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Dear Mr. President: Stop Compromising, Start Leading

The American people reelected President Obama on the promise that he would continue to be a champion for the American people, a task that requires more action and less concession.

During the campaign season, President Obama claimed voters must choose between two visions for America. We could choose to move forward towards shared prosperity or rely on the same reckless policies that led to economic collapse. On November 6, the American people spoke in favor of shared prosperity. A majority of Americans cast ballots for the President and for Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Americans are also quite clear about the meaning of shared prosperity: we need to invest in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs that build the middle class, not cut them. According to an election night poll conducted by Peter D Hart Research Associates, 73% of Americans favor protecting Medicare and Social Security benefits over reducing the federal deficit. That means Democratic and Republican voters alike think we need to preserve the economic safety net. Only 18% said the opposite, that we should reduce the deficit even if it means cutting these programs.

So it is disturbing that President Obama is poised to roll back the New Deal and cut vital service programs all to lower our federal deficit. According to Ezra Klein, Obama is likely to both cave on the Bush Tax cuts on the rich – extending them at 37% when he could simply let them expire – and to raise the age of eligibility for Medicare. On top of this, the administration has announced it’s unwillingness to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling by appealing to the 14thAmendment, prematurely folding leverage that could have helped them resist the Republican call to slash the economic safety net. This suggests that the President is driving us towards both a bad short-term compromise and setting us up for a terrible deal after the new year, when he seems likely to accept major cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and potentially even Social Security and other vital domestic investments.

So, why is President Obama – after winning the election – preparing to compromise-away New Deal programs in exchange for a few small concessions from the plutocrats?

President Obama has justified his agenda by claiming that, “What the American people are looking for is cooperation.”[1] And so, he’s ready to “work together, find some common ground, make some tough compromises, [and] build some consensus to do the people’s business.”[2]

I think the President misunderstands his own mandate. He’s right that we want our elected officials to take action, but I doubt most Americans go to the polls to cast a ballot in favor of bipartisanship. We elect people to fight for justice in the halls of power.

President Obama’s confusion on this point runs deep. He lifted up “compromise” as his political ideal in The Audacity of Hope and it has been the cornerstone of his administration. But there is nothing intrinsically good about compromise, since any compromise is only as good as what can be obtained as a result. And there is no reason to think that compromising with unjust people will lead to anything but unjust policies.

For this reason, when so many elected officials represent the interests of a tiny fraction of Americans – and fail to represent the consensus already found among Democratic and Republican voters alike – there isn’t a compelling reason to compromise. Nothing morally laudable comes from compromising with political drones controlled by corporations and the ultra-rich.

The President is an intelligent man and must know all this. So, why does he continue to push for a compromise that has no public support and will be disastrous for working Americans like myself?

Simply put, it’s not clear that President Obama has ever been committed to the vision of shared prosperity favored by most Americans. If you haven’t followed the coded clues – about a “balanced” approach to the deficit that “reforms” the social safety net, so that we can “preserve” it for the next generation –you may not have noticed that the President is a true-believer in the idea that we need to cut our way out of this crisis. That’s why he’s met with the CEOs of some of the most powerful corporations three times in recent weeks. He seems to agree with the CEOs of “Fix the Debt” that we should balance the budget by decimating the programs that built the American middle class. Perhaps, that’s why the employees at their corporations gave the President $4.67 million to his reelection campaign, which isn’t so far behind the $7.25 million they gave to Mitt Romney.[3] These CEOs could see that President Obama’s vision for America is far closer to the austerity agenda put forward by Mitt Romney than many of people might think.

This isn’t the first time that an American president in the midst of a great depression has been deaf to the will of the people. Last time, we stood up and demanded action. We moved that president to pass legislation that nourished a healthy middle class for two decades. The American people must demand that President Obama protect what we have and refuse to let the plutocrats take us backward. Only then can we begin to talk about what we really need: a massive jobs program to move us forward.