Monday, September 03, 2012

Obama and the Democratic base: a difficult relationship

Ryan Grim and Sam Stein have a long article, Barack Obama Promised A New Kind Of Politics, But Played The Same Old Game Huffington Post 09/02/2012, that looks at the cautious, conservative approach of the Obama Administration toward its domestic priorities. They focus on the two main aspects of it: the infamous pre-compromising of legislative proposals combined with a heavy inclination to allow the Blue Dog Democrats to further limit them; and, their deliberate neglect of mobilizing the public through the extensive network they had built up during the 2008 campaign through the Organizing for America group to create pressure to support Obama's own proposals to Congress. As they describe with the health care fight, it was outside mobilization - not driven by the White House - that saved the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when the compromise-driven insider strategy was clearly failing. In fact, the White House was ready to throw in the towel on getting the ACA passed at all!

Grim and Stein don't deal with foreign policy in this analysis. The Obama Administration has operated with a great deal of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, even including Senate approval of the New START treaty. But even on nuclear arms control policy, Obama has achieved consensus by not pushing anything that challenging to Republican priorities; they followed the Bush Administration's approach on the New START treaty, and the system for verifying Russian compliance was based on a 1991 treaty set to expire. (See David Alexander, After early successes, Obama struggles to implement disarmament vision Reuters 08/31/2012 on the Administration's diffident results in nuclear-weapons policy.) In the grand scheme of things - which doesn't drive immediate political priorities often enough, of course - nuclear arms control and limiting global warming are the two more urgent political priorities for the world, and we can't credit the Obama Administration with great progress on either.

In terms of understanding the overall politics of the Obama Administration, Tom Tomorrow captured one key aspect that an analysis of the Administration's willingness to compromise with Blue Dogs and Republicans can easily miss - his willingness to fight actively against his own base and against labor and progressive organizations:

One major theme that runs through their article is that Obama really seems to frame his whole economic strategy around fighting the deficit. Politically, the deadliest aspect of that view appeared in the fight over the debt ceiling in 2011:

With barely any input from fellow Democrats, Obama placed sacred cow after sacred cow on the block: massive cuts to discretionary spending ($1.2 trillion over 10 years), gradual changes to the retirement age for Medicare, changes [to] the premium structure for Medicare Part B and D and changes to the way Social Security benefits were paid starting in 2015.
Obama is really seriously committed to his Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

This quote captures the frustration that progressives - the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party - felt with the President on the health care fight and pretty much across the board on his domestic policies:

"I think they made pretty naive mistakes, trying to cut a deal with PhRMA. They gave PhRMA too much in the process," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Huffington Post in the spring of 2010, shortly after the Affordable Care Act passed. "They didn’t talk to us about it. They made that deal off the record."

"And then when he started talking about jettisoning the public option, that’s when we started saying 'This is ridiculous.' It’s almost like they didn’t know how to negotiate," Trumka added. “[Obama would] say ‘It’s not important.’ And anybody who's been around a negotiating table knows, if they say it’s not important, consider it gone. You don’t even concern yourself with it. But if he was going to give it away he should’ve gotten something major in return for it. He got nothing.”
I was just amazed that after Holy Joe Lieberman had actively campaigned for John McCain in 2008, that the Democrats welcomed him into their caucus and even gave him a committee chairmanship. What a bad deal it was came out in the health care reform fight:

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who had promised the Democratic leadership that he wouldn’t be a nuisance on domestic policy in exchange for keeping his post as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, ended up being just that. When he objected to the public option, he was offered a provision he previously supported: a Medicare buy-in, allowing consumers from the ages of 55-65 to pay a premium for the coverage. When he rejected that too, Reid was apoplectic.

"He just wasn’t honest with me," Reid muttered at one point.

But nobody pressured Lieberman to drop his pledge to uphold a filibuster of the bill. Asked by The Huffington Post at the time whether he was willing to give up his gavel in the fight over health care, Lieberman said “Oh, God no. Nobody's asking me that."

In fact, when Obama addressed the Democratic caucus at the height of the debate, as the public option and Medicare buy-in were teetering on the brink, Lieberman said the president told him simply to work it out.
The Grim/Stein article is worth reading in its entirety, because it conveys a strong picture of the Administration's self-limiting fiscal conservatism, a near-delusional obsession with bipartisanship on domestic issues, and a deep distrust of the Democratic base.

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