An uncomfortable truth not likely to be discussed by President Obama during his State of the Union on Tuesday is his own complicity in the broken state of our political economy.
To be sure, the House GOP and their Senate allies have displayed a frightening and gleeful zeal in wrecking the recovery. For a year and a half, the Republican Party has been willing to IED the economy time and time again to preserve the gilded perch that the super wealthy have over the rest of us. But it wouldn’t be possible without a helping hand from the president.
Unless there is a fundamental change in this dynamic, people of color, the working poor and all of those looking for their shot at the American dream are in for a rough go over the next four years.
The fight over taxes that wrapped just weeks ago is merely the first in a series of looming battles set to unfold on core economic and budget issues over the next three months. On March 1, unless something changes, over a trillion dollars in automatic spending cuts will begin to take effect. Half of the cuts, or “sequestration” as they’re formally known, will fall on the portion of the budget that provides economic opportunity for people of color and the working poor through transportation, education, housing and food programs.
But it won’t be the first time and the consequences are always the same. GOP willingness to protect the interests of the 1 percent at the end of last year caused the economy to shrink in the last three months of 2012 for the first time since 2009, when the recession was at its worst. Here again, the recalcitrance of the Republican Party has yet again acted as a downdraft on the economy.
Unfortunately, the president all too readily accommodates them. By doing so, he actually lends credibility to their often absurd economic ideas—the desire to mollify doesn’t pacify, it emboldens.
A quick review of how we ended up in the end-of-year budget quagmire makes the point.
Dancing With Myself
In 2011, President Obama responded to the rightwing fury of the new Congress with the inclination to come to terms. That summer, as the fight over country’s tax and spend policy reached a crisis point, Obama proposed a longterm deal with twice as many budget cuts as revenue increases. He did so against the wishes of many in his own party.
With this plan, the president actually conceded a major point erroneously. As I have written before, our longterm budget predicament is caused by a lack of revenue rather than too much spending. But with the president having signaled a major compromise early on, the House GOP felt encouraged to demand even more cuts and the broader deal fell apart.
Obama immediately met their rejection with an agreement for $1.2 trillion in unilateral cuts—which have already begun to implemented—and agreed to find another $1.2 trillion in savings by the end of 2012.
Each capitulation by the president sowed the seeds for the next crisis.
Unfortunately President Obama’s pattern of negotiating with himself while compromising with others is not new.
In 2009 Obama made his stimulus less effective with less spending and more tax cuts in an effort to get Republican votes. Between both houses of Congress, it received only three Republican votes. In 2010, he held up his health care plan for most of that year in an effort to get Republican support. This despite the fact that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both warned that he’d walked himself into a trap of endless, fruitless negotiations. Not one Republican vote materialized.
In fact, the dynamic is so pronounced that Pelosi told PBS’ Frontline that she calls it “the dance of the seven veils.”
In it the president agrees to engage Republicans on an issue with a promise to move off of his party’s established positions. But the GOP transforms itself into a “now you see us, now you don’t” negotiating partner during the course of the talks. In the end, Obama is left to dance with himself.
The question is not necessarily why the showroom-new president of 2009 engaged in a strained exercise of accommodation, but why the wizened one of 2013 continues to do so? Whatever the answer, it has real world consequences for the rest of us.
A Stormy Spring
Sequestration is just the beginning. On March 27, should the president and Congress fail to pass a budget or another temporary funding measure, the federal government will shut down. A collapse in government spending on such a scale would send the overall economy reeling.
The same is true for May 1, if the country fails to raise its debt ceiling. If the U.S. does not increase the amount that it can borrow, America’s debt will be downgraded, interest rates will go up, and parts of the government will grind to a halt.
Each of these points of danger for our economy is enshrined in a series of laws which are the result of every accommodation the president has made over the last year and a half. Over the next 10 weeks, we will lurch from crisis to crisis, and the economic decision-making apparatus will remain in chaos through his deference.
President James Madison, a drafter of the Constitution, argued in Federalist Papers 10 and 51 that the Constitution divides power not only to prevent tyranny, but to set up a battle amongst the political class over the best policy for the country. America is too complex to allow one group to dictate terms to the rest, outlined Madison. Only a sharp contest between competing groups could decide. But this requires each side to be willing to clash, sometimes on a grand scale.
Curiously, though a constitutional scholar himself, this doesn’t always appear to be Obama’s view. In fact, though the picture of comity between the executive and legislative branches set to be broadcast to the world on Tuesday might seem like a stretch, it actually reflects the outlines of a settlement already made.