What’s Next for Obama and Democrats?

President Obama’s position as a centrist has left him wounded by left and right in the raging deficits debate. In one sense he has succeeded politically by appearing far more rational than a Republican Party tethered to the Tea Party. That should serve him well in the 2012 national election. On the other hand, he has seriously alienated most of the progressive community, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose strong support he will need in the year ahead.

Some of the damage is due the White House and Obama himself. Sarcastic comments about “the professional left” or Democrats who want to slash the military budget to zero have poured salt on festering wounds. The president’s own temperament and political calculation rules out the militant rhetoric demanded by columnists like Paul Krugman.

But there is a disturbing tone among some critics of Obama, ranging from personal disgust to out-and-out hate (I can remember the same vitriol by Eugene McCarthy supporters towards Robert Kennedy).

One difficulty for many progressives is what to expect from presidential power when the House, the Supreme Court, FOX News and most of the mainstream media owners are conservative, and only about 20 U.S. Senators can be described as staunchly liberal. A president is expected to protect the nation’s reputation from military attack and economic default. Obama faces a dire future if he “loses” a war or plunges the economy into the first default in US history. That’s the basic reason the House Republicans have the competitive advantage: they know that a catastrophic default will be good for them because Obama will be blamed. So they can afford brinksmanship while the president is limited.

Some disagree. Rep. Raul Grijalva thinks that Obama should have demanded a debt-ceiling vote all along, evenly balanced between cuts and revenues. Grijalva acknowledges that such a vote would have failed, and says that Obama then should have utilized the 14th amendment to “end this manufactured crisis.” The Congressional Black Caucus and many liberals like Bernie Sanders backed the concept. In other words, Obama should have asserted presidential authority to prevent a default by relying on a constitutional proviso that the “validity of the national debt of the United States…cannot be questioned.” That’s brinksmanship, and could have been worth the risk. However, the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court probably would have rejected Obama’s bold move, leaving the Democrats’ in a weakened position. And then…there is no answer to the question of what might have followed. The rabbit hole comes to mind.

Having driven down the Tea Party/Republican poll ratings in the recent debate, now it becomes the president’s political obligation to back a resurgence of the progressive wing of his own party. He can do that only by relentless work between now and the November 2012 election.

Here are steps he might take on the road to progressive recovery:

  • Change the frame from “big government versus small government”, and not by trying to create a smaller government in a Democratic image, but by arguing that Big Money has hijacked democracy; broaden the campaign discussion to fault the Roberts Court and FOX News;
  • Declare absolutely that he will let tax credits for the rich expire in 2012, instead of making that issue another bargaining chip.
  • Take on the immoral and unfair  system of lobbying and campaign contributions in a new way. Currently the American taxpayer is subsidizing the very lobbies who are protecting the rich, the bankers, the corporations, and the polluters – and writing all their costs off as tax-deductible expenses. This approach has never been prioritized by either party, but the Republicans are the most scandalous.
  • Campaign on the Democratic Senate leadership’s smart decision to include $1.2 trillion in budget cuts for Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s more like $5 trillion – see National Priorities to spell out the impact. Enlist the mayors led by Antonio Villaraigosa to call for new priorities.
  • Highlight how the federal bailout of the American auto companies has led to economic improvement and a negotiated doubling of fuel-efficiency standards.
  • Reject the Republican/Tea Party anti-immigrant campaign. Implement the DREAM act through executive orders protecting undocumented students and soldiers from deportation.
  • Meet organized labor’s and environmentalist demands for fair trade agreements which attack sweatshops, raise wages to above poverty-levels and include enforceable standards.
  • Revive the dormant debate over global warming, linking it to saving the environment through green jobs.
  • Progressive populism should be the essential Democratic brand.

Reject the view of some consultants that “Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans” as wishful thinking. Promise a second term that is progressive to the core, and leave it to the voters.

tom hayden“We have made our bottom line clear for months: a final deal must strike a balance between cuts and revenue, and must not put all the burden on the working people of this country,” he said. “This deal fails those tests and many more.”

President Obama should have demanded a clean debt-ceiling vote all along, Grijalva added.

“Had that vote failed,” he said, “the president should have exercised his Fourteenth Amendment responsibilities and ended this manufactured crisis.”

Tom Hayden
Peace Exchange Bulletin

Published by the LA Progressive on August 3, 2011
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About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.