The Nostrum of “Shared Sacrifice”

The tipping point in progressive illusions that President Obama is “one of us” may finally have been reached with the new bipartisan deal on the debt ceiling.

To avert financial default, Obama and his Congressional allies have basically negotiated their way into endorsing almost everything the Republicans want. The 10-year plan to slash at least $2.1 trillion from the federal budget is expected to exact a heavy toll on domestic social programs. Expect no tax hikes on wealthy individuals and corporations, however. Nor, despite some talk to the contrary, much in the way of military spending cuts.

As the austerity program unfolds, reductions in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be on the table.

“If the bill passes the President can now claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, a surefire defense to ubiquitous Republican accusations of socialism and big government,” declares Time magazine (Aug. 1). This is a big “win” for the president, says Time.

Actually, this is a win the way Charlie Sheen is “winning.” Columnist Paul Krugman in the New York Times rightly calls the legislation a “disaster,” one sure to further depress an already depressed economy. “Those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker,” says Krugman.

In the days leading up to the deal, University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith told the Real News Network (July 21) “there is nothing specific in this plan that takes anything out of the pockets of the wealthy at all on a net basis.” In fact, some $1.5 trillion in net tax relief will be achieved primarily by reducing marginal tax rates for those at the top income scale. Americans can now look forward to years of “a cumulative and increasing reduction” in benefits, cautions Galbraith.

Even former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, appearing last week on the Ed Schultz radio show and hardly a wild-eyed leftist, decries Obama’s economic policy as “strict Herbert Hooverism.”

The Nostrum of “Shared Sacrifice”

Obviously, money just doesn’t talk in this country, it pressures and threatens and then it meets behind closed doors until it gets its way. It also elects “fresh, new” candidates with popular credibility who employ vacuous slogans to make the people think things are really going to change. Then, like magic, the “hope we can believe in” turns in a few short years into the dispiriting question of will Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid survive in any credible form?

Apparently, the president’s been open to the idea of cuts to these programs since his first days in office, as columnist David Brooks told NPR in early 2009 following a private meeting Obama held with conservative reporters. Understandably, that vision wasn’t exactly one he was eager to bring it up at that jubilant election night rally three years ago in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Instead what we hear a lot about these days is the idea of “shared sacrifice,” the particularly toxic notion of affluent liberals that everyone must give up something to speed economic recovery. Unfortunately, the poor and the vulnerable and millions of ordinary, hard-working people cannot afford further sacrifice.

Of course, the notion of “shared sacrifice” remains only a theory because amidst all the deal making no one has yet figured out in reality how the rich are actually going to sacrifice anything at all. It’s all reminiscent of Anatole France’s observation that democracy in America denies both rich and poor the right to sleep under the bridge at night.

Since taking office a growing refrain among liberals and progressives has been whether the president would eventually discover the courage to fight for the progressive vision that supposedly defines the “real” Obama. From liberal talk media hosts to the MoveOn milieu and beyond, Obama has been the recipient of a steady stream of unsolicited—and largely unheeded—advice on how to forge a progressive path to peace, jobs, and justice.

The other side of this notion is that Obama just needs the progressive base to “make him” take on the rich, waging the good fight for working-class America buoyed by the irresistible force of mass grassroots pressure for progressive change. But wasn’t this already the point of the 2008 election? Still, if the “make-him” argument were true, the White House could at least have dispatched an emissary to Madison, Wisconsin in February or March to stand shoulder to shoulder with the tens of thousands then in the streets for collective bargaining rights.

That did not happen, of course, and for reasons that are hardly a mystery. First, the Obama administration doesn’t actually disagree with Republican attacks on public sector wages and benefits. A year ago the president announced his own proposal for a two-year wage freeze on federal employees, a move designed to save $60 billion over ten years. At the same time, he struck a deal with right-wing Republicans to “temporarily” renege on a campaign promise to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, a move that would have saved $70 billion in just one year.

Democracy: Just Another Management Concept

The president has a reputation for being an articulate, eloquent communicator. Yet somehow he couldn’t find the words to expose Republican fakery in linking the issue of raising the debt, which has happened 90 times since 1940, with taxes and social programs. Somehow he couldn’t find the words to tell the American people, as University of Massachusetts economist Richard Wolff and others have been telling us, that simply taxing corporations and individuals earning over $1,000,000 a year at 1960s tax rates could in one fell swoop cut the deficit and related interest costs in half. Where as well is any edifying instruction on the impact of $1 trillion in military operations costs in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Tellingly, at the height of the mass protests in Madison, Obama offered only tepid remarks about how public sector workers are our friends and neighbors, people we respect and care about who have rights. What he was saying politically was that far-right ideologues like Wisconsin’s Governor Walker are political blunderers. A bipartisan austerity program is best implemented a step at a time, as any reasonable, sophisticated corporate liberal knows. No need to go too far, too fast. After all, why take away collective bargaining rights when union leaders are more or less willing to go along with concessions? Why risk arousing an otherwise dormant union movement into calling the ranks out.

Of course, if the President or his representative had come to Madison, the results might have been electrifying. But the last thing the political elite wants is a charged-up, politically mobilized public that thinks it can actually defend its living standards. As political scientist Sheldon Wolin describes in his book, “Democracy Incorporated” (Princeton University Press, 2008), democracy in the United States has basically become just another management concept. The public is “shepherded, not sovereign,” while the political and economic elites really run the show.

President Obama is clearly not in the business of rabble-rousing. Consequently, the “rabble” are getting fleeced, with no end in sight. But it’s becoming more difficult for Obama and the Democrats to blame everything on Republican obstructionism. Obviously, the “real” Obama is not some left-wing Clark Kent, the mild-mannered crusader waiting for his Superman costume (the one where the “S” stands for socialism) to come back from the dry cleaners.

Actually, Obama’s real courage has been found in his steadfast willingness to stand up to the “left,” such as it is, to more or less consistently disappoint the hopes of a progressive base that elected him because they saw in his candidacy hope for a different kind of politics. But the time for dwelling on the hopes of 2008, or for that matter, the maneuvers of the upcoming 2012 election, are past.

Incredibly, Wisconsin’s far-right governor managed to gut collective bargaining rights for public employees and in the end not one union went on strike. The huge mass demonstrations of February and March were instead channeled into the Democratic Party’s idea of “mass action,” a election recall campaign to replace anti-union legislators with more liberal Democrats . Those who care about collective bargaining rights would do well to remember how union rights were won in the first place. Needless to say, it wasn’t by electing liberals.

At this juncture mass revolt seems more in order. In Greece, Spain, Egypt and elsewhere the people have taken to the streets in defense of democracy and against austerity. To prevent society from sinking further into the mire, the American labor movement and its allies would be wise to wake up and do the same.

Mark T. Harris is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. He is a featured contributor to “The Flexible Writer,” fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). You can write to him at

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: