Negotiations over raising the U.S. debt ceiling have become grotesque, with the Republicans holding the country hostage to their agenda of coddling the rich, ignoring the middle class, and gutting the social safety nets that protect the poor and vulnerable. With the GOP eager to damage the economy and bolster their 2012 prospects, they seem to be in a no-lose situation. The lazy and incompetent traditional media are playing along as always, doing little to point out just how dangerous Republican tactics are or to remind Americans that the deficits are almost completely a product of Republican decisions made during the Bush years.
But it’s really Obama’s fault that the GOP is able to use the negotiations in this manner. He could’ve demanded a debt ceiling increase when he agreed last year to extend the Bush tax cuts, or he could have insisted on a clean debt-ceiling vote with no strings attached. Instead, once again, he’s been parroting nonsensical right wing talking points: the government has to balance its books just like ordinary households, and businesses (sitting on record amounts of cash) can’t have any confidence unless and until the government acts on long-term deficit reduction. In reality, what businesses really need is more demand. Cutting spending now is almost certain to worsen the economy, and may even lead to a double-dip recession; in addition, entitlement changes that take effect years from now won’t make businesses start spending today.
It’s times like these when I have to ask myself what Obama can possibly be thinking. Maybe his message resonates with so-called “independent” voters, who are mostly disaffected Republicans that appreciate rightwing rhetoric. Maybe he believes that the debt talks will help him cut down on military spending and agricultural subsidies, which have proven untouchable in the past. With both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now scheduled to end, the Treasury is set to save over $1 trillion over the next decade (so maybe the cuts to discretionary spending won’t have to be that deep).
Maybe he’s a better negotiator than it seems, but I’m nervous. The GOP’s insistence on no new tax revenues, coupled with savage cuts to social programs, may make even Obama unwilling to compromise. It’s also important to remember that debt ceiling votes come up continually; if Obama doesn’t stand strong now, Republican demands and intransigence will only get worse in the future (as hard as that is to fathom).
As Maureen Dowd recently wrote in her New York Times column, Obama seems hard-wired against staking out strong positions and drawing lines in the sand. He seems predisposed to always be conciliatory and split the difference. Now well into his third year, Obama has acted decisively on only two fronts: the healthcare overhaul, and a more aggressive terrorist assassination program that has taken out not only Osama bin Laden but a majority of the Al Qaeda leadership. In both cases he exercised strong leadership, took large risks, and used up huge amounts of political capital.
In the current debt ceiling negotiations, he needs once again to exercise boldness and stand up for progressive values. He needs to remind Americans that it was the GOP that got us into this mess, and that now is the absolute worst time to take money out of the economy and weaken ordinary Americans’ safety nets. He needs to stop worrying about false class warfare accusations, and point out to the country that it is Republicans who are actually practicing class warfare at every opportunity—from statehouses to the Congress. (Prime example: after talking incessantly about jobs in the run-up to the 2010 elections, the GOP has done absolutely nothing along those lines; instead, almost openly, they seem to be hoping for a limp economy come 2012).
The August 2nd debt ceiling deadline represents a crucial test of Obama’s leadership. If he stands strong, he will strike a populist note, make an impassioned case for progressive priorities, and highlight the GOP’s hypocrisy and allegiance to the affluent. But if he gives in, he will severely tarnish the Democratic claim to stand for the middle class—and allow the GOP to further divide and weaken our country for the benefit of the rich.