Friday, October 21, 2011

The Death of Hope, Pt. 2

On a seasonably warm night in early November, a raucous crowd awaited the first public appearance of the country's new President-Elect.  This able politician, who had campaigned on a message of change, connected with people on a personal level, seeming to consume their energy and hope, projecting it back to them with the idea that years of Republican neglect were finally coming to an end.  When Bill Clinton walked on stage at the Old Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas on that mild evening nearly 20 years ago, many in the crowd, myself included, were filled with the belief that things were finally going to change, that this man, who had fought against bitter personal attacks and slurs, been written off as the failed governor of a small southern state, had successfully closed the books on 12 years of Republican rule that had left all but the very wealthy worse off than when they started.  

I thought a lot about that night during the waning days of the 2008 campaign.  The crowd that turned out to see President-Elect Barack Obama in Grant Park dwarfed those of us who had been in Little Rock in 1992 and the inspiration and energy in the crowd that night was palpable, even just watching it on TV.  What I knew, and indeed, had experienced the first time the "hope and change"wagon had been ridden to the White House, was that campaigns, while hard and demanding,  pale in comparison to the hard job of enacting policies that actually make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans.

What President Obama has experienced literally from the moment he put his hand on the Bible to swear his oath of office is a rear guard action by conservatives, right-wing talk show hosts and an organized, lock step opposition in Congress to essentially anything he has attempted to implement.  Not only has the "vast right wing conspiracy" grown since the days of Bill Clinton, it has become far better organized, disciplined and funded and the President, his best intentions notwithstanding, was woefully unprepared for the onslaught.  

Consider that the historic moment of the first African-American person being sworn in as President will forever be sullied by the most pedestrian of reasons - a Chief Justice who decided to "wing it" when it came to giving the oath of office - and can never be shown in full without that embarrassing gaffe ruining what was a public event attended by more than 2 million people.  Indeed, the error was considered significant enough that a separate ceremony took place the following evening to avoid any question as to the President's legitimacy.  One wonders whether then-Senator Obama's vote against Chief Justice Roberts's appointment to that office had anything to do with the latter's decision to try and administer the oath of office to the President-Elect by memory when his predecessor, William Rehnquist, who swore in no less than 5 Presidents, always read off a small card.  Nevertheless, the first image of our newly minted President was tainted by this episode.

The President's first major legislative achievement, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act or Stimulus Bill) is a perfect example of Republican demonizing and his failure to properly message the contents and benefits of the law.  Republicans have turned the word "stimulus" into a dirty word by arguing that the Recovery Act was a $787 billion waste of money that created no jobs and did nothing to boost the economy.  It's a simple and superficially appealing argument - unemployment did rise after the Recovery Act was passed, the economy, although improving, has not bounced back as robustly as was hoped - another sign, they argue, that stimulus failed. 

The party of never having seen a tax cut they don't like seem to not like the fact that the Recovery Act contained nearly $300 billion, or roughly 40 percent of the bill's total cost, in tax cuts for individuals and corporations and one-time payments to Social Security recipients.  It also included a large contribution to Medicaid ($86 billion) to offset costs incurred by states.  The bill also made significant investments in research and technology, in alternative energy and in direct aid to states.  In addition, roughly $100 billion was made available for infrastructure and other projects with a clearer nexus to job creation.  As has been well documented, Republicans who publicly belittled the Recovery Act were actively writing letters to Administration officials who controlled the grant making purse strings to seek money (and job opportunities) for their constituents and happily showed up to ribbon cutting ceremonies when local projects funded by ARRA launched.  

While the Recovery Act fight was a minor skirmish (the law was signed less than a month after Obama was sworn in) Senate Republicans quickly picked up the mantle of the filibuster, grinding much of the work of the Senate to a slow crawl if not outright halt.  Non-controversial appointments to executive agencies were slow walked, held up and otherwise delayed, which in turn slowed the other work of the Senate (House Republicans were largely powerless to stop legislation from passing).  By the time the 111th Congress ended, the House had passed hundreds of bills, many representing key policy initiatives of the President, only to see them die in the Senate.  What Senate Republicans understood was that the American public writ large does not get into the weeds of Washington dysfunction, they just decry it without distinguishing why it is occurring.  

When the President turned to health care, the Republicans attacked from both sides.  From one flank, well funded "astro turf" groups ginned up hysterical claims about thousands of new IRS agents being hired to implement the law, of death panels that would make life and death decisions and most memorably that government should "keep its hands off my Medicare."  These organized protests, which disrupted town hall meetings, toured the country in slick buses and had their message amplified on right-wing talk radio and Fox News, decimated support for universal health care.  From the other flank, a purported group of moderate Republicans entered into negotiations in the Senate to salvage a bi-partisan solution only to pull out at the last minute and echo the same falsehoods about the bill, which, went without frequent mention, was based on two *Republican* proposals, one put forth by Senator Chafee in the early 1990s and the other, more famously, by then-Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 2006.  No mind, what the so-called "Gang of Six" had successfully done is drag out the health care discussion for months longer than it otherwise should have.  

By the time the bill finally passed in early 2010, the victory was pyrrhic.  In an attempt to gain Republican support (which was not forthcoming - not one Republican in the House or Senate voted for the bill) what ultimately became the Affordable Care Act essentially handed the health insurance companies more than 30 million new customers who would now be required to carry some form of health insurance by 2014.  Re-importation of drugs and a public option, two pillars of what most experts believed would actually "bend the cost curve" never got within sniffing distance of being included because of deals cut with the pharmaceutical industry as to the former and demonization of "socialized medicine" as to the latter.  The failure of the Administration to point out that seniors, veterans and the disabled all survive quite nicely (and generally support) "government run health care" was nowhere mentioned.

The toxicity of the health care debate and the rise of the "Tea Party" further weakened Obama's hand.  The Administration and its allies were forced to argue from a position of weakness, of jobs "saved" by the Recovery Act versus ones actually created (even though there were a lot of those too).  The positive aspects of the ACA, many of which had formed the failed "Patient's Bill of Rights" under President Clinton, were not promoted and the bill itself was crafted in a way that opened it to potential legal attack, which many Republican state Attorneys General did after its passage.  

It is unsurprising that the mid-term election of 2010 did not go well for the Democrats.  A combination of retirements, well funded candidates and the naturally lower voter turn out all conspired to help roll a Republican tide that swept in a new House majority and reduced the Democrats majority in the Senate to just 3 votes.  While Republicans are not very good at governing, they do know how to effectively wield power and they did just that even before the new Congress was sworn in on January 3, 2011.  

The showdown was over the extension of the so-called "Bush Tax Cuts" from 2001 and 2003 that had lowered marginal rates, helped explode the deficit (and debt) and disproportionately benefited the wealthy.  Back in 2001 when the original tax cuts were passed, a sunset provision was inserted (with the support and "aye" votes of many of the same Republicans decrying their lapsing in 2010), in part to make the long-term cost of the legislation seem more reasonable (without the sunset provision, scoring would have been done not just until 2011, but permanently, which would have added trillions to its cost).  Republicans were willing to allow all of the tax cuts to sunset (which would have negatively impacted the fragile economy and middle class) if extensions were not given to the wealthy as well.  As a sweetener, the President also tweaked the estate tax, which was scheduled to return to the Clinton-era level of 55 percent after the first $1 million in a person's estate (a total that hits less than 2 percent of all estates), to permit a two year extension at 35 percent starting at $5 million (reducing the number of estates impacted to less than 1 percent).  Nevermind that the same Republicans who stomped their feet about extending these tax cuts (which just add to the overall debt) were also the same people decrying .... debt and deficit spending.  

Added together, the Republicans have placed Obama in a domestic policy box largely of his own creation. Stimulus is now a dirty word when most economists agree that job creation can be greatly aided by government spending, never mind the fact that the private sector has been adding jobs for nearly two years while states and localities, starved of additional federal assistance, have been trimming their workforces.  Further, the President took money out of the Social Security surplus by lowering the payroll tax that employees pay, which will just add fuel to the argument in the future that Social Security will need to be reformed in ways that reduce benefits when in fact a fairly simple fix that continues to apply the payroll tax at up to a higher income level than it does currently ($106,800) would ensure Social Security's solvency for decades to come (as it is, full payments can be made for another 27 years).  Finally, Republicans can simply block legislation they don't like.  With a majority in the House and filibuster power in the Senate, Republicans are free to stymie any attempt by the President to promote job growth which will have the salutary effect (from the Republicans' perspective) of lessening Obama's re-election chances.

But the death of hope is not the Republicans fault.  Opposition parties exist on some level to oppose - but the ferocity and discipline of the opposition appeared to catch the Obama Administration off guard, which is surprising considering how thick it was with veterans from the Clinton Administration starting with Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.  While many "points" were put up on the board, the Obama messaging machine often seems to have a tin ear for how to communicate with the American people.  Popular enactments, like credit card and student loan reform were largely unmentioned, the ARRA was rarely defended as several large policy pieces in one (tax cuts, infrastructure, state aid), allowing it to be slammed as a huge government boondoggle.  Tough decisions that were made creatively (and with no Republican support) like the GM and Chrysler bailouts (which arguably saved the auto industry in this country) were touted long after their impact had taken place and even then, were done tepidly and with little enthusiasm.  Where the President could have led, by aggressively working to modify home mortgages, lowering the Medicare eligibility age or pushing for a more direct government role in public works projects, he failed to do so or put forth ideas that were so convoluted, difficult to understand and ineffective as to be more trouble than they were worth.  

In the meantime, his unwillingness to marshal forces on important, but under the radar matters, like judicial and executive branch appointments, will likely diminish his legacy, regardless of whether he serves a second term.  The appointment power is one of the ways a President can leave his stamp and Obama has seemed disinterested in fighting to get his people put in place.  This has been seen powerfully on the federal bench, where while Republicans retreated from high profile battles over Supreme Court justices, have successfully slowed or blocked dozens of district and appellate court judges from even getting a vote, much less being seated on the bench.  Similarly, while Cabinet-level appointments went through without too much trouble, second tier appointments were the subject of anonymous holds that disappeared and resulted in near unanimous support weeks if not months later.  Part of the problem was also the fact the the Obama Administration was slow to name people to important positions within such agencies as Treasury and Justice for weeks, if not months on end.  The cumulative effect of this is less efficiency in the day-to-day operation of government, which just feeds into the Republican narrative that government does not work.  

There is no question that President Obama took office at what was likely the most challenging time in our nation's history since the Great Depression.  In the span of less than three years, he has achieved a great deal but at great political cost.  While the President may, by nature, not want to mix it up with political opponents or pound his chest about the accomplishments of his term, his failure to do either one of these things has allowed his opponents to effectively define him as a genial but failed President who can offer little more than flowery rhetoric and a government solution to every problem, his record notwithstanding.  If the President is to be re-elected, he not only needs to keep taking the fight to Republicans over job creation and tax policy, but he must *LEAD* in word and deed for the majority of Americans who have been left behind, fear they will never get ahead and are losing hope in the system.

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