Will Obama ever hold the Republicans accountable for their reckless and destructive actions? No matter how outrageous their demands, he keeps giving them legitimacy, first resisting, then compromising, then praising the result as bipartisanship. He's forgotten the basic lesson of negotiation – you don't hand everything over before you start, particularly to people who have utter contempt for your values and goals. He's also forgotten the importance of fighting for your principles, so people have a reason to support you.
Obama's almost pathological devotion to compromise started early in his presidency. Republicans and a handful of corporate-funded Democrats used the Senate filibuster to block action on issue after critical issue. Instead of calling them to account and marshalling public pressure against them, Obama responded as if their intransigence was reasonable, giving them instant political cover. He did this on health care, financial regulation and attempts to pass a sufficiently large economic stimulus. On climate change, he tried to prove his reasonableness by allowing offshore oil drilling (just before the BP oil disaster) while securing not a single vote in return. Republican Lindsay Graham was planning to offer precisely this enticement to convince borderline senators to support at least some price on carbon and said Obama effectively killed the bill by leaving him with nothing to offer people. Obama similarly refused to take a firm stand on ending the Bush tax cuts, which he could have simply let expire. He's now retreating on the debt ceiling battle, saying he might have to sign off on a deal that cuts spending, now a vague promise of reforming taxes later.
Each retreat has left him in more difficult circumstances for the next round. The deficit would be $70 billion a year smaller, had Obama not agreed to extend the Bush cuts last December, after the demoralized withdrawal of once engaged Democratic voters and volunteers allowed the Republicans to sweep to victory. Obama briefly condemned those who threatened to block routine unemployment extensions unless the top-bracket tax cuts were renewed, saying, accurately enough, that they were holding unemployed Americans “hostage.” Then he caved and renewed the cuts in return for extending unemployment benefits and giving some modest tax breaks to middle-class citizens. Had he stood firm, Republican talk of an urgent deficit crisis would have rung far more hollow.
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Obama next followed this by caving again, on a budget deal where he accepted $39 billion dollars in cuts to programs from community health centers to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and assistance to state and local law enforcement. In return, he got nothing, just a temporary waiver of the Republicans' stated intent to throttle the government by making it grind to a halt – an intent they're now exercising again. Obama could have spoken forcefully about the cost of these cuts and the greed of those who insisted on them to confer ever more tax breaks and subsidies on their wealthy backers. He could have highlighted the $144 billion a year that could be saved by ending loopholes that permit companies to ship their profits overseas, ending subsidies to the massively flush oil and gas industry and canceling orders for obsolete military equipment. He could have made clear that while the deficit's a long-term issue, our current priority had to be finding or creating jobs for the one in six Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work altogether, and investing to get the economy back on its feet. With poll respondents solidly opposing Republican policies, he could have at least made clear that our deficit is overwhelmingly attributable to Bush tax cuts, Bush's entrance into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a recession caused by exactly the kind of financial speculation that the Republicans have been fighting to prevent being regulated.
But Obama did none of this. Instead, he praised the deal, calling it a “worthwhile compromise” and an example of “beginning to live within our means.” He said little about the role of the tax cuts he'd just renewed in decimating the money available to meet urgent common needs, talked only fleetingly about areas of corporate welfare that could be cut and never really called the Republicans on the fundamental abuse of power inherent in converting routine budget extensions into occasions to hold the nation hostage. Instead of naming what they were doing and its destructive consequences, Obama once again made them look reasonable.
Now, his administration seems ready to do the same on the debt limit, repeatedly giving legitimacy to Republican demands for draconian cuts. Obama did briefly argue that deficit reduction should be spearheaded by ending Bush's tax cuts and by ending subsidies for unimaginably profitable oil companies. He talked briefly of protecting Social Security and Medicare from assaults like the massively unpopular Paul Ryan plan to essentially privatize them. But, more recently, he's been praising a dubious “Gang of Six” “compromise” that does nothing to address America's real and urgent ills of massive unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and looming environmental disaster, but instead offers more corporate tax breaks, the erosion of Social Security benefits and the elimination of a voluntary federal long-term care insurance program that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would bring in $78 billion in the coming ten years. Requiring not the slightest sacrifice from those who've benefited so massively from regressive policies, the deal would instead fall on the shoulders of everyone else, while making it far harder for Democrats to contrast their vision with the massively unpopular Ryan Social Security proposals.
Obama says he has no choice. But he ought to be making the Republicans pay a political cost for the threat of throwing the entire American economic system into debt-default chaos just to ensure that not even corporate jets get tax increases. At the least, he could join the House Progressive Caucus in pointing out that Ronald Reagan signed debt-limit increases 18 times during his presidency, or he could be pushing strong alternatives like a Progressive Caucus budget that closes the deficit in ten years through measures like increasing top-bracket tax rates, closing major tax loopholes and bringing our troops home in a responsible fashion from Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, Obama's giving legitimacy to demand after outrageous demand. The more Obama retreats, the more he emboldens the Tea Party and their corporate backers and the more he demoralizes his already demoralized base, leading to an approval rating among Democrats that's now the lowest since he took office.
It's not that Obama doesn't have some constructive visions. He continues to advocate for making the wealthy pay a reasonable share, for investing in infrastructure and new jobs and for dealing with massive environmental crises like global climate change. He's appointed good Supreme Court Justices and replaced the parade of former corporate lobbyists at key agencies with people who actually strive to serve the public good. The risks he took to save the American auto industry have paid off immensely in retaining jobs and industrial capacity. And if the health care bill stays intact, it's progress. But except in the most fleeting ways, he hasn't fought for his positions, and when the Republicans act outrageously, he excuses them, saying things like, “Neither party in this town is blameless.” I'm sorry, but when one party commits the sin of timidity while the other threatens to burn the house down, they just aren't equivalent. Obama's desire for bipartisan cooperation is eviscerating his presidency.
Obama's alternative doesn't have to be an equivalent inflexibility. Whenever opportunities emerge for constructive cross-party collaboration, of course Obama should take them, even if he doesn't get everything he wants. But these aren't the Republicans of Dwight Eisenhower, Everett Dirksen or even Gerald Ford. This isn't Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill creating a reasonably defensible solution to buttress Social Security finances. Instead, Obama keeps giving legitimacy and power to those who have contempt for the poor and unemployed; contempt for those struggling to get by; contempt for democracy; and in their denial of climate change, contempt both for scientific reality and for the risks of making large areas of the planet virtually uninhabitable.
I know Obama wants consensus and cooperation. It's bred in his bones, his soul, his history of looking on as the outside, then carving a path where his effort, intelligence and good will let him gain the respect of those who initially mistrusted or rejected him. That experience is an asset. But it has its limits when dealing with the kind of opposition that he's facing. In a situation like the one he's faced since taking office, he's needed to call his opponents on their policies actions and do it again and again until the American public has a sense of their radically destructive path. Granted, Obama's faced an immensely tough situation, including an almost unimaginable level of political lies and slanders. But if he doesn't learn how to make the Republicans pay for their intransigence, he risks bringing political disaster for everything in which he believes.
For those of us who vested our hopes in Obama, we're going to have to work harder and more effectively for change than we have since he took office. That means getting out from behind our computers and to public rallies like those challenging attacks on public workers. It means joining the campaigns of groups like US Uncut and National People's Action to demand profitable corporations that have avoided taxes pay their share. It means supporting efforts like the Wisconsin and Ohio initiatives to recall regressive legislators or overturn regressive legislation and grassroots canvasses like those run by Working America. It means joining efforts to build face-to-face engaged community like the 1,600 house meetings held this past weekend to help launch the Rebuild the Dream coalition.
At the Rebuild the Dream meeting that I attended, participants were energized and passionate, eager to find ways to act. But despite the massive coalition of groups that sponsored those meetings, from MoveOn and Democracy for America to the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, People For the American Way and the Communications Workers of America, only 25,000 people participated nationwide. That was a start and could be a good one. It was more people than joined the early nationwide organizing efforts of the Tea Party. But we need far more participation if we're going to give Obama the courage of his convictions, or to take the lead ourselves where he won't. We'd also do well to remember that, as Van Jones points out, “Obama's campaign slogan was always 'Yes We Can,' not 'Yes He Can,” and trusting that relying on any single individual to bring about change is always a trap, even if he'd been as courageous a president as we'd hoped. But most of us have now gone through two and a half years of lapsed involvement and now need to re-engage, reclaim our role in finding ways to participate – and keep on despite dashed hopes and disappointments.
We all need to compromise at some points. That's democracy. The bitter purism of those who stayed home in 2010 helped land us in our mess, and if we stay home in 2012 or let others stay home who our volunteer efforts could have otherwise turned out, we'll end up making matters still worse. But endless compromises in the service of regressive policies move us further from the critical changes that we need if we're to create an America of which we could truly be proud. We need to remind our fellow citizens of this and we need to remind Obama.