Dancing with the Devil: Obama’s Perilous Pragmatism

Aug 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

President Obama’s much-ballyhooed and much-maligned bus tour was reputedly an attempt to “pivot back to jobs” and reconnect with voters increasingly dubious about his ability to right our listing economy. Predictably, Republican Presidential candidates were quick to disparage Obama’s message and his performance.

Mitt Romney, who has more experience firing employees than putting them to work, was less than convincing with his pro forma remark that Obama “and his academic and political friends don’t understand what it takes to get this economy going again.” Similarly, Rick Perry’s own dismal record overshadowed his snarky retort, “Mr. President, America’s crisis is not bad luck; it’s bad policies from Washington, D.C.”

Unfortunately, Romney and Perry’s rank hypocrisy notwithstanding, they are both right, at least in the specific remarks quoted above. Obama apparently doesn’t know what it takes to get this economy going again. And although liberals correctly point out that Republican policies—particularly the Bush and Tea Party varieties—are chiefly responsible for our gloomy economy, no corresponding argument has been forthcoming from the White House. Obama has noisily compiled an impressive list of accomplishments to mollify nervous liberals, while quietly continuing most of Bush’s policies. Although Obama himself has become the lightning rod in an unprecedentedly vicious partisan electrical storm from the right, his response is now as it has almost always been: an unprincipled tack to prevailing winds and a vague and uninspiring condemnation of “dysfunctional government.”

But what is the root cause of this gridlock, this inability to “get this economy going again?” Why can’t we create more jobs? Because the “supply-siders” won the debate thirty years ago, and as a nation we still haven’t fully grasped the counterproductive lunacy of “trickle-down economics.” As a nation, we still cling to the notion that tax and spending cuts create jobs despite the utter lack of evidence to support this position and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so when Tea Party radicals insist that it’s true, it has a ring of “truthiness” that liberals have never learned to dispel.

Companies don’t start hiring people because they got a tax break. They don’t hire because the government is cutting spending. They hire when business is so good that their current staffing becomes inadequate. This concept should be obvious to even the most casual observer of business and politics, and yet it seems somehow alien and subversive, a radical concept to be regarded with vigilant skepticism by Democrats and warded off with anti-tax incantations by Republicans.

It should come as no surprise that Republican presidential candidates are advocating this wrongheaded approach. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow observed, they all agreed at the Iowa debate that “they felt so strongly about not raising taxes that they would all walk away from a hypothetical deficit-reduction deal that was as extreme as 10 parts spending cuts to one part tax increases.” This rigid, reactionary attitude has already poisoned Congress to the extent we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and pushed Standard and Poor’s to downgrade our credit, and now it’s a rallying cry for Republicans jockeying for position as the Tea-Partiest Tea-Partier in the Party.

The best long term solution to our debt problem is more people gainfully employed and paying taxes, and the best short term solution to unemployment is government stimulus. This might seem paradoxical or counterintuitive to Michele Bachmann, but it’s a proven fact nonetheless. We liberals like to think that Obama understands that “trickle-down economics” doesn’t work, but what are we to think when President Obama announces near the close of his “Jobs Tour” that he wants to up the ante on proposed budget cuts beyond the $1.5 trillion target already set? This is a jobs measure? Putting more workers out of work? Under these circumstances, we are justified in wondering what—if anything—Obama believes in.

Liberal pundits are about evenly split on whether Republicans are really so misguided that they think slashing spending creates jobs, or are purposely trying to tank the economy so they can blame it on Obama. Either possibility seems like a risky strategy. Recent polls suggest not only that Americans are starting to wake up to the corrosive influence of the Tea Party, but that they blame Republican policies for most of our current slate of woes. Despite President Obama’s apparent inability to articulate an effective response to their right wing reactionary rhetoric, people are rapidly becoming skeptical and even frightened of the Tea Party.

However, it seems that Obama has embarked on an even riskier strategy. In his pursuit of “Obama Independents” and “Obama Republicans” (an even rarer bird), he has thrown the rest of America overboard—and even his own values and beliefs, it would seem. No more illustrative example of this exists than his backpedaling and abandonment of the public option during the health care debate. A clear majority of the American public wanted it, but it was deemed politically unrealistic. Instead of championing the cause and using his bully pulpit to lead a revolt against obstructionist Republicans and “conservative” Democrats, Obama let the public option and nearly every other popular component swing from the Congressional gallows. In the end, he praised the muddled patchwork for its bipartisanship while Republicans shrieked that it was “rammed down our throats.”

Whether Obama’s reliance on consensus is truly his primary guiding principle or mere theater to establish himself as “the grownup in the room” and provide cover as he pursues a hidden right wing agenda remains a mystery. Nevertheless, as a political matter, discrediting his own campaign theme of “change we can believe in” can’t possibly improve his chances of reelection. “Yes We Can!” can never suitably be replaced by “Let’s See What Happens!”

The recent debt ceiling debacle is just another miserable, counterproductive compromise in a long list of miserable, counterproductive compromises. Instead of building a consensus in Congress, Obama let the very lack of consensus define him, and indeed, shape the entire debate. Even now, rather than enlightening and inspiring Americans with a coherent set of policies for navigating our way out of our current travails, he seems content to deflect blame away from himself and toward the formless enemy “gridlock.” He “pivots” this way and that, chiding Congress for their lack of bipartisan cooperation on his lackluster disappearing agenda. Instead of playing quarterback, he’s taken himself out of the game and accepted the role of referee, throwing flags instead of passes.

Liberals are weary of defending the President against charges he’s a socialist by pointing out he’s more conservative than Bush ever was. We voted for a Democrat. Is it too much to expect that he act like one? Are we wrong to wonder whether he is compromising our principles or his own? Are we wrong to demand he stop barking and start biting—start fighting, like our future depends upon it?

Obama has requested that we Americans call our Representatives and Senators and tell them we’re tired of gridlock. While you’re at it, I suggest you call the White House and tell them the solution to gridlock is not consensus—or triangulation, for that matter.

It’s called leadership.

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