Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Pragmatic Centrist

Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached in conjunction with the administration.  But their collective vitriol was directed not at the Tea Party – or even the Republicans –  but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a president because of his persistent tendency to compromise.  Actually, this has been a recurring theme ever since Obama took office.

As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is an illogical liberal fantasy that if only the president would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his prose.  In this view, writes Chait, “Every known impediment to the legislative process – special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion – are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”  In this way, many of my liberal friends are just as irrational, petty and thoughtless as their conservative counterparts.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment regarding Obama.  Liberals now view the president as a parent might view a rogue child: I can hear my mother now, “At what point did that boy go so wrong?  And to think…such promise…”  The disdain for Obama amongst some liberal circles is almost palpable.  “I have no idea what Barack Obama … believes on virtually any issue,” Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama’s tendency to take “balanced” positions. Westen hints that his professional experience – he is a psychologist – suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease.  I have a suggestion for Mr. Westen:  grow up already!

Let me offer a simpler explanation: Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.  Yes, it is important to stand on principle; but it is more important to ultimately reach a deal that moves the country forward.  That is what leadership is all about.  President Obama doesn’t have the luxury to stand in the corner and whine about not getting his way as the Tea Party has so conveniently perfected.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps, and in my opinion, it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by only one vote.  He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks.  He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.  And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things.  But it’s far more likely he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars in the hopes that will jump-start the economy.  Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.

He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that we need both tax increases and spending cuts – cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

In today’s New York Times, Jackie Calmes wrote an extremely revealing piece detailing the quickly increasing number of Republican economists who have to come to largely disagree with the current Republican leadership’s economic policy.  Calmes cites two in particular, Martin Feldstein, an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and Henry M. Paulson Jr., Treasury secretary to President George W. Bush, who have publicly expressed their position that the most prudent and effective debt deal would have coupled deep spending cuts with revenue increases.

Several conservative economists have gone so far as to suggest that – at least in the short term – the flailing economy is in need of additional stimulus.  They contend that removing so much energy (spending) from the economy while it remains in such a fragile state will inevitably make the recovery a more painful and prolonged process.  I tend to subscribe to this view.  If I had my way, I would pass a targeted stimulus package that focuses on infrastructure and clean energy spending which would undoubtedly create copious and much needed jobs.  But with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, I recognize that any new stimulus spending is a political non-starter.

In their Iowa Debate last Thursday evening, the eight contenders for the Republican nomination were careful not to offend the Tea Party and its “no new revenues” pledge under any circumstances.  When asked who would reject a long-term debt reduction package that had $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, all eight raised their obedient hands.  While I recognize and appreciate that the Republicans currently competing for the nomination are largely required to act silly so as to impress the rather unimpressive group of Republican primary voters, they certainly aren’t helping to shape the debate from a policy perspective.  Enlightening, they are not.  

In the end, then, was the “compromise” that produced a debt deal a good one?  No, not really.  I wasn’t particularly pleased that revenues weren’t part of a more balanced package.  I don’t believe the president was satisfied either.  But I also believe that Obama was left with literally no other viable options.  President Obama could have held tight to principle and refused to sign the deal while simultaneously watching the country default on its debt for the first time in history on his watch.  Instead, he signed the bill comforted by the knowledge that he does, indeed, live to fight another day.  It was the pragmatic route to take.  You can even call it centrist if you like.  For now, I’ll just call it the right thing to do.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics, Republican Party | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Obama’s Comeback?

On June 30th I wrote that President Obama desperately needed to rediscover his voice, jump-start his fighting spirit and reframe the budget debate in an effort to secure an economically sound, sustainable and just budget deal.  My column that day was in reaction to President Obama’s strategically flawed attempt to scold congressional Republicans into a compromise surrounding the debt crisis much like an exasperated parent attempts to scold a stubborn child into compliance.  My argument was that the president had inexplicably allowed Speaker Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican presidential candidates to control the debate by making erroneous claims and revising history but doing so with effective unanimity and incessant repetition.  The president needed to use his position – and the bully pulpit – to clearly and coherently define the scope of the crisis, the corresponding choices to solve it and the ramifications of those choices.  

In the days following June 30th I must give the president his due credit for displaying sound leadership as it relates to the debt issue and, as a result, reclaiming the debate from the Republicans.  In this time, the president has called both congressional Republicans and Democrats to the White House almost daily it seems for intense budget negotiations – including a rare Sunday meeting last weekend.  Furthermore, the president has positioned himself as the adult in the room by challenging not just Republicans but his own party to find areas of compromise.  By prodding the Democrats to accept massive spending cuts (potentially including Social Security) the president will certainly expend his already dwindling political capital within his own party.  Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in Monday’s news conference saying, “I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done.  And I expect that the other side should be willing to do the same thing.”  Though, as we all know by now, they are not.  

I have come to believe that the Republicans aren’t genuinely committed to reducing the deficit.  It is clear that they are much more interested in the purely ideological and political goals of cutting taxes and shrinking the government.  The Republicans claim that the huge deficit is primarily responsible for the stagnant economy and inability to create jobs.  Like a broken record, they repeat the refrain that we are unethically and tragically saddling future generations – our children and grandchildren – with crippling debt.  But their actions do not match the rhetoric.  

Given their dire proclamations, one would assume that Republicans would be willing to at least consider raising revenues by closing tax loopholes for oil companies and simply returning the wealthiest Americans to Clinton-era tax rates (when the economy was flourishing).  You know, for our children and grandchildren after all.  If Republicans truly believe their own rhetoric with respect to the deficit, why would they not be more willing to compromise in order to strike a deal?  You know, a deal to save our children and grandchildren.  The short answer is the House Republicans have sold their collective souls to the Tea Party who is demanding that Republican leaders stand firm against the president and accept no tax increases as part of any deal.  And given these dynamics, reducing the deficit is not nearly as critical to their re-election hopes as preserving tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate jet owners and absurdly profitable oil companies.

By way of further example, President Obama made a recent offer to the Republicans by which the Democrats would concede $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue raised.  Obviously, that sounds like a pretty decisive win for the Republicans and much of the Democratic base viewed the offer in just that light.  Defying logic, however, the Republicans rejected the plan because it includes tax increases in any form.  Furthermore, with high unemployment and a struggling economy, Mr. Obama pacified the Republicans once again by proposing that any tax increases on the wealthy should not be implemented until 2013.  But these reasonable attempts at compromise by the president have only been met by consistent Republican intransigence and arrogance.

I have a theory as to why Republicans aren’t genuinely interested in deficit reduction.  The Republicans view themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets (although the evidence has rarely supported this claim).  Moreover, the Republicans have done a masterful job of portraying themselves to the American public as the party of fiscal restraint even considering the copious evidence to the contrary.  Given this, it is my contention that Republicans do not want to enable a Democratic president to drastically reduce the deficit, thus, relinquishing some ground on the issue.  The Republicans are elevating party politics well ahead of reducing the deficit which they claim to be of such vital importance.

The proof to this theory lies in the fact that President Obama has made clear that he strongly prefers the biggest deal possible in terms of debt reduction.  The president has consistently said that he does not want to simply kick the proverbial can down the road only to revisit the issue in the near term.  As such, the president was in substantive negotiations with Speaker Boehner in which the deficit would be reduced by $4 trillion over a 10 year period.  Indeed, this would be a serious, genuine effort at deficit reduction.  

Again, given their public declarations of doom for generations to come, one would think that Republicans would be elated to make such a significant dent in the deficit, particularly since it rested largely on spending cuts and not revenue increases.  But, predictably, Speaker Boehner declared that pursuing a comprehensive deal was untenable to House Republicans because it would include tax increases at all.  On grand display once again, in my view, the Republicans are not as serious as their rhetoric implies concerning deficit reduction.  They are serious, however, when it comes to placating the extreme right-wing of their party (maybe the only wing at this point) at the expense of doing what’s right for the country.  So, in essence, the entire country is being held hostage by a rather small, but politically significant, fringe element of the population.  That is who the Republican Party now represents.      

Republicans always contend that we shouldn’t engage in negotiations with terrorists because their ideology overshadows any modicum of reason rendering negotiations pointless.  I tend to agree.  And while I’m obviously not comparing the budget debate with negotiating with terrorists, the principle remains the same; namely, when ideology trumps rationality at all costs, negotiations will prove fruitless.  But that certainly doesn’t mean that the answer is to cave to the insanity.  On the contrary, the answer is to make your case loudly and forcefully to the American people and appeal to their good reason; and by doing so, you will begin to deteriorate the support for the irrational, intractable Republicans.  And as the Republicans lose political support – you can rest assured – they will become better partners at the negotiating table for fear that after the next election they won’t be at the table at all.

I believe we are witnessing the beginning of President Obama’s political comeback.  In the past week, the president has been tenacious yet compromising.  He has been candid and direct in his approach while offering solutions, not just rhetoric.  He has proven himself to be a pragmatic centrist as opposed to an ideologue which I believe is absolutely essential to solving big problems.  Most importantly, however, he has shown impeccable leadership – the kind we have expected of him all along.  Everybody loves a good comeback.  Hold your ground, Mr. President, and you’ll be well on the way to yours.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics | , , , | 1 Comment

Has Obama Lost His Voice?

My first memory of Barack Obama was watching him deliver the now famous speech on the floor of the 2004 Democratic National Convention nominating John Kerry.  At that point, Obama was a candidate for the United States Senate and had yet to splash onto the national scene.  But on that night, splash he did.  I recall being mesmerized by this newcomer as he eloquently proclaimed: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America!” 

During the 2008 presidential campaign I was once again impressed by the rhetorical genius of then candidate Obama as he framed each debate with the precision of a surgeon.  He was artful and careful with the placement of each word – indeed each syllable – so as to make the most persuasive argument.  At a time when the Democratic Party needed its next great communicator to articulate the party platform to the public, Barack Obama was undoubtedly that candidate.  He was our voice.

That is why I have been unpleasantly surprised by President Obama’s inability to articulate certain policies and positions in a way that would curry better favor from both Congress and the public at large.  I was profoundly disappointed with the president’s effort to sell and fight for the healthcare reform bill – the primary policy objective of his early presidency.  If you are reluctant to fight tooth and nail for your signature piece of legislation, for what will you fight?

I recognize that the healthcare reform bill did ultimately pass – albeit barely – but it did so largely due to the Democrats having large majorities in both chambers of Congress as opposed to exceptional presidential leadership.  Even with the benefit of the bully pulpit, the president allowed the Republicans to frame the debate and gain traction with ridiculous claims of death panels, the end of Medicare and, of course, the onset of socialism.

 This all leads to the president’s press conference today where he attempted to scold the Congressional Republicans into action on the debt and budget crisis.  I use the term “scold” loosely as President Obama will never be confused with President Truman on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 calling Congress back into session and in the process earning the moniker, “Give ’em hell, Harry.”  I think it’s safe to say we won’t be shouting “Give ’em hell, Barry” anytime soon!

I very much admire President Obama’s ability to make precise, analytical arguments based on sound reason and factual evidence, but I would contend that this isn’t always the best approach in dealing with Congressional Republicans or persuading the public.  And even though I think the president’s even-keeled, calm, cool and collected approach to decision-making often serves him well, there are times when the bully pulpit should be utilized to full effect.  Today was one of those times.

It is unfathomable to me that Mitch McConnell – the Senate Republican Leader – can stand on the Senate floor and with a straight face claim that during the last two years the Obama Administration has led the country into financial ruin.  And, as a result, Mr. McConnell arrogantly asserts, Congressional Republicans will not consider raising revenues by ending tax cuts for oil companies, hedge fund managers and the super wealthy.  Does Mr. McConnell suffer from amnesia or simply selective memory?  Does he not remember the previous eight years prior to President Obama taking office?

As I recall, it went something like this.  Former President Bush inherited a substantial budget surplus left by former President Clinton.  Mr. Bush took us into one war of necessity in Afghanistan, and subsequently took us into another war of choice based on exaggerated evidence (to be polite).  Disregarding our involvement in enormously costly military engagements, Mr. Bush still insisted that Congress cut taxes across the board to the lowest levels since the 1950s where they still remain today.  These historically low tax rates produced a decade in which we endured the worst economic growth in 50 years.   As a result of all this misadventure and misguided priorities, President Obama inherited a gigantic budget deficit and lousy economy.  While it’s true that the Obama Administration has certainly added to the deficit in an effort to stimulate the sagging economy, the disastrous Bush-era policies are primarily responsible for our deplorable fiscal situation.

Setting aside the blame which is, without doubt, shared by both parties, the fact remains that the budget crisis is indeed dire and deficit reduction measures need to be enacted sooner rather than later.  Of course, a reduction in government expenditures is a part of the equation; and to that end, the Democrats have agreed to massive spending cuts to many of the social programs that their Democratic base care about so deeply.  For their part, the Republicans have consistently made clear that increasing revenues through tax increases on the top tax brackets is not a topic for discussion or negotiation even though most reputable economists agree that spending cuts coupled with revenue increases is the only way out of the current fiscal mess.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are master technicians at framing the debate, spinning the argument and winning the messaging war.  They are proving to be just as successful in this regard concerning the budget crisis as they were during the healthcare debate.  President Obama should not allow the Republicans to get away with being largely responsible for our massive financial troubles, on the one hand, and then proclaiming that they have no intentions to compromise or make sacrifices to find a legitimate and sustainable solution, on the other. 

Every president has access to the bully pulpit; it is one of the major perks that accompany the office.  The successful ones – including Reagan and Clinton as recent examples – use it skillfully, almost ruthlessly, to their benefit.  It is time for this president to rediscover what got him elected – his ability to communicate.  Reframe the debate, Mr. President, and hold Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell accountable for their recalcitrance and lack of leadership.  In short, find your voice.

June 30, 2011 Posted by | Boehner, Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics | , , , , | Leave a comment