Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Senate poised to extend unemployment benefits, ending Republican obstructionism

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are poised to break a partisan stalemate on Tuesday over extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who have been jobless for six months or more, but the fight seems certain to continue playing out as a defining issue in the midterm elections.

One day before a crucial procedural vote to provide added unemployment assistance through November, President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden on Monday with three out-of-work Americans to hammer Republicans for blocking the extension until now by insisting, over Democratic objections, that the $34 billion costs of the benefits not be added to the deficit.

"The same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans," Mr. Obama said.

Democrats have been one vote short of pushing the measure through the Senate. But on Tuesday, a new Democratic senator from West Virginia will be sworn in to succeed Robert C. Byrd, who died last month, putting Democrats in position to overcome the Republican blocking tactic and bring the bill to a final vote.

As a political matter, the issue has appeal to both parties, especially in an election year in which each party needs first to motivate its own base.

For Republicans, it provides a concrete vehicle for pushing the argument that the government’s response to the recession has been wasteful and ineffective, that the growing national debt requires deep spending cuts and that Mr. Obama is guilty of ideological overreach.

For Democrats, it is an opportunity to accuse Republicans of being obstructionist and out of touch with the pain caused by an economic downturn that began on the Republicans' watch.

Mr. Obama's tough attack on Monday signaled the White House's confidence that it has the upper hand, legislatively and politically. Recent public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor giving the long-term unemployed more financial help even if it adds to the deficit. 

This is what we need more of from Obama. In this case, he has not just the legislative and political upper hand but the moral one as well, and he, far more than Congressional Democrats, is in a position to drive the media narrative that to a great extent will determine the outcome of November's midterm elections.

And this isn't just an opportunity to "accuse" Republicans of being "obstructionist" and "out of touch" -- a way of putting it that suggests it's all just a political game -- it's an opportunity to draw a stark distinction between two very different approaches to dealing with the current economic situation and two very different visions of how America ought to be. Republicans, after all, are not just obstructionist and out of touch, they're also cruel and vindictive, the advocates of a right-wing ideology that dismisses the needs of ordinary Americans (even as it panders to some of their prejudices) while lining the coffers of corporate America and giving the wealthy every opportunity to enhance their power and privilege in a democracy that is more oligarchy than anything else.

Meanwhile, while we may criticize them for not going far enough, Democrats have passed health-care reform and financial regulatory reform and rescued the economy from the brink of collapse by backing a significant, if not large enough, stimulus package -- and, as of today, extended unemployment benefits at a time when the economy needs the extra push and the recipients themselves need to pay their bills and put food on the table while facing a job market that continues to be weak and that shows no sign of full recovery anytime soon.

President Obama deservedly faces sharp criticism from the left on a variety of issues, but in a system that is basically either/or, Democrat or Republican, the choice, it seems to me, is crystal clear.

And Obama needs to be at the forefront of presenting that choice to the American people.

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