Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why the hell is Obama willing to give away so much just to get a debt ceiling deal done?

At his press conference yesterday, President Obama said that it is still possible "to construct a package that would be balanced, would share sacrifice, [and] would involve both parties taking on their sacred cows." He is confident that a deal will get done by August 2, the drop-dead date for raising the debt ceiling, but he wants a major deal, a grand bargain, not some temporary solution that isn't really a solution at all: "Pull off the band aid. Eat our peas."

Bullshit, Mr. President.

What he really means is that Democrats need to take on their "sacred cows," specifically Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while Republicans will essentially be allowed to get away with giving up almost nothing at all.

And it's insulting to refer to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and entitlement programs generally) as "sacred cows." These aren't partisan pet projects, these are core components of America's already weak safety net. They aren't "Democratic" programs, they're universal, non-partisan, and popular programs deeply entrenched in American life.

But Obama doesn't seem to care. Republicans won't have to eat their peas, nor will the wealthy or any other major Republican constituency. If any pea-eating is required, any sacrifice, it will be put squarely on the heads of those who actually need these programs.

Shared sacrifice? Please.

Oh, sure, Obama is pushing the Republicans on taxes:

At the presser, Obama laid down a firm line for the first time: There will be no deal unless the GOP gives ground on revenues. Previously, Obama had hammered the GOP for protecting low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the rich, but he had stopped just short of saying he couldn't back a deal which didn't bring in new revenues.

But this time, asked directly whether he would support a deal if the GOP didn't give ground on revenues, he said No.

"I do not see a path to a deal if they don't budge — period," Obama said. "If in fact Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are sincere, and I believe they are, in that they don't want to see the U.S. government default, then they're going to have to compromise."

Bullshit again, Mr. President.

Obama may demand a budge, but he'll accept a small one just to get a deal done, one that unfairly demands far more from his own side.

Are McConnell and Boehner sincere? No, they're just torn between two competing factions in the GOP, the corporate interests who fund the party and who want the debt ceiling raised (because they know the horrible consequences of not doing so) and the Teabaggers and others on the right who oppose any debt ceiling race, demand massive and hugely unpopular spending cuts, and will run primary challenges against any Republican who violates their extremist tenets.

Obama is offering them so much -- including raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and reforming (i.e., cutting) Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- but they still won't compromise. Indeed, what they're saying now is that just agreeing to raise the debt ceiling is enough, that that's their compromise. Which is ridiculous, of course.

And, of course, they're bluffing. They need to do a deal -- and need to raise the debt ceiling. Their corporate backers demand it. They're just holding firm to extract more and more out of Obama, and successfully it seems, as he's proven more than willing to give them more and more.

Why not just hold firm on his part? Why not call their bluff?

It may be that Obama is just some sort of centrist who wants to get some long-term deal done not just for the country but for his legacy. But he's also playing politics, as they all are, trying to win independents for 2012. If he can show that he's serious about getting a long-term deal done, and about dealing with the debt in a serious way, particularly in opposition to an obstructionist party that has no interest in agreeing to a fair deal, he may just cement his prospects for next year, in a good way, many in his own party, progressives objecting to giving away so much, be damned.

Actually, though, it's all about the politics. Here's what's happening:

-- Obama has positioned himself roughly in the center, given away a lot and now demanding that Republicans give up something significant in return. If they do, he'll get his deal and Republicans will face the wrath of the Tea Party, the party dividing in upon itself heading into 2012. If they don't, he can point to them as the obstacles to a deal, as partisans who refused to compromise even when he was offering them so much.* (And, if need be, he could go the constitutional route, however fraught with difficulty that would be.)

-- Meanwhile, Republicans realize that the only way to get through this without self-destructing is to avoid choosing between their corporate interests and the Tea Party. If they get a deal done, it will only be because Obama has given up even more, including on revenue (which Republicans want to be neutral in any deal). If they don't, they'll try to pin the blame on Obama for refusing to meet their supposedly reasonable demands, even if they were anything but reasonable.

I do see what Obama's doing here. It's what he's done all along, from issue to issue. He's agreeing to concessions in the name of compromise and then taking the high road while Republicans dither over whether to make any concessions of their own. If they do, Obama can present himself as the guy who got it done, as a non-partisan leader who brought both sides to the table and put country before partisanship or ideology. Voters, and especially independents, seem to like that. If they don't, he can present them as extremist and obstructionist. This is what happened on health-care reform and it's what's happening now on the debt ceiling.

In some sense, more power to Obama. If he can make the Republicans look bad, great. But at what cost? And couldn't he be doing this without giving up so much in the first place? He surely knows that Republicans are torn. He should have used that to his advantage instead of conceding point after point and alienating many in his own party, including many of his supporters. I get that he wants to get a deal done. He certainly doesn't want to be the president if and when the country defaults. Even if he could make the political case against the Republicans, just being in the Oval Office at a time of potential economic apocalypse could be enough to bring him down for good. And maybe he just doesn't want to risk playing a blame game after the fact. Just as he surely knows that Republicans are torn, surely Republicans know that his position isn't much better.

But still.

Obama has handled this whole issue badly and is now in a position of having to give up a lot just to get anything done. It didn't have to be this way. I call bullshit on much of what he's saying, but I really do hope he knows what he's doing.


* More to this point, see Krugman from last Thursday:

Now, this might just be theater: Mr. Obama may be pulling an anti-Corleone, making Republicans an offer they can't accept. The reports say that the Obama plan also involves significant new revenues, a notion that remains anathema to the Republican base. So the goal may be to paint the G.O.P. into a corner, making Republicans look like intransigent extremists — which they are.

But let's be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama's motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.'s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that's not a false impression; maybe it's the simple truth.

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  • Well done Michael. High stakes poker meets the Sicilian Defense ... cards and chess at once.

    As difficult a proposition as the 'Constitutional Option' may be, Obama needs to keep that Ace up his sleeve and let the radicals know that he will use it if necessary. This is his avenue to achieve 'revenue raisers' and mitigate entitlement losses.

    Keep up the fight!

    By Anonymous Chris, at 12:21 PM  

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