“Hold on a second, Ben, this isn’t a politics of the moment; this has to do with, What can we get done right now?” (Barack Obama)
In that moment of unintentional irony, we have a glimpse of just how feckless this administration is. It was part of Obama’s attempt to justify, to his own erstwhile supporters, his capitulation to the Republicans on tax cuts for the wealthy. For a full half-hour of doubletalk, see the video.
Asked about what his core principles were — the reporter was tactful enough not to add “if any” — the President replied, “With respect to the bottom line in terms of what my core principles are? Yeah. Well, look, I’ve got a whole bunch of lines in the sand. Not making tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, that was a line in the sand.” He elaborated on his position during the negotiations of the past week. He had been asked specifically about his administration going forward, and not about this particular deal, but he was unable to think of, or unwilling to name, any actual core principles he has, so I guess he did the best he could.
The thing about lines in the sand is, it’s in their nature to be temporary. Sand is not a stable medium. On this particular issue, Obama has moved his line at least twice. When he was running for President, he drew a line in the sand: He was committed to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He made that abundantly clear. After two years in the White House, with his party in control of both houses of Congress, nothing has been done about repeal. Earlier this year, he drew another line in the sand: He was committed to letting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire at the end of this year. By November, he had a new line in the sand: “I also believe that it would be fiscally irresponsible for us to permanently extend the high-income tax cuts.” That’s his line in the sand today. No repeal, no expiration, but he can get behind renewing them for two years — this time. But he’s really, really, not going to make them permanent. Really. That’s his line in the sand. Thing is, it’s always windy on Obama Beach. When you come back the next day, the line is gone.
Obama never pursued repeal of those tax cuts for the wealthy. When it came down to it, he never pushed letting them expire, either. He conceded that point last month. When you give up before you even get to the negotiating table, that’s not compromise. That’s surrender.
John Aravosis pointed out in September, following snarky remarks by Obama1 and Biden2 about progressives, that it’s now White House strategy to belittle its own base. That’s still Obama’s strategy, though what he hopes to accomplish by it, I couldn’t tell you. Yesterday, he delivered a rant about progressives that was revealing in its sarcasm, condescension, and dishonesty. He said:
|So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation, where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get, that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for thirty million people, and the potential for lower premiums for a hundred million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it: We will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are, and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still saying to themselves, not able to get health insurance because of pre-existing condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out. That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat. This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. You know, the New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives, and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us? And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew. Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And you know, if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a Union. So, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? You know, what is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture there are going to be times where my preferred option — what I’m absolutely positive is right — I can’t get done. And so then my question is, Does it make a little sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight. Not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term? And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office, and where we are now, would say that we have not moved in the direction that I promised. Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it. And so, to my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand that this is a long game. It is not a short game. And to my Republican friends, I would suggest — uh, I think this is a good agreement because I know that they’re swallowing some things that they don’t like as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.|
I wish somebody would buy the President a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Maybe James MacGregor Burns’ The Lion and the Fox, or Conrad Black’s Champion of Freedom. Because of course Social Security, when first enacted, did not just affect widows and orphans, and this isn’t the first time Obama’s been wrong about Roosevelt. Somebody, please, buy the man a book.
But that’s just a minor point. What’s important isn’t his errors about Roosevelt, but the fact that his rant yesterday was bullshit almost from start to finish.
One thing he’s right about: This is just like the health care debate. In the past, Obama had made a few remarks about how he really would have preferred a single-payer plan, but he never promised that, or even offered to advocate it. The option most progressives would have preferred was off the table from the very beginning. What was not off the table was a public option.
Obama said over and over again that he would give the American people a public option for health care insurance — what he even called “a robust public option.” He didn’t, and it’s not just that he didn’t succeed. He didn’t even try.
Senator Joe Lieberman, who opposed a public option, said Obama never asked him to support one. By December 2009, despite growing support in the Senate and among the populace for a public option, Obama was saying it wasn’t important. When the “Obama plan” was finally presented to Congress, it didn’t mention a public option at all. Senator Russ Feingold publicly blamed the loss of a public option on “the lack of support from the administration.” Representative Anthony Weiner said, “Taking on the insurance lobby here, some, including some in the Administration, have tried to kind of be kind of like half pregnant, you know, try to take them on a little bit, but not at other times.”
What we got wasn’t a public option. What we got was an individual mandate. If you don’t have health insurance, and you’re not poor enough to be on public assistance already, the Obama plan will require you to buy some — from a for-profit insurance company. When Obama says he got health insurance for thirty million people, that’s exactly what he’s talking about. Thirty million uninsured people will be required to buy health insurance.
Now, the funny thing about that individual mandate is that it was originally a Republican idea, espoused by people like Orrin Hatch and John McCain back in the early 1990s — though in true Republican fashion, they decided it was intolerable as soon as Obama said he was for it. During the 2008 primaries, both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards supported an individual mandate, and Obama criticized them — especially Clinton — for that idea. Yet the individual mandate was not what Obama settled for after a long and determined battle for “a robust public option.” The individual mandate was what he brought to the table. Once again, if you surrender before the fight, you don’t get to call it a compromise.
The President wants to compare his health care achievement to Roosevelt and Johnson’s achievements, but Roosevelt and Johnson gave us real public programs, and Obama didn’t; he just gave us a law. Roosevelt, with his party in control of both houses of Congress, gave us Social Security. Johnson, with his party in control of both houses of Congress, gave us Medicare. Obama, with his party in control of both houses of Congress, required us to buy health insurance. If I were Obama, I think I’d shut the hell up about Roosevelt and Johnson before too many people really make the comparison.3
For members of the LGBT community, Obama’s modus operandi has long been tragically apparent. When Obama took office, we wanted five pieces of legislation. We wanted to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (MSA); an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). We wanted to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). Obama promised to be a “fierce advocate” for our rights.
To be fair, Obama never promised us anything on UAFA. In his usual manner, he said he was for it but he couldn’t support it, but he hoped that someday he would be able to support it. Like Hillary Clinton, he told the Human Rights Campaign that he supported it, but never signed on as a co-sponsor, and publicly worried that it would be used for immigration fraud.
The Democratic Congress actually did deliver on MSA, and Obama signed it. His Justice Department hasn’t chosen to use it to prosecute even a single hate crime against any lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person; in fact, it was just about a week ago — thirteen months after Obama signed the bill into law — that his Justice Department filed its very first charges under the law, over a race-based hate crime. But after all, they’ve been very busy fighting against the LGBT community. And at least the law is in place, in case anybody should ever decide to use it.
Obama did promise us an inclusive ENDA, which is the latest version of legislation the LGBT community has been trying to get passed since 1974. Barney Frank, who has personally been trying to pass this bill since 1994, introduced it again on 24 June 2009, and it’s been stuck in committee ever since. Obama has done absolutely nothing to urge Congress to move on it.
However, Obama’s doing nothing can be a blessing, because he’s been very busy on DOMA and DADT, and not to our benefit.
I don’t know why Obama ever said he wanted to repeal DOMA, because he’s been clear about his opposition to marriage equality ever since he set his sights on the Oval Office. But he did promise to repeal DOMA, regardless of the fact that he didn’t think we should be allowed to get married, and further promised to enact legislation that would guarantee all the rights and obligations of marriage to same-sex couples “in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions.” He’s done nothing on the legislative side, and nothing in the way of advocacy, but his Justice Department has been very active in defending DOMA against legal challenges, sometimes in the most insulting ways.
On DADT, likewise, Obama’s Justice Department has fought tooth and nail to keep it in place, and Obama — even as he claimed to be fighting for repeal — fought just as viciously to make sure it was not repealed. When became clear that the House would vote on repeal against Obama’s wishes, it was Obama who brokered a deal to make sure that even if it were repealed, that repeal would not be implemented until Obama, his Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on it. He has been equally adamant that the Senate shouldn’t vote on even that watered-down, conditional repeal until the lame duck session. And just recently, after Obama himself had destroyed any likelihood of repeal by this Congress, his Secretary of Defense warned that it was important to pass the conditional repeal this month, to prevent repeal from being implemented before the administration was ready.4
On tax cuts for the wealthy, on health care reform, on LGBT rights, Obama says one thing and does another. Then he wants you to ignore what he did, and give him credit for what he said. He is utterly disingenuous, and completely without shame.
But he did say something else yesterday that rings true: “I will be happy to see Republicans test whether I’m itching for a fight on a whole range of issues. I suspect they will find I am. ”
I suspect they will. Unless he has a complete change of personality between now and January, you can count on it. Whenever circumstances allow, you will find Barack Obama itching for a fight — against progressives.
The President would have us believe that this is a debate about “abstract ideals.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a dispute about policies — actual, real-life policies — and his policies stink to high heaven. The American people don’t need “a North Star out there.” The American people need action, and a President who can deliver it. Or at least try.
1 Obama in Rolling Stone, 15 October 2010: “People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.” In the same interview, Obama said, “The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.” At a fundraiser in Philadelphia a week before that interview, Obama urged: “Folks wake up! This is not some academic exercise. As Joe Biden put it, Don’t compare us to the Almighty, compare us to the alternative.”
2 “Biden … urged Democrats to ‘remind our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives.'” (CBS News, 27 September 2010.)
3 In the last days of the George W. Bush administration, Hugo Chávez said he hoped Obama would “be a new Roosevelt.” I wonder whether President Chávez is half as disgusted as I am.
4 Gordon Lubold, “Gates: Clock ticking on ‘don’t ask,'” Politico, 6 December 2010. “My greatest fear is that we will be told that this law will be overturned by a court and we will be told to implement it without any time for preparation for training, any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a change.”