I like this new Obama. He doesn’t cave in needlessly like the old Obama. The old Obama would have resolved the Shutdown crisis by now, which is nice, but it would have ended in a brand, spanking new set of concessions to the Republicans. Given that the Democrats have controlled the White House, the Senate and sometimes even the House during his Presidency, isn’t it odd how much power he has allowed his opponents to wield?
The Republicans like to say that Obama is largely responsible for the Shutdown. In one sense they are correct; in another, they are wrong. The new Obama bears no responsibility whatsoever for the Shutdown. Anyone who would argue differently is either (a) a propagandist for the hard right, or (b) a mindless automaton who takes his or her talking points from the propagandists for the hard right. The new Obama was given an offer by the Republicans that any rational negotiator cannot help but refuse. The offer went something like this: “Admittedly, we have no leverage. But we’d like major concessions from you nonetheless.” Crazy, right? But the old Obama would have jumped at the chance to play ball. That’s what he did. He played ball with one and all. It was like an addiction for him. Some people like doing drugs, others like having sex, and apparently still others like deal-striking. Even when the available deals were terrible for his Party, the old Obama struck them. Then he went before the media and praised the deals, his adversaries, and the process. The old Obama drove me nuts.
In a way, the old Obama bears some responsibility for this Shutdown. He fed the beasts so many times that you can’t completely blame them for wanting another meal. How were they supposed to know that the old Obama would leave the White House and would be replaced by a man who is actually capable of giving “no” for an answer?
Of course, even more than the old Obama, the blame for this Shutdown goes to the beasts themselves. And even more than the beasts, the blame goes to the American electorate. They’re the ones who keep figuring out new and different ways to merge un-intellectuality with complacency. It used to be that we didn’t read quality books; now, we simply don’t read books at all. It used to be that we were fat-and-happy; now, we’re just fat.
The old Obama obviously forgot the major lesson of the last semi-successful Democratic Administration: when it’s time to legislate, Triangulate! Back then, we had an Arkansan President who took office after running as a “New Democrat.” He may have had a Northern wife, but he was a Southern Man, and he was supposedly tired of the same ol’ liberal bromides. Leaving aside one or two slip-ups (like when he allowed his wife to try to remake the health care system), William Jefferson Clinton governed as the man-in-the-middle. He could point to Teddy Kennedy on his left and Newt Gingrich on his right, and approach the nation as the guy who was always in touch with the majority of Americans rather than the extremes. He didn’t have to use rhetoric to paint himself as the moderate – he needed only to watch his ideological opponents on both sides of the aisle flail away on the issues, and then he could swoop down like the savior with the solution. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
Life has been very different for the old Obama, hasn’t it? On the left, he’s had … well, he’s had pretty much nobody. There are actually a number of talented progressives in Congress, but none of them has been able to position him or herself prominently enough with the public to become a feared player in the policy-making arena. At least when it comes to the critical area of economics, it is difficult to imagine the President encountering the kind of opposition on the left that could seriously impact the national debate, let alone sink one of his proposals.
By contrast, on the right, the old Obama has found plenty of vocal opponents. First, there are the traditional Republicans – the guys like Boehner or McConnell who seem to be impassioned about the need for lower taxes on corporations and affluent individuals and are otherwise satisfied with the status quo. Then, we have the folks who have come to be known as the Wacko Birds, the Teahadists, or the Tea Party Patriots, depending upon your perspective. They have made it known that they are willing to vote for traditional Republicans in Presidential elections, but only because guys like McCain and Romney are the lesser of two evils. When it comes to electing lawmakers, they prefer folks who are well to the right of the official Republican leadership, and they are not afraid of threatening to unseat those traditional Republicans if they don’t support Tea Party policies.
For the past few years, the old Obama has negotiated in a Triangulated system, but the problem is that he hasn’t played the role of the Triangulator. He has ceded that role to the traditional Republicans. They are the ones who can point to the “socialists” on the left and those crazy uncles (or nephews) on the right. It is their policies that increasingly have carried the day.
Just look at the way we resolved the debate this past winter concerning the highest income tax bracket. The old Obama twice ran on the platform that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed for anyone who makes more than $250,000 a year. Twice, he was elected – and neither election was close. So what happened? After the last election, he fought for the position on which he campaigned, the folks on the left sat back and let him carry the fight, and the folks on the right splintered into those who worked like hell to keep the Bush tax cuts and those “moderates” who were willing to repeal them but only for a small fraction of the folks who made more than $250,000 a year. After all the dust settled, those “middle-class” Americans who earn a mere $450,000 per year have been allowed to pay no more taxes than they paid under Bush. Progressives like me were furious, because we don’t know how anyone can ask the true middle class to make sacrifices as long as folks making that kind of money aren’t being asked to do so. But that is the only kind of deal available when the progressive voices are muted, the hard-right voices are amplified, and the President values compromise for compromise’s sake.
The greatest irony about the Shutdown is that the Democrats are offering the Republicans the opportunity to strike a deal in favor of the Sequestration budget, which is clearly more palatable to the Republicans than the Democrats. In other words, the new Obama has stood firm that the Republicans must agree to what the old Obama was willing to accept when he was last triangulated. As luck would have it, however, the Republicans (dominated by the hard-right and mollified by the moderate-right) want more. It’s like a beggar asking you for $20, causing you to whip out a $10, and then yelling back – “Didn’t you hear me? I said twenty!” Something in that message must have awakened Obama, because it allowed him to look at that beggar and say “Excuse me? I’m the President here, not you. You’re not getting anything.”
I realize that the beggar metaphor isn’t the analogy du jour. The President and many in the media have been comparing the Republicans to terrorist hostage takers. I can appreciate that analogy, though it fails in the sense that traditional terrorists are often willing to lose their lives for their cause, whereas at the time that the Shutdown began, I’m not sure the Republicans thought they were risking much of anything. Most of the leaders of this escapade come from safe seats, are supported by huge donors and media outlets, are well acquainted with the old Obama, and had every reason to expect that at worst, the President would ultimately soften his heart and provide them the fig leaf that they needed to fight the next fight. Even now, after nearly two weeks of shedding their clothes in front of the American public with no apparent fig leaf in sight, the Republicans can feel comforted by the fact that their talking heads are taking to the airwaves and saying things like “No big deal. These shutdowns happen periodically. Before long, this one will be forgotten and the GOP will win the mid-terms, like the dissenting Party almost always does.”
Maybe. But a lot will depend on which President they face during the next year. Will we continue to see the new Obama? Is he going to stop allowing the GOP to play the triangulation card? Is he going to call their bluff every time they threaten to burn down the village in order to save it? Or are we going to witness the return of the old Obama? The Ado Annie Obama – you know, like the girl from “Oklahoma” who “can’t say no.” Ado couldn’t resist a handsome face. And the old Obama couldn’t resist a smooth-tongued Republican who spoke respectfully and with the rhetoric of moderation and compromise, even though in substance his program invariably involved taking care of the rich and letting the poor sink or swim on their own.
Hey, Mr. President. Do you want to know when you’ve got a partner on the GOP side? When he starts indicating a willingness to increase the upper tax brackets and close those foul loopholes that can only be described as corporate welfare. At that point, you can begin entertaining suggestions about Medicare and Social Security. Until then, remember this: those who ask the Middle Class to sacrifice dearly at the same time that they are nominating for President a man who is installing a car elevator in one of his many homes isn’t interested in compromising with you. They’re interested in playing a game with you. And it’s called Social Darwinism.
Don’t fall for it. Make them find their own fig leaf. And never forget that the nation elected a Democrat, not a sucker.