Like most progressives, I liked what President Obama had to say in his budget speech last Wednesday. For the last two years I’ve been criticizing him for never standing up and making his case to the American people, so when he finally does that I have to give him some credit. He argued that the government does have a role to play in society, that we as Americans ought to not just look out for ourselves but our fellow citizens as well, and that dealing with our economic problems should require sacrifices from the wealthy and not just the middle class. He finally went after the Republicans for claiming that we can afford massive tax-cuts for the rich while simultaneously demanding drastic deficit reductions, and he pointed out that the rich are doing quite well these days and they ought to be expected to pay their fair share. He vowed not to extend the Bush tax-cuts again, and he said he would protect social safety nets like Medicare, which the Republicans are now planning to ‘reform’ (i.e. kill it in order to “save” it).
Unfortunately, while President Obama did make a lot of good points, he made them at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday, he didn’t make them very forcefully, and it seemed that nobody noticed except the usual TV pundits and bloggers whose job is to follow this stuff closely. They all agree that this was basically the first speech of Obama’s 2012 campaign, but it doesn’t seem like anyone heard it.
But it was a good speech and a good sign that the president isn’t going to drift as far to the political right as some of us have feared. If he remains president, we should be able to expect the expiration of the Bush tax-cuts, and we should be able to rest relatively safe knowing that programs like Social Security and Medicare will remain intact. Those reasons alone are good enough to vote for Obama over a Republican in 2012.
But I can’t help but seriously temper my optimism by looking at Obama’s campaigning/governing pattern so far and noticing the glaring differences between his rhetoric and his actions. If I ask myself, “Is this the kind of message I want from the president?” the answer is yes. But if I ask, “Does this represent a fundamental shift in the president’s governing strategy?” I’d have to say no. It was refreshing to hear him stand up and make some progressive arguments, but it’s not like he’s never made progressive arguments before—he did that all the way through the 2008 campaign, and back then he did it far more forcefully.
It was to be expected that once the re-election campaign kicked into gear, we’d start to see a little of the old Obama again. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, most Americans take the liberal/progressive position on virtually every political issue, so it’s politically smart to run a campaign as a progressive—as long as you can privately assure your Big Money donors that you’re not actually that progressive. Once you win the election and get into office, you’re free to move as far to the right as you like (and when your political opponents are as close to the fringe as the Republicans are, you can move very far to the right indeed).
I don’t need to make another laundry list of the things Obama promised he would do as a candidate and then backed down from as president. The only thing I need to mention is his promise to let the Bush tax-cuts expire. He tells us now that when the fight over those tax-cuts comes up again next year, this time he’ll refuse to cave in to the Republicans. Forgive me for quoting Bush, but “Fool me once, shame on…shame on…”
I’m not too excited about what I heard from Obama in his speech because it’s nothing new. I’ve always liked his speeches, I’ve always come away from them thinking that he’s on my side and he’s sincere in what he says. Then he goes and cuts back-room deals with Republicans and corporate power-players and I wonder what the hell happened to that guy who gave those awesome speeches.
The real litmus test for whether or not Obama is actually changing course in his approach to governing is coming soon, in the battle over raising the debt ceiling. Everyone who knows anything about economics says that for America to default on its debt would be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. The Republicans are getting ready to threaten to plunge the country (and the rest of the world with it) into another major economic crisis if the president doesn’t give them exactly what they want.
My guess is, the president won’t shift tactics at all. He’ll act like the Republicans are actually serious about doing it (when in reality they wouldn’t dare because their Wall Street masters wouldn’t let them) and cough up a bunch of spending cuts on programs for the poor and middle-class before finally reaching a deal at the eleventh hour.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and this time he’ll actually call the Republicans’ bluff and refuse to give up any more cuts that would hurt the middle-class. I certainly hope so, but I just don’t see that happening. His whole strategy is to appear as moderate and willing-to-compromise as possible, so he’ll compromise even when he doesn’t have to. He knows he can win re-election simply by telling progressives what they want to hear, and by moving just as far to the right of the center as he can in order to attract independents. He knows how far to the right the Tea Party has pushed the Republicans, and it’s his best electoral advantage. He might tell progressives nice things, but he doesn’t actually have to do anything for them because they’ll have no viable alternative.
Meanwhile, he still needs those Big Money campaign donations, so he’ll make sure to continue protecting the establishment and maintaining the broken system as is.
The only way for us to truly change things is by reforming the way campaigns are financed, but that’s only going to happen from a grassroots level, and unfortunately I don’t see such a movement really picking up steam before the next election.
No matter who wins in 2012, the American people will lose. The only decision we’ll have is over how painful that loss is going to be.