Populist for a Day

Did you catch Obama’s populist twitch? The moment when he tossed aside the stifling cloak of compromise, and like Joshua before the walls of Jericho issued the trumpet call to the disheartened Democratic base that henceforth it will be the battlements guarding the untaxed rich that would tumble under his assault, while the “entitlements” would be zealously guarded.

September 17: lead paragraph of the NYT’s story:

“President Obama on Monday will call for a new minimum tax rate for individuals making more than $1 million a year to ensure that they pay at least the same percentage of their earnings as middle-income taxpayers, according to administration officials…

Mr. Obama’s proposal is certain to draw opposition from Republicans, who have staunchly opposed raising taxes on the affluent because, they say, it would discourage investment.”

It only took 24 hours for President Blinker to re-shuffle the pack.

A day later, the New York Times lead, after Boehner has emphasized that meeting the deficit-reduction target should come largely from overhauling benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security:

“President Obama will unveil a plan on Monday that uses entitlement cuts, tax increases and war savings to reduce the federal deficit by more than $3 trillion over the next 10 years, administration officials said.”

Suddenly we have “entitlement cuts” leading the charge.

The following day’s NYT lead:

“Faced with falling poll numbers for his leadership and an anxious party base, Mr. Obama did not just propose but insisted that any long-term debt-reduction plan must not shave future Medicare benefits without also raising taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers and corporations.

“He uncharacteristically backed up that stand with a veto threat, setting up a politically charged choice for anti-tax Republicans — protect the most affluent or compromise to attack deficits. Confident in the answers most voters would make, Mr. Obama plans to hammer on that choice through 2012…

‘The president laid down a marker today that is true to his beliefs,” said Jacob J. Lew, director of Mr. Obama’s Office of Management and Budget.’”

In other words it’s now promoted by the White House that cuts in Medicare and Social Security are axiomatic, while Obama plans to make hay on the tax-the-rich campaign plank until the time comes to hunker down with Boehner and face the Republicans in all their righteous fury, just as he did with a winning hand on the debt ceiling fight at the start of August, and… blink. He always does, seemingly drawing perverse strength from polling data insistently disclosing that support for “entitlement” cuts commands a scrawny base of support of about 15 per cent among the voters Obama needs.

Meanwhile the liberals, doing their best to put a positive spin on the Jobs bill proposed by Obama in his speech to a joint session of Congress on September 8, are slow to appreciate – protectively reluctant to point out — the fact that his proposed tax break for the masses and the employers, lowering the 6.2 per cent tax on Social Security – welcomed rapturously by the Republicans — is a carefully planted depth charge. It lowers revenues into the Social Security fund, thus giving ammo to the saboteurs across the spectrum from Obama to Perry who say Social Security is in crisis.

Dean Baker described the bait-and-switch very well on this site last week:

“Under President Obama’s proposal, the Social Security trust fund would be credited with the same amount of revenue as if the tax cut were not in place, just as is happening in 2011.

While there is nothing in principle wrong with financing Social Security in part out of general revenue for two or three years in the middle of a severe economic downturn, the question is what will happen when the economy recovers enough that we no longer need this tax cut as stimulus. In principle the [Social Security] tax should simply revert to its normal level.

“As the Congressional Budget Office recently projected, this would be sufficient to keep the program fully funded through the year 2038 and more than 80 percent funded through the rest of the century. Those familiar with arithmetic know that the program as currently structured is essentially fine long into the future.

However, it is not clear that Congress will allow the tax to revert to its normal level of 6.2 percent on both the employer and employee. Democrats in Congress have already been railing against Republicans who appear reluctant to extend the payroll tax cut. They have complained that Republicans, who support tax cuts for billionaires, are willing to raise taxes on ordinary workers.

“Of course Republicans are much better at this anti-tax rhetoric. And they will be able to remember what the Democrats said this fall when it’s time to restore the tax to its normal level in 2012, 2013, or 2015. They will not be shy to attack the Democrats for wanting to raise taxes on Joe the Plumber and friends. Would anyone bet on the Democrats standing up to these attacks?

“Since its inception, Social Security has been financed from the designated payroll tax. This tax has been used to sustain the trust fund, which is in principle separate from the rest of the budget.This arrangement is not written in stone. However, without a clear commitment to support Social Security from general revenue, there is little reason to expect that Republicans, and even many Democrats who are openly hostile to Social Security, will suddenly turn around and agree to establish a whole new funding source for Social Security. More likely they will note the worsened financing of the program and insist on the urgent need for cuts in benefits.

“There is a very simple way around this potential problem. If we want to give a tax cut to workers equal to 3.1 percent of wages, as President Obama has proposed, along with a similar cut to some employers, we can just write that into the law without any reference to Social Security.”

Amid these shenanigans, Obama travelled to the UN General Assembly and blinked so hard on the Israel/Palestine issue that it surely required surgical intervention to get his eyes open again.

Was there ever a more preposterous spectacle than the U.S. president solemnly admonishing the Palestinians that “There is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades…Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.” To which of course every Palestinian crushed under the piled up wreckage of the “peace process,” and the “bilateral” diplomacy with Israel urged by the United States across the past twenty years – can tell Obama the numbers, as cited by Esam al-Amin on this weekend’s site:

“Almost 6500 Palestinian civilians have been killed since September 2000, including over 1500 children. Of that figure, two-thirds (over 4400) have been killed since the Roadmap in 2003. During the same period, over 45,000 Palestinians were injured, some maimed for life, 24,000 since 2003.

“There are over 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including over 250 females and children under the age of 16. Half of them were arrested after 2003, many with no charges and held under administrative detention. (Since 1967, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained and imprisoned – a staggering 20 per cent of the total population or about 1 out of every 2 men has been detained at one point in his life under the occupation.)”

Back in 1991, Israelis and Palestinians met for the first time in Madrid to negotiate a peace agreement. United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel’s withdrawal from the land it occupied during the 1967 War in exchange for peace, served as the basis for the Madrid Conference.

At the end of 1991, there were 132,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and 89,800 settlers in the West Bank. Two decades later, the numbers of settlers in East Jerusalem has increased by about 40 per cent, while the settlers in the West Bank, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, have increased by over 300 per cent. Currently, there are about half a million Jewish settlers.

During periods in which the Israeli Labor Party formed the governing coalition, the numbers have been just as high, if not higher, than periods during which Likud or Kadima have been in power. As Neve Gordon and Yinon Cohen wrote here: “This, in turn, underscores the fact that all Israeli governments have unilaterally populated the contested West Bank with more Jewish settlers while simultaneously carrying out negotiations based on land for peace.”

Twenty years of Israeli intransigeance, twenty years of the Israel lobby’s arm-lock on US Mideast policy, and here are Obama and his Secretary of State, Mrs Clinton, telling the Palestinians to chain themselves once more to “bilateral diplomacy,” the treadmill of doom to all Palestinian hopes.

Obama’s UN speech in the fall of 2010 laid out a somewhat different agenda: a Palestinian declaration of statehood, along the pre-1967 Mideast War borders with no more Israeli settlements. But if we make the dubious assumption that there is ever any window for sanity in the insane architecture of “peace process” politics in the US, this window gets nailed shot with the onset of every presidential electoral cycle, such as the 2012 Campaign now under way.

Obama and the Democratic National Committee are still shuddering from the loss of the Brooklyn district of the dick-twittering Rep. Wiener whose seat, held by the Democrats for 80 years until Wiener’s resignation, was captured by Bob Turner, a Republican campaigning in the heavily Jewish district on the theme that Obama was selling out Israel.

Earlier this week Republican Rick Perry, not noted hitherto for his interest in foreign affairs, disclosed a sound grasp of the essentials – at least so far as any Republican politician courting Jewish votes and money is concerned. The Texas governor announced at a New York press conference, newly elected Turner at his side, that “We would not be here today at the precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

Perry flayed the White House for supposedly arm-twisting Israel: “Bolstered by the Obama administration’s policies and apologists at the U.N., the Palestinians are exploiting the instability in the Middle East, hoping to achieve their objective without concessions and direct negotiations with Israel,” The Texas governor pledged there will be no shilly-shallying if he’s elected president.

”We are going to be there to support you. And we are going to be unwavering in that. So I hope you will tell the people of Israel: Help is on the way.”

The Palestinians can see perfectly well that the Jewish settlers, with the backing of every Israeli government and complaisance of every US government, are undermining any future two-state solution, so they have decided not to wait any longer and are asking the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. As a matter of political survival it’s Abbas’s last throw, to retrieve any credibility.

At the start of this year al-Jazeera published documents prepared by Abbas’s negotiators with Israel. Abbas was prepared to cede to Israel nearly all of the illegal colonies that the Zionist state has built east of the 1967 armistice line in and around occupied East Jerusalem. PA officials also agreed to deprive the vast majority of Palestinian refugees of the right — backed by the UN — to return to their homes in what is now Israel. They agreed in principle to accept the repatriation of 100,000 refugees over 10 years, and no more. Israeli contemptuously rejected these astounding concessions.

So Obama strides to the podium at the UN. Does he make even the most fleeting pretense of even-handedness? Does he even gesture at to the afflictions of the Palestinians? In Ramallah, in Gaza they strain to hear an echo of the Cairo speech, of last year’s prposals. But no, this speech was dictated by AIPAC, and Dennis Ross:

“Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.

“The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

“That is the truth — each side has legitimate aspirations — and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes. That’s what we should be encouraging. That’s what we should be promoting.”

Could he not, for longer than that furtive final mention of the “two-state solution,” actually stand in a Palestinian’s shoes? No.

If it ever comes to one, a UN resolution won’t give the Palestinians a viable state, nor solve the problems of refugees, nor the separation between the West Bank and Gaza, nor discrimination within Israel which is now emphasizing its legal identity as a Jewish state.

Maria Khoury, tireless promoter of the Taybeh Oktoberfest writes from Jerusalem on this weekend site:

“Going to East Jerusalem which has been predominately a Palestinian majority was the saddest day of my life. Small businesses that I use to deliver invitations too simply shut down and new Israeli Jewish owners have taken over their locations. I could not believe my eyes how fast in the last few years Palestinians have been squeezed out of Jerusalem.

“Actually, whether the United Nations recognizes Palestine as a country will not change much for us on the ground who suffer day-to-day under strict Israeli occupation. And the half million illegal Israel settlers who live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank already take up more than the 50% of this little 22% that the president of Palestine is making an appeal to be recognized for independence . While we are struggling to maintain our presence here, it’s not easy with the water being shut off twelve straight days in a row while you know the illegal Israeli settlements have water twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. It’s heartbreaking when parishioners of St. George Church could not get permits to celebrate the holy days for the Mother of God in Jerusalem in August but illegal Israeli settlers move around and use bypass roads to get into and out of Jerusalem as often as they wish.

“The injustice and prejudice here run so deep; I am a bit surprised that President Obama does not know about it. Please make a difference and know that Palestinian people seek a just peace and basic human dignity. Blind support with hard working American tax payers’ money to Israel should stop.”

Abbas’s critics make strong points. But surely, isn’t the bottom line that after 20 years, the Palestinians have nowhere to go but up, and already the UN bid has had an inspiriting effect. The Palestinian initiative with the UN underscores the US’s weakening status in the region, whose political geography has been changing before our eyes, as well described by Israel Shamir here on this site last week, and by Patrick Cockburn this weekend.

Turkish prime minister Erdogan has kicked out the Israeli ambassador for negotiating in bad faith over the lethal attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara; he has stopped military cooperation with and military purchases from Israel. He promised to come in person to Gaza on board of his navy’s protective fleet. As the Egyptian crowd tore down down the wall of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, they hailed Erdogan as “a new Saladin.”

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al Faisal wrote in the NY Times on September 11, of all days, that “the United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world… Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy: Saudi Arabia will part with the US if it vetoes the Palestinian bid.”

The prince was being polite. The U.S. has no credibility in the Arab world.-

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Mostly it’s been below the radar, amid recitations of Obama’s innumerable betrayals, but none have been so absolute, so diametrically in contradiction of the dreamy assertions of Obama’s Campaign 2008 than nuclear weapons policy. Continuing our series on the real Obama record, 2009 to today, Darwin Bond-Graham gives us an absolutely stunning essay. Here’s his opening bill of indictment:

“As with many aspects of the Obama presidency, expectations for drastic changes in nuclear weapons policy were high among liberals and the Left. Many wanted to believe that a program, however modest, of scaling back the military-industrial complex was commencing. Obama stoked these impressions on the campaign trail and earliest days of his presidency, proclaiming things like: ‘a world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America’s interest and the world’s interest. It is our responsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality.’

“Obama’s first term will go down in history, however, as containing one of the single largest spending increases on nuclear weapons ever. His administration has worked vigorously to commit the nation to a multi-hundred-billion-dollar reinvestment in nuclear weapons, mapped out over the next three plus decades.

“At the center of Obama’s ambitious nuclear agenda is the expansion of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex via a multibillion-dollar construction program. Also, at the center of Obama’s nuclear agenda is a commitment of tens of billions of dollars to designing and building the next generation of nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. Stockpiled nuclear warheads will receive billions more in refurbishment and new components. All of this is underway now. Completion dates for various pieces of this puzzle span the next half-century. Finally, Obama’s nuclear policies have been designed to leave the door open to new weapons at some future date.”

Bond-Graham dissects in compelling detail the counter-attack of the nuclear weapons’ complex after the menace of cut-backs following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when “the first president Bush actually oversaw a large disarmament program and defunding of nuclear weapons. Nukes truly receded in importance in U.S. foreign policy. An important measure of this was the declining budget for nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.”

Clinton and Bush II began the counter-attack, but as Bond-Graham compellingly describes it:

“Obama has achieved what Bush II could not. His reinvestments in nuclear weapons are not just a matter of dollar amounts. The significance of what Obama is achieving, when put in the context of the mismanagement and declining morale of the past two decades, is that Obama is literally saving the nuclear weapons complex, reinvigorating it with legitimacy, and outflanking any who would dare to elevate a debate over military vs. social investments.”

This piece is truly a keeper. Subscribe NOW to be sure of getting it, along with another powerful update from Richard Wilcox in Tokyo on the lies of Tepco and the ongoing crisis of Fukushima.


Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.