From the bench in the same sex marriage case this week, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts asked why President Obama didn’t have the “courage of his convictions” to not enforce a law he thought was contrary to the interests of the American people. The same question could have been posed to the president on Tuesday when—with a stroke of a pen—he affirmed the very budget sequester that he’s repeatedly decried for two years.
During the campaign, the president said sequestration would “never happen.” Earlier this month he called the cuts “dumb,” “arbitrary” and “unnecessary.” But actions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue haven’t matched these words.
On March 26, the president signed a temporary funding measure, called a continuing resolution, to keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year. The bill finances government operations at painfully low levels and locks in the dramatic budget cuts outlined last month. It marks the third time in as many months that the president has signed off on sequestration.
Consequently, constituencies pivotal to Obama’s victory in November—namely youth, blacks and Latinos—will find it far harder to overcome the most severe economic downturn in almost a hundred years. And that ugly fact is having an impact on him politically.
According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy has plummeted from an 18 point advantage over Republicans to now just four points. This is a stunning reversal for a president who won a landslide victory on his economic vision, and the sequester is a leading driver of the president’s downward trend.
But if sequester is a policy goal of the GOP, why is the public holding the president responsible?
An uncomfortable truth is that the cuts would not be possible without Obama’s signature. In fact he’s consented to sequestration three times: December 31 of last year, March 1 of this year and this past Tuesday. The number rises to four times if you include the original sequestration language embedded in the August 2011 debt deal.
While the president is intellectually opposed to budget cuts, Obama’s core political problem may be that he feels that there is no other choice but to let them stand.
In a March 1 press conference, Obama said that sequestration is a “choice that Republicans in Congress have made.” In so doing, he renders his role as president invisible to the process.
Obama argues that yielding to specific GOP budget demands for a dramatic downsizing in the pillars of economic opportunity—education, housing, health and food security—is necessary to save the broader economy. The White House seems to have determined that it’s either the Republican way or the highway.
It’s important not to minimize the fact that the president does truly face an implacable political minority that’s willing to burn down any house they can’t possess in whole. But a another fact also can’t be ignored: the White House’s individual compromises have been part of a broader capitulation to economic ideals that have transformed America into one of the least-fair economies on the planet.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, black and brown wealth has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, wages are at a 40-year low, and poverty amongst blacks and Latinos is the highest it has been in decades. The deep budget cuts that sequestration enshrines will worsen these problems.
“The president believes he has to do what the Republicans say or they’ll shut down the government,” a high-ranking congressional Democratic staffer said to me recently. “But what the White House doesn’t understand is that sequestration shuts down the government for our constituencies. Many Democrats believe that the only way for us to reverse these cuts is for us to shut down everything, so that everyone feels the pain.”
The bottom line is that instead of acceding to Republican threats due to fears of economic apocalypse, the time has arrived for the president to consider doing the opposite. What the result would be nobody knows, but the current strategy of yielding has furthered a downward, agonizing grind in living standards amongst America’s historically marginalized communities.
Whether the president will do so is an open question. But this isn’t the first time that powerful constituencies have used the threat of economic collapse to extract key concessions from Obama. Where we are on sequestration right now is eerily similar to where we were on the banking crisis four years ago.
In the Spring of 2009 the president’s top economic advisor—Larry Summers—argued that the most wayward banks on Wall Street should be allowed to fail. They were massive financial zombies sucking up too much money and absorbing time, resources and energy that could be better directed at helping average citizens.
But both the big banks and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner argued a totally contrary position. They said that focusing on everyday economic concerns rather than Wall Street’s well being would lead to economic armageddon. If they didn’t get what they wanted, they insisted, the economy would tank.
We all know what happened. Obama bought the “skyfall” argument and left the banks untouched. Since then, with taxpayer-subsidized money, Wall Street has enjoyed record profits while taxpayers have experienced some of the most difficult times in their lives. Giving in to the bank’s threats is a key reason our economy remains stuck.
And this is the essential point. In wealthy democracies we don’t elect presidents to serve powerful interests. We elect presidents to counteract them. With the special tools and unique powers of the presidency, it’s the only office in the land that can do so.
Unless the White House taps into this truth, our system will remain vulnerable to the economic bullying of powerful people. This would mean more of the same for our traumatized economy and that’s a prospect which should not be acceptable to anyone.