Sunday, September 25, 2011

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I (and many others) have fiercely criticized President Obama’s economic policies and rhetoric over the past three years. During the debt-ceiling debacle, I was particularly incensed by the president’s offer to raise the Medicare eligibility age and decrease Social Security benefits in exchange for tax increases that are already scheduled to occur in 2013. Raising the Medicare eligibility age is horrible economics—private insurance costs much more than Medicare—and terrible politics too, since Democrats would lose their long-held advantage as Medicare defenders. And Social Security is completely solvent through 2036 and would be indefinitely if we simply raised the regressive cap on taxable Social Security income.

It has therefore been refreshing to see the President finally put forth a progressive economic vision, both with the American Jobs Act and with his promise to veto any deficit reduction bill that cuts Medicare benefits without also including significant tax increases on the wealthy. He has also taken Social Security off the table. The President’s policies are economically sound and overwhelmingly popular, and his rhetoric has improved substantially as well. He has been calling out Republicans by name for their insistence on no new taxes on the wealthy, and putting significant pressure on them to pass the new jobs bill. (His rhetoric is by no means perfect: he continues to say that governments are like households and should tighten their belt in a downturn, which is bad economics.)

Even more encouraging is that Obama is taking his message directly to the people. It is a shame that this populist and confrontational Obama has been dormant for so long; we can only wonder what the political landscape might look like if he had done this long ago.

One of the fairest criticisms of the President and his team is that they did so little to capitalize on the momentum they had built up during the 2008 election. Immediately after his victory, there were tens of millions of people who were incredibly inspired, many of whom had never voted or participated in a national election, and they were eager to remain involved. The failure to keep these people engaged represents a huge missed opportunity.

Some commentators have posited that Obama simply hates partisanship and confrontation and refused to believe that it was impossible to achieve compromise with the Republicans. After framing his entire campaign and image around “post-partisanship” and the need to come together as Americans, it’s understandable that Obama felt compelled to genuinely try to work with the GOP. But I will never understand why the president and his team pursued their strategy of capitulation and concession for as long as they did.

Whatever the reasons, I now must give credit where credit is due. Obama seems firmly committed to fight for the middle class and progressive policies. His emphasis on fairness is crucial; many economic policy battles are ultimately battles over values, and the Democrats need to frame them as such. Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Republicans, share Democratic values on the individual issues.

I’ve always been amazed that the GOP—on the wrong side of virtually every issue—has been able to maintain so much political power. Part of the explanation, surely, is that Democrats have largely ceded the language of morality and values to the Republicans. With that in mind, it’s especially heartening to hear Obama making his case with words like fairness. He and the Democrats stand a much greater chance of winning in 2012 if they take the offensive and use strong moral language to contrast their positions with those of the GOP.

On that note, the announcement by Elizabeth Warren of her candidacy for the Senate seat in Massachusetts has been a shot in the arm for progressives. Her recent defense of the social contract has gone viral; it is populist, articulate, and easy to understand. In a follow-up discussion on “Morning Joe,” Warren turned the tables on her questioners and showed an ability to speak in simple, effective language on a range of issues. This is the type of politician Republicans most fear, and I’m confident she will defeat Scott Brown next year (you can help her candidacy here). Who knows? Her Senate career could be a prelude to an eventual run for the Presidency, and she’s the type of unapologetic progressive who will fight tooth and nail for the middle class.

Thankfully, Obama has now taken that direction too.

Jason Scorse

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