Obama, the budget and birth control: drawing lines or blurring them?
President Obama came to national prominence with a unity theme. At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama was a state senator in Illinois running for the US Senate. He instantly defined himself in the minds of Democrats as a potential participant on the national ticket. He was willing to strike Democratic campaign themes:
And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, I say to you tonight: We have more work to do -- more work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour; more to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay 4500 dollars a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on; more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.
He struck Democratic themes in that passage: but he was careful to frame them not as Democratic themes but as ones crossing all ideological borders. Now, it´s normal for speakers at a Democratic National Convention to make at least ritual calls for Republican support. But here he wasn´t saying that the Democratic Party will do this for you and the Republican Party won´t. He delivered the message without drawing the partisan line.
And it´s notable how he followed immediately that passage with this one, which accepts the Republican framing of the proper role of government, a neoliberal framing with a hint of concern about Pentagon "waste" thrown in to distinguish it from the more typical Republican framing:
Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet -- in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks -- they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead, and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon. Go in -- Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things. [my emphasis]
I´ll say it again: this was Republican framing of the proper role and capabilities of government. Yes, the public employees known as school teachers do teach kids how to learn, and teach them actual facts and skills, as well. Tossing in "alone " after " government " doesn't make it any less Republican framing. Nobody ever claimed that schools alone could teach kids the learning skills they need, whether they are public or private schools. This was a typical Republican strawman, and Democrats shouldn´t be using such framing, not in 2004 and not in 2012.
And it surely seemed like clever politics at the time to our Pod Pundits, who almost to a person accept this neoliberal framing (though perhaps a dull-witted version of it). But what´s the first thing that wastes "tax money " in Obama´s famous 2004 speech? Welfare. So now in 2012 when the Republicans call him the "food-stamp President ", will he straightforwardly defend public assistance for those thrown into poverty by the depression? Or will he make a defense and then pepper-spray in the next breath by talking about tax money being wasted on "welfare " and how black people are so stupid and racist that they tell they tell their children that learning to read is too "white"?
Do I even need to ask rhetorically whether Obama´s willingness to frame things in such a way, in 2004, in 2008 and throughout his Presidency, has made Republicans less willing to attack him as, say, ¨the foodstamp President¨?
And how did he address the policies and priorities of the Cheney-Bush Administration in that now-legendary 2004 speech?
People don’t expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
With just a slight change in priorities. That´s not drawing contrasts. It´s apologizing for expressing any difference at all.
And this is peroration that the pundits loved so much, even though he suggested a mild criticism of them:
It is that fundamental belief -- It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America.
Again, it sounds lovely for an Inaguration speech or a Sunday morning sermon. But there are different Americas with different priorities and needs who expect different things from government. There is a 99% and a 1%.
His 2004 Senate election saw him facing an exceptionally weak Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, so it didn't require him to draw strong contrasts.
He did have to find ways to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, and that forced him to highlight distinctions such as his early opposition to the Iraq War. And he was willing to draw some distinctions with the Cheney-Bush Administration in the 2008 election. But his main distinction in the general election is that he wasn't George W. Bush, wasn't John McCain and wasn't a Republican. And even in that election, he was remarkably skittish about appearing too sharply partisan, like when he disassociated his campaign from Wesley Clark after Clark made a pointed comment about McCain's experience as a pilot being very different than executive experience.
The first three years of his Administration have shown again and again the degree to which he has been willing to almost desperately appeal to Republicans in pursuit of post-partisan harmony. The Republicans, on the other hand, have become even more bitterly partisan.
Which brings me to two very worthy posts by Charlie Pierce at Esquire Politics Blog.
In The GOP Farm Team Brings the Wingnut Once More 02/14/2012, he describes how the Republican Party is moving further and further away from a democratic party of compromises, and doesn´t care if the Democrats keep moving more and more to the Republican position:
They do not stop, even when they're losing. The country told them, through the 1998 midterms, that it didn't want Bill Clinton impeached. Bill Clinton got impeached. In 2005, everybody including their Democratic colleagues told them that they were going off the cliff in their meddling in the life and death of Terri Schiavo. There were gobs of polling data to back them up. The Republicans kept meddling even after Ms. Schiavo passed.Is there any evidence that the Republicans are moving "toward the middle" in their presidential contest? Ask poor Willard Romney if that's the case. The current frontrunner [Rick Santorum] is a nutball ultramontane Catholic who lost his last race by 18 points, at least in part because he was one of the more noxious of the Schiavo meddlers.
The fact is that the presidency is not really that important to them. They have found a way to make it impossible for any Democratic president to govern as a Democrat. Their real goal is in the legislatures, federal and state, where they have been able to exercise their power on the issues they care about. They will not change themselves. They are going to have to have the wingnut flogged out of them over several losing election cycles, and they've arranged things in the states so that may not be possible. The president should not be talking about "Congress" and "Washington," and expect the country to clue in that he's nudging and winking in code about the Republicans. He should make it clear that one of our two major political parties is now an extremist party from its lowest levels to its highest echelons. This should be an issue in the campaign as imporant as income inequality or campaign finance, but it won't be. Barack Obama's just not built that way. And, out in the states, things are getting crazier by the day. [my emphasis]
And he explains why it´s important for Obama not to just be on the more popular side in confrontations, like he was and is on the birth control issue right now, but also to draw the contrasts sharply (The Obama Budget Farce 02/13/2012):
The budget is a campaign document. As such, it's a pretty good one on which to run. As a governing document, it would solve a lot of the nation's problems. But campaigning is as far removed from governing at this point as swimming is from camel-driving. This is a result of the endless propagandizing, not only that all "government" is bad and useless, but also that any participation in the political process is a game for suckers because They'll steal all your money, and They don't care what you think, stout yeoman. ...
Did people "feel guilty" about the benefits they were getting from the GI Bill? Did all those generations of elderly who survived because they had Social Security "feel guilty" about not starving to death? The breakdown in the national consensus that we must be a political commonwealth was deliberate and determined, and it's worked so well that now you have people seriously arguing that The Other who is wasting all our money is themselves. The doctrines of the modern Right have engendered not only selfishness and anger, but a profound self-loathing.
We have had nearly four decades of preaching that self-government is merely a marginally interested spectator sport. The roads are still broken because our politics are broken, and because our politics are broken, the country is broken, and it's everybody's fault. [my emphasis]
And it certainly won´t be changed by the Democrats campaigning on the idea that the deficit is a problem we need to be worried about now. Or pretending that there´s no Red America and Blue America. Or meekly pleading for just a slight change in priorities.
There are important differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties in the Presidential election: on business regulation, on the environment, on women's rights, on public education, on war with Iran.
But Obama isn't running this time as a kind of blank slate into which voters can simply project their hopes for an alternative to a highly unpopular Republican Administration, which was the case in 2008. Obama has a continuing depression with high unemployment as the social context of this year's Presidential election. And the legal context of the Citizen's United ruling which removes all meaningful restraints on the power of the wealthy to spend on partisan campaign advertising. Obama's continuing reluctance to draw sharp distinctions with the Republicans could lose him the Presidential election, even against Rick Santorum, especially if the economy takes another turn for the worst, which is a distinct possibility.
The larger problem for progressives and for anyone who takes the reform traditions of the Democratic Party seriously is just what Pierce describes: the Republicans "have found a way to make it impossible for any Democratic president to govern as a Democrat." Until the Democratic Party can be revitalized to fight for pro-labor ends, and until there are strong enough social movements outside the Democratic Party to keep pressure on it to act like a democratic party, the dogmatic theology of the Free Market, which most of the world calls neoliberalism, will continue to dominate our politics in America.