In the latter months of 2011, the Occupy Movement changed the political and economic narrative in this country, including in Congress and by the White House. An Obama administration that had foundered during the budget and fiscal showdowns was rejuvenated as it reconnected with the Democratic Party's economic roots. By refocusing on income inequality and jobs creation, the president and Congressional Democrats were able to seize the economic narrative, both by emphasizing that the Obama stimulus had saved the economy while creating over 3 million jobs, and by drawing a clear contrast with the Republicans when attempting to pass a new jobs creating stimulus which the Republicans in Congress killed. Sometimes losing a principled legislative fight creates the opportunity for political triumph and ultimate legislative victory. But such opportunities must not be missed or such victories will be lost.
By now it should be clear to everyone that President Obama is by nature a conciliator. Every president and every presidential candidate gives lip service to the idea of working across the aisle, but when President Obama speaks it, he means it. It's part of who he is. He wants to believe the best about people, because he has the quiet confidence to believe the best about himself. He does believe that this nation is best when the sum of its disparate parts adds up to a greater whole because his entire personal history has been proof that the sum of disparate parts can become a greater whole. But the people with whom President Obama wants to work, with the best intentions for the common good, do not themselves have good intentions, either toward him or the common good.
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In his passionate and sublime victory speech, after his resounding rout Tuesday night, the president said this:
And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit; reforming our tax code; fixing our immigration system; freeing ourselves from foreign oil.But Senate Minority Leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, could not manage to be gracious even for one reconcilliatory evening:
I extend my sincere congratulations to President Obama and Vice President Biden on their hard-fought victory, and I would like to thank Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for running a great campaign based on concrete solutions to the tremendous economic challenges we continue to face. The American people did two things: they gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives. The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the President’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.Of course, Republican obstructionism, such as killing the jobs bill, played a key role in preventing President Obama from fully fixing the nation's problems, and it was McConnell himself who in 2010 admitted that:
The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.Not to work with the president for the common good. Not to fix the nation's problems. McConnell's top priority was to destroy the Obama presidency. And despite having shut down the president's attempts to create more jobs and further grow the economy, McConnell failed. Because although the Obama stimulus wasn't large enough to fuel a full recovery, it did spark enough of a recovery to stop the economic implosion that the president inherited from his disastrous Republican predecessor, and to plant the seeds for a recovery that is slower than it would have been with a larger stimulus, but that does appear to have genuinely growing roots.
The Republicans, of course, never wanted a real stimulus in the first place, they killed Democratic attempts at enacting a further stimulus, and given McConnell's admission that his top priority was to end the Obama presidency, they never wanted to grow the economy anyway. They wanted people to suffer a lousy economy in the hope that the president would take the blame. But despite their best efforts at imposing their worst intentions, the economy defied them. The voters trust President Obama to make things better, and continue to blame his predecessor for things not already being better.
On election night, McConnell's Republican counterpart in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, at least made the effort to feign civility toward the president, while making clear that he has no intention of negotiating unless negotiation means the president agreeing to let Republicans have their way. Of course, this is the same Boehner who in 2011 walked away from negotiations, just when it appeared a good-faith breakthrough had been made. But there are no breakthroughs with these Republicans, because there is no good faith. In his speech Tuesday night, the president said:
I believe we can seize this future together -- because we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.And as genuinely inspiring as those words were, for Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and the Republicans, they just aren't true. The Republicans are more cynical than even the most cynical pundits, most of whom prefer to create false equivalencies than to tell the truth about just how cynical the Republicans truly are. The Republicans wallow in their individual ambitions. Even on a night when most of the country, from all political persuasions and from no political persuasions, would have liked to take a respite from antagonism and acrimony, the Republican leader of the Senate remained as petty and divisive as ever:
Now it’s time for the President to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely-divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office. To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him half way. That begins by proposing a way for both parties to work together in avoiding the ‘fiscal cliff’ without harming a weak and fragile economy, and when that is behind us work with us to reform the tax code and our broken entitlement system. Republicans are eager to hear the President’s proposals on these and many other pressing issues going forward and to do the work the people sent us here to do.In reality, McConnell never moved to the center, even as the president spent considerable time and political capital attempting to meet Republicans half way on a host of issues, only to be met every time with nothing but belligerence and obstruction and broken promises. So after an election in which the president won almost every swing state; in which Democrats overcame a tough electoral map that a year ago had everyone assuming they would be lucky to hold their Senate majority, and instead expanded it; in which Democrats closed the gap in the House, despite redistricting that minimized their opportunities, McConnell insists that it's the president's job to make proposals that will meet the approval of the Republicans, and Boehner makes clear that the Republicans will not compromise.
Despite an electoral drubbing, the Republicans have not changed. Despite an electoral drubbing, the Republicans still want to destroy the president rather than work with him to create a better future for all. Despite an electoral drubbing, the Republican Congressional leaders could not even for one night or one day attempt to be gracious and reflective and respectful of the will of the electorate who had just handed them that electoral drubbing. They are such small people that on election night they couldn't even bother to answer the phone when the conciliatory president attempted to call.
The low point of President Obama's reelection campaign was the first presidential debate, and in one little noticed moment the president again attempted to play to the center, when he spoke of his approach to deficit reduction.
And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for a dollar of additional revenue, paid for, as I indicated earlier, by asking those of us who have done very well in this country to contribute a little bit more to reduce the deficit.The president did not repeat that line in his successful and then dominant subsequent debate performances, but it must not remain his intention in the upcoming budget battles. For while it yet again reflects the president's desire for policy compromise, it is not good policy and it is not realistic politics. Besides the fundamental problem that the Republicans, on principle and for lack of principles, have no interest in compromising with him, the president's comment also would be a problem on the policy level. For one thing, it is a mistake to set some arbitrary ratio between budget cuts and revenue enhancements. Ratio should not drive policy, rather policy should drive ratio. The goal should be to find all that can be cut without damaging the economy and hurting people, regardless of how such cuts measure against new sources of revenue. Cuts should include corporate welfare such as oil industry subsidies, but to set an arbitrary ratio inevitably will lead to cuts in social programs that neither the people nor the economy can bear. And that is where the president and the Democrats must draw the line.
As they were in the wake of the Occupy wave, the Democrats must be the party of the people, the party of social and economic justice, and the party that recognizes that jobs and income security and a growing economy are the primary economic priorities, while addressing deficits and budget imbalances can be deferred until those primary priorities have been adequately resolved. And from a political standpoint, it wouldn't hurt for Democrats to seize the initiative and the narrative by continually emphasizing the demonstrable fact that they alone, and not the Republicans, have any credibility to talk about deficits, anyway. But the Republican approach of focusing on deficits and cutting spending while still in a struggling economic environment has been tried in Europe these past several years, with consistently disastrous results.
The president shouldn't even pretend to entertain considering the Republican approach. He should, instead, expose such an approach for the fraud it is, and continue to make the case that we need jobs and a growing economy, and that focusing on the deficit will not create jobs or grow the economy. He also should make the case that creating jobs and growing the economy will begin to reduce the deficit, all by itself, just as his health care law, which the Republicans opposed and have continually tried to repeal, will reduce the deficit, just as his stimulus-driven economic approach already has been reducing the deficit.
As the political historian Rick Perlstein wrote on Thursday:
In fact, the increase in the deficit was caused directly by the financial crisis and the housing bubble, and had nothing to do with the middle-class entitlement programs a grand bargain would cut. What’s more, the deficit is perfectly sustainable in any event. As for the record national debt, in fact the rest of the world’s eagerness to lend to America at next to no cost is in fact a glorious opportunity to increase American well-being, something not to be feared but welcomed. (America’s debt to GDP ratio is about 70 percent. Japan’s is over 225 percent — and that island, with the world’s third-largest economy, has not sunk into the sea. In fact, from 2001 to 2010 its economic growth has generally surpassed ours.)After a hard fought election in which two competing economic models were sharply debated, the man who won with a mandate margin has no reason to compromise. Even if the Republicans hadn't so consistently proved themselves petty and vindictive and intransigent and dishonest, there would be no reason for President Obama to compromise. The president won with a growth agenda, and Mitt Romney lost with an austerity agenda. On both politics and policy, the president holds all the cards. The traditional Democratic approach works, and the Republican and conservative agenda fails. When Democrats stand their ground, Republicans back down. The president already has threatened to veto a "fiscal cliff" bill that doesn't include tax hikes for the wealthy, and if McConnell and Boehner won't negotiate, they must be made to take the fall for any failure. As Joan McCarter recently explained:
America’s government is not too big. It is not “out of control.” Measured by the number of public sector employees compared to the overall population, in fact, it is at its smallest size since 1968. The Democratic compulsion to take the lead in making it smaller, to “control” it, is in itself a serious historic problem —and a perverse one at that. For it doesn’t work. Bill Clinton tried it in the 1990s, working with Republicans in Congress both to obliterate the deficit caused by Republican budgetary mismanagement, and “end welfare as we know it.”
What happened to the resulting budgetary surplus they created? Republican mismanagement and ideological extremism obliterated it, and the public acted like no miracle save for drastic cuts in middle-class entitlements could ever bring it back; media gatekeepers immediately forgot that Democrats had been “responsible” fiscal stewards, just like much of the populace simply forgot what Clinton did with welfare. After Hurricane Katrina, the story was that black residents of New Orleans had become so enervated by their reliance on welfare checks they were too dumb to get out of the rain. It was as if America’s newly stripped-bare welfare system’s time limits, work requirements and block grants had been thrown down a memory hole — even as, seven years later in our current unemployment crisis, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, welfare reform now greatly contributes to increased rates of poverty.
A simple historical fact: There is no political payoff for Democrats in presiding over governmental austerity.
Not taking action is a very real option: letting the Bush tax cuts expire, then coming back with just a middle-class tax cut, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has in hand. The Senate has already passed a bill that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for top earners, undercutting the House's ability to take middle-class tax cuts hostage to the tax cuts for the wealthy. It also gives Democrats more bargaining power to leave out other concessions, like cuts to entitlements.The Republicans are scared. Their political brinksmanship was specifically cited for last year's credit downgrade. They're desperate to get out of the debt ceiling deal they themselves forced. They have no path forward that doesn't include either political humiliation or an economic disaster for which they will compete for blame with a president and a Democratic Party that the voters just proved they already much prefer. If Republicans want to risk crashing the economy, and thereby expedite the now seemingly inevitable extinction of their sclerotic political party and increasingly archaic political ideology, the president must dare them. In the event of yet another deliberately concocted crisis, let's find out with whom the public stands. Let's find out who, by public opprobrium, is forced to blink. The mendacity of the entire crisis narrative was explicated last month by Paul Krugman:
In fact, for the first time in forever, there's no discussion at all about Democratic concessions on entitlements in this Washington Post article. At this juncture, Democrats have the upper hand in these negotiations, without making any concessions. They actually have had that upper hand all along. The easiest thing to do has always been to let the tax cuts expire, and then put Republicans in the position of having to block restoring them for the middle class in order to protect the wealthy. With the Senate having already passed the middle-class bill, that path is even clearer.
It would be the politically smart thing for Obama to not just let this veto threat hang out there, but to take entitlements off the table as well.
First, despite years of dire warnings from people like, well, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, we are not facing any kind of fiscal crisis. Indeed, U.S. borrowing costs are at historic lows, with investors actually willing to pay the government for the privilege of owning inflation-protected bonds. So reducing the budget deficit just isn’t the top priority for America at the moment; creating jobs is. For now, the administration’s political capital should be devoted to passing something like last year’s American Jobs Act and providing effective mortgage debt relief.And the political path is clear:
Second, contrary to Beltway conventional wisdom, America does not have an “entitlements problem.” Mainly, it has a health cost problem, private as well as public, which must be addressed (and which the Affordable Care Act at least starts to address). It’s true that there’s also, even aside from health care, a gap between the services we’re promising and the taxes we’re collecting — but to call that gap an “entitlements” issue is already to accept the very right-wing frame that voters appear to be in the process of rejecting.
This election is, as I said, shaping up as a referendum on our social insurance system, and it looks as if Mr. Obama will emerge with a clear mandate for preserving and extending that system. It would be a terrible mistake, both politically and for the nation’s future, for him to let himself be talked into snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.No compromise. No Grand Bargain. No cuts to Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. No enabling a Republican Party that is spiraling toward oblivion. Let the Bush tax cuts expire and force the Republicans to decide whether they want to oppose the Obama middle class tax cuts. The false Republican narratives of fiscal crisis and runaway entitlements must be called for the lies they are. The false Republican politicians and pundits must be revealed as the frauds they are. The Democrats need only speak the truth, seize the moment, and ride the electoral and demographic tide that has them ascendant and still rising. History is there for the making. History is there for the taking.