Obama's New Populism: Will Nothing Make Me Happy?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I commented on the possibility that President Obama will be the beneficiary of lowered expectations, with even fierce left-of-center critics like Paul Krugman giving him too much credit for proposals that are clearly inadequate to the problems we face. I closed the post by repeating my frequent observation that Obama's timid measures, in addition to being economically weak, are political losers that undermine any excitement one might have about a second term.

I am, of course, hardly the only person to have made that latter point. Apparently in response to the growing calls for the President actually to stand for something, the White House earlier this week unveiled an aggressive strategy to take a stand for economic populism. In his announcement of a new economic policy strategy (couched, inevitably, in the form of a long-term debt reduction plan), the President used strong, liberal language to defend the notion of taxing the rich and using government to fight social ills. Social Security cuts are now apparently off the table, and changes to Medicare and Medicaid are tied directly to increased taxes on the wealthy.

It thus appeared on Monday that Obama had opted for what I have called the "last two weeks strategy," sounding like a progressive Democrat in the way that all Democrats (no matter how centrist, and no matter how suspicious of the party's liberal constituency, they might be) begin to do with about two weeks left in any general election campaign. The indications are that Obama plans to maintain this strategy through November 6, 2012.

For someone like me, this should be good news. Certainly, it is a good sign that the White House has concluded that they are getting nowhere by having Obama stand above the fray. It is also very promising that Obama's move has changed the political agenda, and that his Republican opponents and their media echo chamber have once again gone apoplectic about "class warfare." We are again being treated to the usual litany of nonsensical arguments against progressive taxation, along with especially strained attempts to twist statistics and deny the facts.

It is even, in a perverse way, good news that Bill Clinton has galumphed back onto the stage, undercutting Obama's calls to (slightly) increase taxes on corporations and the rich. Maybe people like Maureen Dowd will stop treating the male Clinton as if he is some kind of political god. Certainly, there is plenty in Clinton's record to justify deep skepticism about claims that he is a friend to progressives.

All good news. Regular readers of this blog will, however, not be surprised to learn that I am unimpressed with Obama's new stance. In part, this is a matter of bitter experience. On July 1, for example, I wrote about an apparent change in Obama's tactics, commenting on a press conference in which Obama had seemed to turn the page on his weak-willed past. Within weeks, however, he had capitulated on the debt limit and agreed to a very bad spending-reduction bill. The track record of this White House in standing firm is not promising.

The specifics of Obama's comments also offer reason for skepticism. His proposal is a mix of 40% tax increases and 60% spending cuts. Why begin with a 40/60 split? This is, moreover, in the wake of the August budget deal, which was 100% spending cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice correctly pointed out several weeks ago (link not currently available) that a " balanced mix" of tax increases and spending cuts can now be achieved only by making the next bill heavy on tax increases. Instead, the White House accepts the regressive framing that leads to this definition of "balance" -- and then offers a proposal that begins on the wrong side of that balance.

When he tied Medicare cuts to tax increases on the wealthy, moreover, Obama did not even bother to commit to anything specific. He merely said that he would not agree to spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid unless there were "significant" increases in taxes on the wealthy. One need not have gone to law school to recognize so obvious a wiggle word. Similarly, there was no promise to keep Social Security off the table going forward.

All of this is, of course, a matter of reading intentions and strategies from the tea leaves. As worrisome as some of the specific signals may be, the broader problem is that Obama's big announcement this week was billed and reported as a statement of the President's principles and aspirations. Having finally recognized the Republicans' intransigence, he is free to stop unilaterally disarming (which was, by the way, Bill Clinton's favorite move as well) and recognize that anything he proposes will not be adopted by this Congress. Liberated from his self-imposed prison of post-partisanship, Obama was supposed to be telling us what he really believes are the important battles that must be fought.

Why, then, the refusal to make specific commitments? Even his call for "the Buffett Rule," which is the new term for increased taxes on millionaires and multi-millionaires, was stated in the most vague terms possible, with Congress left to decide its legislative form. That strategy failed miserably in the health care debate.

The most worrisome tea leaf, to me, was that Obama could not even bring himself to make an aspirational statement that actually called for progressive taxation. As the editors of The New York Times put it, Obama "called for Congress to rewrite the tax code to ensure that the rich pay the same effective tax rate on their income as the middle class." The same rate?! Is this our newfound commitment to fairness in taxation: Billionaires paying the same effective rate as people making $50,000 per year?

One could, I suppose, defend Obama's low aspirations as merely a first step. With large numbers of high-income people currently paying a lower rate than most middle-income people, it would surely be a progressive step to move from regressivity to proportionality. Later, maybe, we could shoot for actual progressivity. Politics is the art of the possible.

That, however, completely ignores the context of Obama's announcement. It is the last two weeks of the campaign, and he is not talking about proposals that could pass Congress. He is laying out his principles and telling us what he really believes. If, in that setting, President Obama is not capable of issuing a full-throated call for actual progressivity in the tax code -- a commitment that has been a bedrock of American politics for decades, and which is still highly popular with the American public -- then what reason does anyone have to think that he cares about progressive taxation or would fight for it?

In what was billed as his moment to stake out the high ground, Obama stumbled again. He is, of course, still far better than any of his potential opponents in 2012. If this is his version of seeing the light, however, then things are worse than they seemed.