Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Progressives give President Obama a (muffled) cheer on taxing billionaires

Progressives who have been fairly critical of President Obama were willing to give a cautious cheer for his deficit-reduction speech on Monday for its confrontational rhetoric and his thematizing of tax increases for the wealthy.

Even the "firebaggers" at Firedoglake have found some nice things to say, like Blue Texan in All the Right People Hate Obama’s Deficit Plan 09/20/2011. Like, "Maybe he's finally learning."

David Dayen in Democrats Lining Up in Support of More Populist Obama Stances FDL News 09/19/2011 explains that the White House is selling this latest ploy to Democrats as a way to establish clear distinctions for the 2012 campaign. He notes that Democratic support was not as enthusiastic and high-profile as the White House had hoped on his jobs plan. While he sees more positive signs of support on the taxing-the-wealthy issue, even there he sees prominent Democrats hedging their bets: "Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison managed to stay roughly in support as well, while also keeping their eyes on the important details of the needs for Medicare and Medicaid."

Sam Stein in Obama Debt Reduction Plan Calms Democrats' Concerns On And Off Hill Huffington Post 09/19/2011 also reports that the deficit reduction proposals have, "at least momentarily, managed to placate a community of progressive activists, Democratic operatives and congressional offices who have grown increasingly despondent over the course of his presidency."

But that title and lede paragraph don't convey the caution in some of the assessments he quotes. Here's Howard Dean, a progressive favorite:

"I was very pleased with the president's veto statement. I am a supporter of this," said Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and DNC chairman. "Are there a few things that maybe should have been done differently? Maybe so. But overall, this is a very good place to start and now we just have to make damn sure we don't make any of the kind of irresponsible concessions that Republicans are going to ask for." [my emphasis]
Now that Obama has worked hard to be seen as President Pushover, Democrats are understandably leery of enthusiastically backing a White House initiative for fear that Obama will start compromising it away the next day. Stein finds even the flaboyant Cajun James Carville hedging his bets:

"From everything I see, this seems to be pretty good stuff," said James Carville, the longtime Democratic consultant who just days ago urged the president to panic and start firing staffers. "Realistically, how much you will end up with, I don't know. But if you start there, you will end up somewhere better."

Carville said he believed the type of proposals that made it into the plan would help bolster Obama's reelection prospects.

"The most popular thing you can do to cut the deficit is to raise taxes on people making over a million dollars. That's not just a sop to the Democratic base, that is a sop to roughly 65 percent of the country," Carville said. "So, good. If this signals something new, then great." [my emphasis]
I have a sinking feeling that Obama jumped the shark when he explicitly offered cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits to Republicans during the debt-ceiling fiasco. Meaning he put himself on a downward political trajectory.

Social Security and Medicare are vitally necessary, successful and extremely popular programs. After all the other retreats from major 2008 campaign themes and pledges, when he signalled he was willing to cut benefits on bedrock programs like Social Security and Medicare, anyone paying attention has to wonder if he will fight for anything constructive any more. And Democratic elected officials have to be worried about the toxic effects of those proposals on their own election prospects. And with Obama's approval ratings dropping, Democratic officials have to be cautious about typing themselves to a Presidency with a very uncertain future.

I'm happy to see Obama make the case for progressive taxation. Actually, when he did in his deficit speech was make a case against regressive taxation, which isn't actually the same thing. But if he winds up running a Presidential campaign based on increased taxes for the wealthy and defending Social Security and Medicare benefits, I'm happy to see it. One of his great failings as President is to continually frame issues in a conservative way: deficits are disastrous, "entitlement reform," the federal budget is like the family budget, etc. To the extent he frames issues like Social Security and Medicare in a Democratic partisan way, the harder it will be for either him or a President Goodhair Perry to impose Social Security and Medicare cuts in 2013. And that's a good thing.

His challenges for 2012 are real. And Obama's commitment to his vision of postpartisanship and Herbert Hoover economics may not allow him to wage the kind of election campaign that might be successful. But it's nice to see him making at least a feint in that direction this week.

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