Obama and the Art of the Cave-In


Ezra Klein, the bright, young, economic policy columnist for the “Washington Post” believes that Obama came out ahead last year in the “administration’s bitter, high-stakes negotiations with the Republicans in Congress.”

He cites four major negotiations in 2011 with the Republicans that Obama won. Obama won the game of chicken played in February by the House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a government shutdown. He won the battle to raise the customarily supported debt ceiling on government borrowing. He avoided an embarrassment after he had to concur in the formation of a “Supercommittee” on deficit reduction when Congress couldn’t come to an agreement. And he won all of a two-month extension of the social security payroll tax cut and extension of unemployment compensation benefits.

If those were “high stakes,” I wonder what microscopic instrument would detect any lower stakes. Obama keeps “winning battles” that he could have avoided. But what about taking the offensive on some really significant matters? For example, when he caved in December 2010 to the minority Republicans and agreed to extend the deficit-producing Bush tax cuts on the rich, he didn’t demand in return a continuation of the regular bi-partisan approval of lifting the debt limit. So over weeks in 2011, he had to mud-wrestle the Republicans on the debt limit – to the dismay of finance ministers across the world – and won only after conceding the bizarre creation of a Supercommittee to order its own Congress to enact budget cuts. That Supercommittee gridlocked and closed down.

Finally, if he does nothing, the $4 trillion over 10 years that are the Bush tax cuts expire automatically on January 1, 2013 – after the election. On the same day, the spending trigger automatically kicks in which cuts over ten years $500 billion from the bloated Defense budget and another $500 billion from other departments, but not from social security and Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries.

This is an Obama victory? What makes Mr. Klein so sure Obama won’t cave again? He has all this year to do so. His own Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has often said that there’s now way he would go for any further defense cuts. Also, Obama was ready in 2011 to raise the Medicare eligibility age in return for the deal on debt ceiling. He was saved from this folly only by the stubbornness of Boehner and his clenched-teeth sidekick, Virginian Eric Cantor from the arguably most passive Congressional district in the U.S. Boehner and Cantor wanted more.

Here are some high stakes fights where the Republicans defeated the White House and blocked major substantive advances. They stopped the wide-ranging energy bill, and stifled Uncle Sam’s
authority to bargain for drug discounts that taxpayers are paying to the gouging drug companies for the drug benefit program for the elderly. They kept the coal industry King Coal on Capitol Hill, preserved crass corporate welfare and tax loophole programs, and blocked the able nominee to head the new agency to protect against consumer finance abuses. They also cut budgets for small but crucial safety programs in food, auto safety, and children’s hunger.

Republicans preserved the notorious nuclear power loan guarantee boondoggles, a bevy of Soviet-era weapons systems nestled in the arms of the military-industrial complex and mercilessly beat up on the work and budget of the cancer-preventing, illness-reducing Environmental Protection Agency. That’s just for starters.

Obama and the majority Democrats in the Senate dug this hole for themselves when they failed to curtail the filibuster in January 2009 and 2011 by majority vote. They doomed themselves to the numerically impossible hurdle of needing 60 votes to pass any measure and avoid filibusters.

Putting themselves on the defensive, while dialing business lobbyists for the same campaign dollars as the Republicans, the Obama crowd, of course, could not advance what they promised the American people. They went silent on raising the federal minimum wage to $9.50, promised by candidate Obama in 2008 for 2011. At $9.50, it would still have been less than the federal minimum wage in 1968, adjusted for inflation. Hardly a radical proposal.

Obama went silent on the card check, promised unorganized American workers in their losing struggle with multinational corporate employers. While bailing out the criminal gamblers on Wall Street, he could have pressed for a stock transaction sales tax that could have raised big revenue and helped dampen speculation with other peoples’ money such as pension funds and mutual fund savings.

He could have pushed seriously for a visible public works program producing domestic jobs in thousands of communities for improved public services. He could have directly challenged the Tea Partiers with cuts in corporate welfare, but he did not, except for ending an ethanol subsidy. He could have made a big deal of cracking down on corporate fraud on Medicare and Medicaid that totals tens of billions of dollars a year. However, once on the defensive from his own self-inflicted weak hand, he was always on the defensive.

Obama may be in a superior tactical position vis-a-vis the Congressional Republicans, as Mr. Klein posits, but is this all there is left of the touted movement for hope and change in 2008?

President Obama is deemed by his fellow Democrats to have won the financial battles, but the Republicans won the rest. How can the expectation levels of this two party duopoly sink any lower?

Let’s face it, if today’s Republicans are the most craven, greedy, ignorant, anti-worker, anti-patient, anti-consumer, anti-environment and coddlers of corporate crime in the party’s history, why aren’t the Democrats landsliding them?

For two answers try reading John F. Kennedy’s best-selling Profiles of Courage, 1955, or if you favor the ancients, Plutarch’s Lives (circa 100 A.D.).

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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