Friday, January 25, 2013

Did the Inaugural Address Reveal the Real Obama?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I have been extremely critical of President Obama, starting even before he took office four years ago.  (Remember the controversy over the right-wing evangelist, whom Obama invited to give the invocation prayer at the first inaugural?)  He chose an economic team that was, completely predictably, a retread of the team that talked then-President-elect Clinton in 1992 into dropping his plans to increase public investment, and which happily set in motion the pro-Wall Street regulatory changes in 1999 that led to the financial crisis in 2008.

As disappointed as I was during and immediately after the transition in 2008-09, however, I could never have imagined that Obama would adopt economic orthodoxy as much as he has, especially his turn toward deficit reduction in 2010.  He actively defended a much-too-weak stimulus, and he pushed for fiscal contraction when there was no evidence that the economy was even close to recovering.  By the time of the first 2012 presidential faux debate, I was not at all surprised that Obama still sounded like the Clintonian triangulator that he obviously was (and probably had been all along), sounding the surrender on Social Security, deficits, taxes, and so on.

Even so, Obama lived up to my prediction by adopting what I have dubbed "the last two weeks strategy" during his re-election campaign, by which center-right Democratic Leadership Council types start sounding like New Deal Democrats, counting on (among other things) money and effort from the labor unions that those politicians otherwise do so little to support (and often actively undermine).  I was surprised that Obama went last-two-weeks a bit early this time around, but that was explainable by the (unjustified) negative overreaction to his first debate performance.  He then ran like a defender of the New Deal and Great Society programs that the public loves.

Still, it was hardly a surprise that he actually offered to cut Social Security cost-of-living adjustments as part of his failed effort to reach a deal on taxes and spending before January 1 of this year.  The deal that he did eventually sign, even though it has somehow been spun as a "win" for Obama, was simply not a good deal.  His strategy of non-negotiation on the debt ceiling has worked temporarily, but we have no idea what he has in mind for the upcoming spending and tax negotiations.

How, then, might one interpret his second inauguration address?  Because I have tired of watching Obama's speeches (the best of them only making the later disappointment worse), I did not watch the events on Monday of this week.  To judge by the reactions, however, it was the kind of speech that should have made my liberal heart soar.  All of the people who hate Obama were enraged.  My favorite was Pat Buchanan's nasty comment that the reference to Stonewall was unworthy of inclusion, because the Stonewall riot was merely a "brawl."  Right, and Lexington and Concord were just a bunch of louts stirring up trouble.  (Note: I am not at all related to Pat Buchanan, which makes me suspect that maybe there really is a God!)  We knew that the Fox-iverse (including Fox's employees who serve in Congress) would hate it, but they REALLY hated it.  I guess mentioning climate change, and gay marriage, and going out of his way to respond eloquently to the makers/takers thing hit all the right notes.

More surprisingly, perhaps, has been the full-throated glee from the political left.  The editor of The Progressive (probably the only magazine that I read that is to my left), actually wrote: "I Loved, Loved, Loved Obama's Inaugural Address."  And as far as I can see from the clips I have watched, and the segments of the speech that I have read, there was a lot to like.  Apparently, Obama even (mostly) managed to avoid sounding like a deficit scold during the speech.  Another writer in The Progressive even invoked something akin to the last-two-weeks strategy: "Instead of a pean to bipartisanship and sensible, middle-of-the-road governance, we got the fiery Obama of the closing days of his last campaign."

Obviously, even if Obama has suddenly revealed himself to have been a closet liberal all along (or to have become one more recently), his ability to act on those views is severely restricted by political realities.  House Republicans show very little sign of growing up, trying to cover their retreat in the debt ceiling battle with mindless jibes at Senate Democrats.  Even a fully engaged, fully liberated Obama could only do a small amount of good.

But that still leaves us with the question of whether the openly liberal Obama whom we have recently seen is "the real Obama."  Bill Clinton was famous for being able to "talk from the left, but govern from the center," and Obama's track record (even before the House changed hands in the 2010 midterm elections) suggests that he is every bit as good as Clinton at unilateral surrender on liberal goals.

Admittedly, his party has not been very helpful.  I recently saw, for example, that Bob Woodward's most recent book included a claim that Obama created the Bowles-Simpson commission at the insistence of now-retired Democratic Senator Kent Conrad.  (If I read the snippet correctly, Conrad threatened to hold up a debt ceiling increase, to force Obama's hand!)  This at least helps to explain why Obama went forward with that ridiculous commission, even after the Republicans said that they no longer supported its creation.  Nevertheless, Obama replaced Tim Geithner with Jack Lew, a politically savvy guy who is all about austerity and fiscal orthodoxy.  Lew is a smart guy, and a good operative, but he seems to represent no break at all from the Rubin-Summers-Geithner run of deficit-obsessed economic advisers.

In short, I strongly suspect that the inaugural address was the last we will see of Liberal Obama.  We will know that I am wrong if we see Obama actually put effort behind the various ideas that he so movingly described.  Having him in office is much, much better than the alternative, but that is far different from actually carrying through on his beautiful words from Monday.

7 comments:

Joe said...

"In short, I strongly suspect that the inaugural address was the last we will see of Liberal Obama. We will know that I am wrong if we see Obama actually put effort behind the various ideas that he so movingly described. Having him in office is much, much better than the alternative, but that is far different from actually carrying through on his beautiful words from Monday."

I wasn't aware the Administration now supports DOMA, wants DADT to return, will do nothing else to support voting rights or any number of things of a "liberal" nature reflected in his words. Like, e.g, liberalizing rules for women in the military.

This sort of rank hyperbole is tiresome.

Sam Rickless said...

@Joe: The only rank hyperbole here is in your charge of rank hyperbole.

Sure, Obama has done some liberal things, such as getting rid of DADT and making ground combat roles available to women in the military. (Though the exclusion of women from ground combat roles has always been clearly unconstitutional under the EP clause, so that one is a no-brainer even for non-liberals.) Obama has also issued executive orders on gun control, ended the Iraq war, is winding down the war effort in Afghanistan, pushed for the Affordable Care Act, managed a decent (even if not large enough) stimulus to counter the great recession, has resisted efforts to eviscerate Social Security and/or Medicare, and more.

But ultimately Neil is right. As a negotiator, Obama has, almost without fail, rarely if ever called the Republicans' bluff. The pattern is sad and predictable. By and large, the Republicans in the House threaten financial ruin or government shutdown, and then Obama backs off, *even when public opinion polls show that a decisive majority is with him*. It became almost comical during the fiscal cliff negotiations, when Obama actually came out and said that he would never support a bill that (a) raised taxes on the middle class and (b) did not raise the tax rates of households earning more than $250K per year, and then caved after the Republicans threatened to lead the country over the "cliff". Notice that the payroll taxes of the middle class have gone up, while the federal income tax rates of households earning between $250K and $450K haven't gone up at all. And what on earth was Obama thinking when he suggested going with the "chained CPI" proposal as part of the fiscal cliff talks? Real strong on saving Social Security there, eh?

Time after time, Obama gets rid of his high cards, even when his opponents have nothing but low cards. Witness his refusal to countenance a 14th amendment argument (or anything like it) as a way of raising the debt ceiling in the absence of explicit congressional approval.

The number of judicial vacancies is ridiculously high. Where is the major Obama speech that would shame Republican senators who are placing anonymous holds on Obama's nominations? I've been paying attention, and I don't remember one.

Where is the major piece of legislation on climate change? Whatever happened to "cap and trade", which was already a weak-kneed alternative to the need for a tax on carbon? It wasn't even an issue in the Presidential campaign. Gun control wasn't even on Obama's radar screen until Sandy Hook. There is only one family planning clinic that performs abortions left in Mississippi, and it is about to be closed for reasons that have nothing to do with whether it does a good job. Have you seen Obama on the stump giving eloquent speeches about the fact that Republicans are making it practically impossible for poor pregnant women to obtain something to which they have a constitutional right?

Obama said he would close Guantanamo. Last time I looked, Guantanamo was not only open, but military commissions were still trying prisoners there on the basis of deeply unjust rules.

I could go on, e.g., about education, but I'm getting tired. Obama is an mildly Keynesian deficit hawkish centrist who does not go to the mat for many of the liberal social policies that he supports.

t jones said...

Sam, you can't shame Republican Senators or Representatives (not that we haven't been waiting 4 years for Mr. Obama to give it a try).

Joe said...

If "Obama has done some liberal things," unless he won't do anything else liberal, how is "the last we will see of Liberal Obama" not hyperbole?

He didn't say "Obama wasn't liberal enough." He said that he wouldn't do anything to put the stuff in the inauguration in practice.

He didn't just say he was a bad negotiator. He challenged his liberal bona fides.]

How many MORE things does he have to do to stop this b.s.? Yes, b.s. He pushed for the ending of DADT. Far from easy. He didn't defend DOMA and supported heighetened scrutiny for homosexual orientation. This is a BFD & the gay community knows it. He helped pass the Ledbetter Act. He is out there seriously fighting for gun regulations, some of which many analysts say very well might pass. He and Holder didn't just talk out against voter suppression but used the law to challenge voter id laws. He and his party put in place major health reform, including expanding Medicaid benefits for lots of people, that failed over and over again.

I can go on. He isn't as left leaning as the professor and others want. Shocker. He and the Dems still did more to move things in the liberal direction than any President at least since LBJ.

He will continue to do this as he can including in March by supporting Ms Windor's right to have her same sex marriage respected. This ALONE belies "we won't see liberal Obama" any more.

Sam Rickless said...

@Joe: It's not saying much to say that Obama has done more to move things in the liberal direction than any President since LBJ.

It was courageous, but not all that difficult politically, to end DADT and sign Ledbetter. You will notice that Obama is where a significant majority of the country is on these issues. The proof here is that the Romney campaign and its surrogates didn't even go there. The same thing is true of immigration reform. A few years ago, Republicans were campaigning like mad on illegal immigration. Now they're mum and almost certainly working with Obama on a comprehensive reform package. Obama sees where the winds are heading, at least on social issues.

But he hasn't been an economic liberal, and Neil is right about this. On issues strongly related to the economy (the great recession, the deficit, the debt ceiling, social security, medicare, cap and trade, Keystone XL, fiscal policy, and more), he has been a cautious mildly Keynesian pro-business centrist. If you want a liberal, read Krugman or Reich.

Joe said...

Sam Rickless, we had two other Democratic Presidents since LBJ. It is "saying something" that Obama signed so much into law.

LBJ Great Society programs managed to pass the Senate with 55 votes. It is untrue that it was not "difficult politically."

It took a year to pass the PPACA and many assured me in the midst of it that it wouldn't pass. It took a lot of effort to pass the end of DADT, especially with key support from the head of the military, who are much less liberal than the public on such matters. It's amazing to me sometimes how people ignore how hard it is even to be simply sane in this political reality.

I see how you are moving the goalposts. My complaint is that the OP greatly exaggerates and says that Obama will not actually carry out his words when he very well will. It wasn't "he will only do it when generally popular" or "that as a whole he won't be an economic liberal."

Off topic, I will leave my Roe comments as they are in another thread.

Cicy said...

Notice that the payroll taxes of the middle class have gone up, while the federal income tax rates of households earning between $250K and $450K haven't gone up at all. And what on earth was Obama thinking when he suggested going with the "chained CPI" proposal as part of the fiscal cliff talks? Real strong on saving Social Security there, eh?

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