Tuesday, December 21, 2010

DADT and Social Security: one step forward, a long sprint backward

The brightest political moment since the November elections has been the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). It's a real achievement and both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid deserve credit for getting it through.

It still has to be implemented by the Pentagon, and we'll soon see how that goes.

It's also very sobering that something like this, which is supported by as much as 77% of the public, still managed to barely squeak through Congress. The Senate Democrats were fools not to dump the filibuster rule at the opening of Congress in 2009. We might be in a much more hopeful place as a country right now just from that one change. There's no excuse at all for them not doing it next month at the opening of the new Congress.

Then there's the fight to save Social Security. Or maybe I should say, "Happy New Year, Democrats! The Democratic President wants to get rid of Social Security!"

It's a reminder that social progress and regression aren't linear. Both can happen at the same time. And the direction things are going with Social Security is just awful, as the following three articles illustrate.

Cliff Schecter, critical-minded biographer of John McCain, President Obama: The Same As He Ever Was C&L 12/21/2010:

So you could say it’s been a somewhat bad month for the president - although that might be akin to saying the guys attending South Carolina's "Secession Ball" will only be missing some of their teeth. The president has not only caved on eliminating budget-busting tax cuts for people who have toilet plungers more expensive than your house, but has backed off long-delayed (but promised) environmental regulations to govern smog and toxic emissions from industrial boilers.

He also negotiated a new Korea Free Trade Agreement that isn’t free from deleterious affects on American workers, enacted a freeze in pay for federal employees for reasons nobody can figure out, and was ready to listen to recommendations to cut Social Security from a committee of rich, irrelevant Beltway primates so old they look like they should be starring in Weekend at Bernie’s 3. ...

That Obama doesn’t have much of a stomach for a rumble as president, this much many liberal commentators can agree upon. Yet, perhaps for political reasons, or maybe due to the glorious rose shade the passage of time can deliver to one’s glasses, many have looked admiringly back to a moment that never existed to call on Obama to be someone he never really was.

A Fighter.
I'm beginning to think that hoping Obama becomes that kind of fighter is a lot like expecting good ole Haley Barbour to become a civil rights crusader.

Cliff raises a kind of chicken-and-egg question about the 2008 Obama campaign. What if he won in spite of his reluctance to engage in direct partisan combat with Mean Mister Mustard McCain? I say it's a chicken-and-egg comparison because both the public rejection of the Cheney-Bush record and the at-least-acceptable nature of Obama's proposals both were part of his electoral victory. Being a good-enough fighter in a political campaign is a different thing than being an effective President in fighting for Democratic programs in Congress.

But with a Republican House coming in January that will be downloading the crazy nonstop, if he's capable of effectively dealing with that kind of fight, we'll know very soon. As Cliff says, "now is as good a time as any to be realistic about what the president is made of."

Dean Baker's Saving Social Security: Stopping Obama's Next Bad Deal Huffington Post 12/20/2010, I consider to be an example of the politics of despair, which I don't mean as a pejorative. It's politics practiced in a desperate situation. His strategy for preserving Social Security is for Obama to fight for it, fight for it to the point of being willing to play chicken with the Republicans over letting the federal government default on its debt. He says this in the context of the assumption that the Republicans will hold Social Security hostage to the raising of the federal debt ceiling in the spring:

In order to avoid this train wreck [Social Security Phaseout], supporters of Social Security and Medicare have to restructure the options. They have to push President Obama to announce in advance that he will never sign a debt ceiling bill that includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare, the countries two most important social programs. ...

A debt default would be a very bad situation and one that we absolutely should try to avoid. But the day after the default, the country would still have the same capital stock and infrastructure, the same skilled labor force and the same technical knowledge as it did the day before the default. In other words, the ability of our economy to produce more than $15 trillion in goods and services each year will not have been affected.

One thing that would not be around the day after a default is Wall Street. The default would wipe out the value the assets of the Wall Street banks, sending Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest into bankruptcy. The recovery for the economy from such a situation will be difficult, but the shareholders of the Wall Street banks would be wiped out and their top executives unemployed.

For this reason, the threat of a default is a gun pointed most directly at Wall Street. Given the power of Wall Street over Congress, [it] is inconceivable that they would ever let the Republicans pull the trigger.

This means that if President Obama is prepared to take the right and popular position of supporting Social Security and Medicare, he will win. This is both good policy and great politics. The public just has to force President Obama to stand up and show some leadership.
Given what we've seen from Obama recently, this may just be Baker's way of saying that Social Security is doomed.

Richard Eskow of the Campaign for America's Future indulges in a bit of Broderism, conjuring two cartoon extremes of Democratic views of Obama and then positioning his own thoughts as a moderate position between them in Obama's Enablers, Obama's Adversaries, and the Fight to Save the New Deal Huffington Post 12/20/2010. But he's right about this part:

Whatever his motives, reports suggest the President's about to make a terrible mistake by announcing cuts to Social Security in his next State of the Union address. If he does he'll be remembered as the "anti-FDR," the President who destroyed the Democratic legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, began the dismantling of the New Deal, and led his party to overwhelming defeat. As for his Presidential legacy - well, you can bet he'll be remembered. Generations of older Americans will mutter his name under their breath every time their Social Security check arrives.

What are his motives? I don't know, and at the moment I don't really care. He's shown that he'll respond to public pressure, and he urgently needs to feel some of that pressure right about now.
He also has a good analysis of the argument that Obama is still popular despite recent events. For example:

... Ezra Klein looks at the post-election polls and concludes that "Obama's brand remains surprisingly strong." Ezra writes: "(Obama) is doing a far better job than his predecessors did preserving his brand within an unfriendly political environment." In other words, these are good numbers - for a guy with less than 50% approval ratings who just led his party to an electoral massacre. Well, yeah, I guess, if that's how you define victory. ...

The believers and enablers are undoubtedly well-intentioned, but they do the President a disservice when they echo the bad advice he's getting from his inner circle. Sure, his approval numbers are holding more or less steady - but no President's ever been re-elected at such a low level. And yes, most Democrats still "approve" of him. But their level of enthusiasm has plummeted. Turnout for young voters dropped from 51% to 20% in this year's election - below 2006 numbers! If he can't turn out his base he'll get clobbered in 2012 - or wish he had.

Can he turn things around in two years? Of course. Can he do it by enacting such widely unpopular policies [as Social Security Phaseout]? Doubtful.
If Obama, as expected, endorses Social Security Phaseout (by another name, of course) in his January State of the Union address, I expect that to be more of a turning point in American politics than the 2010 election. It will redefine the Democratic Party, and not at all in a good way. Though our star pundits will gush with praise for a Democratic President opposing "entitlements". And that will be yet more evidence of how out-of-touch with the public that our media elites actually are. See the polling figures Eskow cites in The New Silent Majority Campaign for America's Future 12/09/2010. He also cites Matt Bai in that article saying, "Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat."

Happy holidays to Democrats everywhere!

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