Well, Congress passed the debt ceiling deal and the spending cuts, and contrary to my suggestion, President Obama signed the bill.
I’m disappointed. I wish the Democrats and the President had put up more resistance than they did, but I’m not going to abandon my support of them because of it. President Obama is trying to operate as a consensus builder and craft policy that is palatable to the center. He’s dealing with an opposition that is driven by a radical ideology and hatred of government. They are aided by an allied media echo chamber that has successfully created a false narrative of liberal bias in the main stream media, in academia, in the sciences, in Hollywood, in the blogosphere, and in any other venue that might challenge their opinions with facts, let alone opposing opinions.
Against that, you have a good Democratic Caucus in the House. Just take a look at all the legislation that the House passed in the 111th Congress. Unfortunately, you also have a Senate that has arcane rules that allow a minority of 41 senators to block the commencement of debate, to say nothing of an actual vote, on any legislation they wish to defeat. If you’re wondering how we got to this point, this is the biggest problem. If I’m going to blame a Democrat for the loss of the House in 2010, I’m going to blame Harry Reid for not fighting harder against the filibuster. A reduction in the impact of the filibuster gets a lot more good legislation through Congress and keeps the Democratic base energized.
That didn’t happen.
Then there’s Obama. He’s got a progressive heart and a centrist mind. He’s honorable. He respects people who don’t share his vision, and he tries, perhaps to a fault, to bring as many perspectives to the table.
He’s also got the weight of history on his shoulders as the first African-American president. Like baseball’s Jackie Robinson , like civil rights demonstrators who marched and demonstrated in their Sunday best knowing they were going out to get beaten, like each person who is the first of their race, their gender, their religion to venture into territory previously denied to them, Obama has to do his job cleanly, to live his life in a manner above reproach. His behavior is subject, unfairly so, to a higher level of scrutiny. Just as Hillary Clinton would not have been able to publicly shed a tear had she been elected the first female President, Obama needs to steer clear of the various racist stereotypes of African-American men because any outburst of anger, any questionable behavior at all would weigh heavily against him and those who follow in his footsteps.
Which brings me to my recommendation that he veto the bill…
One of my favorite movies is The American President. The President’s poll ratings plummet when he gets into a romantic relationship with a lobbyist without regard for the politics of the situation. (Note: at the presidential level, one must always consider the politics.) She’s trying to push one piece of legislation. The President is trying to push another. When push comes to shove, he can only get his milquetoast attempt at crime legislation through if he sabotages her strong environmental bill. He makes the deal. She dumps him, leaving him at rock bottom both politically and personally.
Of course, we all know this moment in cinema. The protagonist hits rock bottom, or is on the ropes, or is facing total defeat in whatever form it may take. Well, the President’s response is to fight back. He goes to the White House press room and give an impassioned defense of his priorities and values while going on the attack against his political adversary. He announces that he’s going to do the right thing legislatively. His love returns. His staff is fired up and the movie ends on a high note as the President enters the House to make his State of the Union Address. The implication is that he lives happily ever after and easily wins reelection.
Essentially, this is what I wanted to see from Obama. If I could have scripted the moment, I would have had him at a desk, flanked by Boehner, McConnell, (looking gleeful) Pelosi and Reid, (looking rather ill) poised to sign the Debt Ceiling Bill. Obama would pick up the pen, position it over the paper…
…and he’d pause. He’d hesitate for a moment and then let out a breath. Then he’d lower the pen.
“I can’t do it,” he’d say. “This is a bad bill, a bad compromise that places the burden of deficit reduction on the people who can least afford it while protecting those who have plenty, even in tough times. It would violate my conscience, my most deeply held values and the most deeply held American values to enact this legislation.”
He’d announce that he would veto the legislation and invoke his constitutional authority under the 14th Amendment to ignore the statutory debt limit and pay all bills previously authorized by Congress through the legislative process. Then he would demand that Congress come back to the table to have real negotiations over the deficit without holding the nation hostage to the debt ceiling.
It sounds wonderful, but it would not have gone well. That’s not to say that it was bad advice, per se. It’s just that there would have been pretty dire consequences of that action.
1) First, although a significant number of Republicans in the House would be relieved that he raised the ceiling unilaterally, the caucus would have been so incensed that they would have impeached him. He would not have been convicted in the Senate, but the impeachment would have sucked all the air out of Washington for months.
2) The relationship between the Obama Whitehouse and the Boehner Congress would have been irreparably damaged. Nothing else would get done legislatively. Even the most routine legislation would be caught up in the poisonous atmosphere.
3) There would be a government shutdown. With the debt ceiling removed from their arsenal, the Republicans would use the only weapon left to them. They would hold up the Federal Budget and shut down the government if they did not get draconian cuts.
America does not need these things to happen, and Obama knows it. That’s why he went along with the raw deal. We can vilify him and declare him a traitor to his base, but such recriminations would be fruitless. Obama’s a smart guy. Let’s take a look at what he did accomplish in the deal.
1) The debt ceiling is off the table until after the elections. It has been removed from the Republican arsenal.
2) Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were largely protected. I guess there was some nibbling at the corners on Medicare, but it’s in tact.
3) The Republicans can’t whine about tax increases. They didn’t happen, so those jobs numbers should be taking off, right? Right?
We can be as upset as we want to be with Obama and the Democrats, but let’s channel that anger. A third party would be useless. (See Nader in 2000 in Florida.) A primary challenge to Obama would just divide the party, so let’s take that silliness off the table.
The answer is to get angry. Get involved. Speak out. Volunteer and donate for strong progressive candidates. Get Congress back. Defend the Senate. Reelect Obama and get rid of the filibuster. It’s as good as gone the next time the GOP takes the Senate anyway.
Sitting passively and complaining about politics isn’t going to change anything. If you want to see an alternative, look at Wisconsin.