Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why I'm underwhelmed by Obama's supposedly re-energized progressive moment (2 of 2)

This a continuation from Part 1 posted yesterday.

California Contrast

Another big reason I'm skeptical of things like Obama's Wednesday speech is that in California, we're seeing a Democratic Governor in Jerry Brown who is willing to confront the Republicans head-on, not only over a budget problem largely created by Republicans policies and the Great Recession. But he's also confronting them on their effective scam over the last three decades, that you the individual voter can cut taxes without having it negatively effect any services important to you.

I've discussed Jerry's budget fight in a number of posts. I'm sure Jerry will make his share of mistakes as Governor. But he's clearly a Democratic Governor willing to fight for the Democratic programs on which he ran and got elected. And while he's negotiating seriously with Republicans, he hasn't been willing to make concession after concession to them while they are negotiating in bad faith. And he's also showing that he's willing to take the fight to them and make the Republicans own their wrecker-party irresponsibility. That's how a Democratic leader committed to the Democratic program acts. And the contrast to Obama's actions is a painful one.

I don't think it's coincidental that Jerry has turned down at least three invitations to White House meetings, something highly unusual for a Democratic Governor with a sitting Democratic President. I'm guessing that Jerry is at least in part signaling how unhappy he is that the Democratic President is leaving the states in the lurch, forcing huge service and spending cuts, while Obama postures as Herbert Hoover on the deficit nobody really cares about (except maybe corporate Democrats) and makes no effort to provide federal relief to states during this early and weak stage of the economic recovery.

The Libya War

Escalating the Afghanistan War was a bad idea. But it's one that Obama campaigned on. He had a mandate for it. And, wisely or not, Democratic candidates at least have tended for years to see Afghanistan as the good war in contrast to Bush's bad war in Iraq.

But Obama committed the United States to take the sides of a dubious group of rebels in Libya, in a situation where the United States has no urgent interest, in a country that was no immediate threat to the US, against a regime that the US had praised and rewarded for giving up its nuclear weapons program in 2003. And he did so with no Constitutional authority to do so - something that matters, even though Congress has effectively nullified that part of the Constitution by their laziness and lack of responsibility. This is a war as unnecessary as the Iraq War. And in pursuing regime change in Tripoli, the US and NATO are exceeding the international authority given them by the UN Security Council resolutions that made the intervention itself legal under international law.

I've also posted quite a bit here about the Libya War. It's part of the larger Obama foreign policy, which leaves very much to be desired in terms of sensible commitments and the rule of law. Glenn Greenwald gives a realistic and disturbing recounting of Obama's failings in this latter regard in his Salon blog, Manning, Obama and U.S. moral leadership 04/11/2011.

But the fact that Obama's latest ostensibly progressive moment came in the early stages of such a big foreign policy mistake also restrains any sense of optimism or enthusiasm about the politics of the budget on my part.

Faint Optimism

I do find a silver lining in this cloud, though. As polls this week have once again reminded us, Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular programs. While Medicaid is a little easier for conservative to label as a "welfare" program that benefits blacks and Latinos, all but the the most obtuse - and, of course, our Beltway Village Pod Pundits - recognize that Social Security and Medicare are vital programs. They are essential parts of what Americans think of as "middle class" life.

We keep seeing hints from Obama's White House, including those of the last week like Jacob Lew's anti-Social Security comment quoted above, that Obama wants to strike a Grand Bargain with the Republicans whose most significant component would be the phasing out of the Social Security program. It's likely that Obama's strategy is to try to get political advantage out of verbally defending Social Security and Medicare against Republicans, while using the Republicans' extreme position to validate a Grand Bargain on phasing out Social Security along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles recommendations as co-chairs of Obama's Catfood Commission.

But Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular and extremely necessary. It's possible, possible, that by tapping into that popularity to use against the Republicans, the Obama White House will find itself trapped by its politics into not being able to do the Grand Bargain to eliminate Social Security. I think Obama's perspective on policy is too conservative - yes, conservative - for him to be genuinely committed to those programs on policy grounds. But he may find it impossible to get the political advantage he wants by using those programs as issues without actually defending their substance.

But the politics there are also tricky. If self-described progressives and Social Security supporters are as willing to gush over Obama's deficit speech as three of the four speakers in the video in Part 1 of this post were, I worry about it. Because Republicans will be glad to support Obama in hacking up Medicare and Social Security, and then running against him based on his support for those cuts. They actually did this in 2010 on a wide scale, accusing Obama of cutting Medicare (the fig leaf of reality being the Medicare savings projected from the health care reform).

Making the politics work for Social Security the way I just speculated will require Social Security supporters to make loud and embarrassing criticisms against Obama when he wavers on these issues, and I do mean when, not if. Our self-crippled press corps aren't going to do it on their own. And if the White House thinks they can benefit politically by cutting Medicare and Social Security while being "at least not as bad as the Republicans" on those issues, they will do it.

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