Smarting from the complaints within his own party about the tax deal he and the Republican leadership had hatched, an increasingly defensive President Obama said,” this is the public option debate all over again.” Then, he claimed, that while he was able to pass a meaningful reform, progressives had instead viewed it as “weakness and compromise” that there was no public option in his healthcare plan. “Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, and then let’s face it, we will never get anything done.”
“This is a big, diverse country,” Obama said. “Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people.”
“This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door of this country’s founding,” he added. “And you know, if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a Union.”
When I read those words my first thought was: that’s not how Abe Lincoln viewed it.
On some questions, Lincoln was not what we would today consider a progressive. He was quite willing to compromise, even on the method and timing of ending slavery. He had many critics to his left and while he dithered at times, and was criticized for doing so, he did not accuse his critics of being sanctimonious purists. He continued to confer with them, having some, including black leader Frederick Douglas, over to the White House. But once the die was cast over slavery, he resisted pressure from rightists and “moderates” of the time for a compromise with the Confederacy.
Compromising is not an inherent virtue. It is, indeed, a necessity. We do it all the time in our personal and social lives, Society would be impossible without it. The question is: compromise over what and on what?
Of course tax policy in 2010 is not the monumental issue that slavery was in the 1800s but don’t go belittling people, calling them “sanctimonious,” just because they don’t think a particular “compromise” is justified.
Talk about holding the country hostage; consider what happened a few years after Lincoln was assassinated. Perhaps one of the nation’s most infamous political deals was the Compromise of 1877, also known as the Hayes-Tilden Compromise or the “Corrupt Bargain.” The previous year, a dispute erupted over who had won the Presidential election, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes or Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. After negotiations, it was agreed that Hayes could go to the White House if the Republicans agreed to certain demands, chief among them, the ending of Reconstruction in the Post Civil War South. The understanding was that Hayes would remove the federal troops that, among other things, guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. The bargain set the stage for nearly a century of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation that followed.
A few days ago I discovered I wasn’t the only one wondering: what would Lincoln do?
“President Obama’s tax deal with congressional Republicans may well turn out to be a defining moment in his presidency,” wrote historian Eric Foner. “This is less because of its content than what it tells us about Obama himself and his politics.”
“During the 2008 campaign, many observers compared Obama with Abraham Lincoln,” Foner wrote in the Guardian (UK) December 9. “Obama encouraged this, announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Lincoln’s home, and taking the oath of office on the bible Lincoln used in 1861.”
“… Many comparisons between Lincoln and Obama have no historical merit. One that has validity is that both made their national reputations through oratory rather than long careers of public service. Lincoln held no public office between 1849 and his election. Obama served briefly in the Illinois legislature and US Senate, but had no significant legislative accomplishment. It was speeches – of considerable eloquence and moral power – that propelled both into the national spotlight.”
“Obama’s rather petulant response to liberal critics of his tax deal, however, reveals a fundamental difference between the two men,” wrote Foner. “Obama accuses liberals of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than getting things accomplished. Lincoln, too, faced critics on the left of his own party. Abolitionists, who agitated outside the political system, and Radical Republicans, who represented the abolitionist sensibility in politics, frequently criticized Lincoln for what they saw as his slowness in attacking slavery during the civil war. In 1864, one group of Radicals even sought to replace Lincoln with their own candidate, John C Fremont.
“Lincoln, however, was open-minded, intellectually curious and willing to listen to critics in his own party – qualities Obama appears to lack. Lincoln met frequently in the White House with abolitionists and Radicals, and befriended Radicals like Charles Sumner and Owen Lovejoy. Obama has surrounded himself with “yes men”. Alternative views – on the economy, the nation’s wars, etc – fail to penetrate his inner sanctum. Lincoln saw himself as part of a broad antislavery movement of which the Radicals were also a part. Obama has no personal or political connection to the labor movement, or even, although it seems counterintuitive, the civil rights movement – the seedbeds of modern Democratic Party liberalism.
“Lincoln was not a Radical and never claimed to be one. But he recognized that on core moral issues, particularly the need to place slavery on the road to extinction, he and they shared common ground. Obama appears to view liberal critics as little more than an annoyance. He has never made clear what moral principles he is willing to fight for.
“Every major policy of Lincoln’s regarding slavery during the civil war – military emancipation, enrolling black soldiers in the Union army, amending the constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some African-American men to vote – had first been staked out by abolitionists and Radicals. This is not why Lincoln adopted them, but it does reveal a capacity for growth that Obama has thus far failed to demonstrate. In the end, this may turn out to be the greatest disappointment of Obama’s presidency.”
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson suggested last week that liberals and progressive had little choice but to go along with the Obama-GOP compromise but added, “…this is painful. Democrats in Congress are understandably irate at being lectured so sternly by a president for whom ending the tax cuts for the wealthy was so important that it was non-negotiable – until he negotiated it away.”
“It’s a sad story, for the country and especially for the Democratic Party,” wrote Robinson. “I believe the White House continues to underestimate the anger and disillusionment among the party’s loyal base – and the need for some victories, or at least some heroic battles, to lift the spirits of the faithful. Obama needs to train his newfound passion and outrage on his foes in the GOP, not on the friends and supporters that his press secretary once derisively called the ‘professional left’.”
The big problem now is trying to figure out what other “compromises” may be in the legislative pipeline. Surely, getting anything reasonable done is going to be doubly difficult next year when the new Congress convenes with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. Enter the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, otherwise known of as the Cat Food Commission. Created by the President last spring, under the chairpersonship of former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, it lurks in the corridors of power like the living dead, determined to have its way.
The Simpson Bowles proposals, which among other things targets Social Security and Medicare for sharp cutbacks, failed to get the support of 14 of the 18 commissions that were required to guarantee a vote by Congress. But never mind that, they and their powerful backers are engaged in a full-court press to convince the White House to embrace their program for nearly $4 billion in budget cuts in the next federal budget. Simpson and Bowles met with senior White House aides last week and, according to the Financial Times, urged them “to incorporate a sweeping debt reduction proposal in the ‘State of Union’ address and the White House budget proposal early next year, and begin negotiations with lawmakers on the package.”
The President has previously said the commission’s co-chair’s views would be taken into consideration when preparing the budget.
Talk about holding the country hostage, Simpson and Bowles are clearly playing hardball. They are said to have proposed a deal with the President whereby he would agree quickly to their proposals in order to avoid a major showdown in Congress next year. They are operating against the backdrop of a Republican threat to bring the government to a halt when the routine question of raising the Federal debt limit comes before Congress if they don’t get their way on drastic spending cuts. “We believe a bipartisan agreement should be reached before any long-term increase in the debt limit is approved,” Bowles and Simpson said.
“I can’t wait for the blood bath in April,” Simpson said November 19. “It won’t matter whether two of us have signed this or 14 or 18. When debt limit time comes, they’re going to look around and say, ‘What in the hell do we do now? We’ve got guys who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give ‘em a piece of meat, real meat, off of this package.’ And boy the bloodbath will be extraordinary.”
That statement prompted economist Paul Krugman to remark, “Think of Mr. Simpson’s blood lust as one more piece of evidence that our nation is in much worse shape, much closer to a political breakdown, than most people realize.”
Of course, none of this maneuvering has anything to do with democratic decision making. It is all designed to get around public opinion and the Constitutional process of legislative deliberation.
On November 30, the Associated Press reported, “We keep seeing this same result. A recent CBS News poll asked Americans what they’d like to see Congress focus on next year. The results weren’t close – a 56 percent majority cited ‘economy/jobs’ as the top issue. Health care was a distant second at 14 percent, while tackling the deficit/debt was a very distant third at 4 percent. A week later, Gallup found a combined 64 percent of the country cited “economy/jobs’ as the top issue in the country, while the deficit was a distant fifth at 9 percent. The AP’s poll is in line with the others.”
“The actual consequences of this deal, of course, will be more severe than the political fallout in 2012,” wrote Zach Carter on the Campaign for America’s Future website. “We’ll soon hear about ‘tough choices’ facing the country as a result of our allegedly out-of-control budget deficit (bond interest rates, shmond interest rates!). Now that raising taxes on the rich has been taken off the table, those ‘choices’ will translate to devastating cuts in Social Security.
After agreeing to useless tax cuts for the rich in the name of economic ‘stimulus,’ Wall Street executives and Congressional Republicans will demand Social Security be slashed, further sabotaging our demand-starved economy, and actually starving our senior citizens.”
At his recent press conference, Obama asserted that the positions of such people on the left would result in nothing being accomplished, except having “a ‘sanctimonious’ pride in the purity of their own positions.” Tell that to Abe, Barack.
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