 40 percent (most of whom, even with the high jobless rates of 2010, did keep their jobs and held on through the storm). Structurally speaking, this is why we got the revolution—the counter-revolution—we got, in the form of the Tea Party. If we’d had 24 percent unemployment in 2009, as FDR did in 1933, Obama would have had a much freer hand to attempt more radical experimentation.
There's a lot of truth in what Tomasky says here. Maybe, in hindsight, many of us on the Left never fully appreciated how difficult it was for Obama to navigate the currents of Washington politics. It's easy for us to say Paul Krugman was right about the stimulus not being large enough - and he was right - but it's also important to remember that the likelihood of getting a significantly larger one through Congress, even with 60 Democratic seats in the Senate, was remote at best. $788 billion, as paltry as that seems given the size of the U.S. economy, was probably as much as Obama was going to get. And get it he did and, in so doing, prevented the next great depression from happening.
It was the same way with healthcare and financial reform. Obama has always been the reasonable one in the room, seeking consensus and the best path to measured, practical solutions. While that may have been off putting to many in his base, it's worth noting that lesser presidents often overreached (Bill Clinton) or flat out punted (George Bush). That's something that tends to get overlooked. The man has gotten results while his predecessors got bupkis.
But then there's the other side of that practical, pragmatic coin that has tripped him up over and over again. Tomasky is right when he points out that Obama has often been his own worst enemy. Chasing after some illusive grand bargain, while laudable, played right into the hands of his opponents, who saw it as a weakness and used it against him. Like it or not, the reason we now have the sequester is because the President naively believed he could strike a deal with a Speaker of the House who didn't have the authority to order a ham sandwich, much less speak on behalf of his caucus.
Painful as it might seem for the White House to admit, the reason terms like deficit reduction and tightening of the belt are so popular these days is because Obama went along with the conventional wisdom of the supply-side nincompoops who gave us most of the deficits in the first place. I have said this from his first day in office: Narrative building is the key to success in politics and it has been by far Obama's biggest deficiency. He has been way too reasonable and given way too much credit where none was due. To put it in terms Lincoln would appreciate, his pursuit of the better angels in others has allowed their lesser angels to get the better of him.
Even now, with just weeks to go before both a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling default, Obama is proposing yet another grand bargain. Again he is proposing a reasonable trade off: a lowering of the corporate tax rate in return for some badly-needed infrastructure spending. The response from the Republicans was predictable as dirt: "no thanks."
In the last two plus years, the GOP-lead House has voted 39 times to repeal Obamacare, with a 40th vote scheduled to take place next week. In the Senate, Republicans have abused the filibuster to block nominations to both cabinet positions and the judiciary. Anything this president has attempted to do has been stymied by a determined and reckless opposition which long ago stopped being a political party and is instead nothing more than a band of misfit bandits.
The sad truth is that if Obama came out in favor of sunny days, the GOP would accuse him of being anti rain. Everyone with a brain knows this, except possibly the man who should know it best. But now, there are signs that even he is finally starting to accept the fact that when it comes to governing he might have no choice but to go it alone. Hell, he's been pretty much doing that for four plus years anyway.
So, once more, the President has decided to hit the road and take his message to the people. Only this time, he's bringing along some badly needed and unusual ammo. Obama has unveiled a new strategy for how to deal with Congress. Basically, he's decided not to deal with them. Dubbed the "No-Congress Strategy" by Politico, it calls for a series of executive orders from voting rights to job creation to climate change and immigration. That last one is significant because it assumes (and rightly so) that the House has no intention of moving on a comprehensive bill of its own.
No doubt Republicans will be outraged by this and call Obama a dictator. Again. They're very good at that. In fact it's one of the few things they excel at along with holding hearings into phony scandals. Legislating sure isn't. To quote John Boehner, Republicans should be judged not by how many laws they pass, but by how many they repeal. Based on that little tidbit, they've earned a resounding F, since they haven't repealed a bloody thing.
But back to Obama. I have some advice for how the President should handle the GOP when they squawk about his executive orders.
That's right, fuck 'em. Like shit through a goose fuck 'em. For over four years this very reasonable, pragmatic, centrist president has done everything humanly possible to get the other side to meet him halfway. So eager was he to be amenable that when it came to passing healthcare reform, rather than appease his base and go for a single payer or public option, he opted instead for a plan that mirrored an already existing state-run plan that had been signed into law by a Republican governor. Certainly that would get him some street cred among the GOP.
Instead, his reward was to have it branded it as a socialist takeover of the health insurance industry by those very same Republicans. The loudest shouts coming, ironically enough, from the architect of that very same state-run plan, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose name adorns the Massachusetts law he signed into existence when he was governor.
Talk about balls!
No I think this president has been more than fair and balanced, to coin a phrase which has been badly beaten up by a certain "news" network that shall go nameless for now. He's tried being Jackie Robinson. It hasn't worked. If anything, all it's done is emboldened his opponents and encouraged them to spit on him harder and more often.
At first I thought he might try a little Hammerin' Hank on for size. But then I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that what Obama really needs is a good knock down pitch. And for that, there was none better than Bob Gibson.
Among pitchers, there wasn't a more combative or competitive athlete. He loved winning and hated losing. So protective was he of the plate that he would deliberately throw at batters who dug in and leaned too close to the strike zone. There were no sacred cows in Gibson's universe. Everyone was fair game. If he thought you were a threat to him, you soon found yourself on your ass.
Obama badly needs to channel his inner Bob Gibson or find one fast. He needs a good knockdown pitch. For four and a half years, the GOP has been crowding his plate and smacking him all over the park. It's about time he dusted a few of them off.
Over the next few days, Obama has an opportunity to reclaim not just his administration, but to reshape the entire debate. In hindsight, it was a mistake to seek middle ground with the GOP. It permitted the austerity kooks to embed their bogus message into the body politic. Instead of forging ahead with policies that could've mitigated the effects of the recession and spurred job creation (e.g. demand), Obama was on his heals while Republican policies built up momentum.
Now that it's become painfully clear that those policies have backfired - the sequester has robbed the economy of 1 percent of GDP growth and could cost upwards of 1.6 million jobs over the next 12 months - Obama must drive home HIS agenda and make HIS vision clear and he must do so in a way that the average voter can relate to. If that New York Times interview is any indication, he's off to a good start.
“If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise.”
Simple and succinct. He even manages to co-opt a huge Republican talking point: growth. Tomasky is right. It was always a mistake for Democrats to talk so much about compassion. The problem with leading with compassion is that in a slow economy people tend to be less compassionate and more out for themselves. It's basic human nature.
Of course none of this will make any difference in the short run. Republicans will reject anything this president proposes or does. That's hardly the point. Obama has decided to go long as he should. While the GOP engages in a penny wise, dollar foolish strategy, the President must set his sights on not only next year's midterms but the 2016 election.
Assuming Republicans don't completely blow up the economy by defaulting on the debt - a big assumption - we can expect steady, if slow growth over the next year and a half to three years. That means right about the time Hillary Clinton is accepting the nomination for president at the Democratic convention, unemployment should be just under 6 percent and the deficit around $300 billion or lower. That Republican convention should be quite a hoot whilst they stand around looking for something to pull out of their asses.
I can't wait to see the look on Chris Christie's face as he stays up late on election night knowing he might've beaten Hillary but didn't get the chance because his own party once more decided to nominate another (what did Michael Tomasky call it?) troglodyte for president.
The battle to reclaim America starts now. It's Obama game to lose. Funny, it was always his game to lose. Hopefully, this time he has the courage to do what deep down he knows he has to.
As Bob Gibson would say, batter up!