Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Obama Majority

President Obama's Inaugural address was largely portrayed as an articulation of "liberalism." A liberalism that embraced civil, women's and gay rights, a climate change agenda and protection of the social safety net. And while the speech's prose illustrated the President's deft use of language[1], the substance was neither surprising nor outside the mainstream of current political thought in America. Indeed, the three part play that was the Democratic National Convention, the President's election night remarks and his Inaugural address neatly tied together the coalition he has assiduously courted and cultivated in an effort to hand the Democratic party the opportunity to carry on his legacy well into the future. 

But while the President noted that just because our rights are self-evident does not make them self-executing, it is equally true of Obama's progressive coalition. Having cobbled together a majority that is ascendent in its demographic trends and reflective of popular positions on everything from same sex marriage to protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, immigration reform to environmental protection, does not mean anything will change. While the GOP created a Potemkin village of inclusion at its national convention [2], the Democrats actually have a coalition that is reflective of this "new" America and receives overwhelming support from Hispanic, Asian and African Americans, single women, the LBGT community and even some white males. 

The question for the President, and for Democrats at the national and state level, is whether they will mobilize this coalition toward progressive and yes, popular ends. As its base erodes, the Republicans simply shout louder that their priorities, now primarily focused around fiscal austerity [3] and the idea that seniors and the poor should receive less while industries like defense are unaffected, demand attention. The problem for Republicans is two-fold; first, while Americans believe, in the abstract, that government spending should be cut, when they are asked what should be protected, it is the very programs that Democrats so zealously guard; and when asked who should be asked to give more, the answer is the wealthy that form a critical component of the Republican base, not to mention their fundraising. Second, because the President has adopted the mantles of "compromise" and "balance," it is difficult for Republicans to find space for their argument of austerity for the middle class and protection of favored tax breaks and loopholes for the well-to-do. The more they dig in their heels, the more Republicans appear out of step, the more Obama seems like the last reasonable man in Washington. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In word and deed, the President is cementing notions of inclusion, fairness and social justice. As the President takes direct action to aid the children of undocumented immigrants, Republicans are trying to shed their xenophobia and absurdities like "self-deportation," but the nativist streak that runs deeply through the party resists this attempt at moderation. As thousands of same sex couples marry, with exactly NO negative impact on the purported Judeo-Christian values Republicans so desperately cling to, the GOP's reactionaries seem that much more out of step. And as the President expands opportunities for women in uniform and Obamacare ensures comprehensive access to preventative medical care and family planning, Republicans may stop talking about non-sensical ideas like "legitimate rape [4]," but the party orthodoxy continues apace - just three weeks ago, the House GOP re-introduced a bill that would grant full legal rights to fetuses [5] (a so-called "personhood" bill). A cosponsor of this bill? Some guy named Paul Ryan. 

While a small window appeared to open after Obama's re-election where Republicans would re-evaluate their lockstep opposition to him and their narrow world view, that pivot appears to have been short-lived. The message from today's GOP at the national level is not that their policies are wrong, but that their communication is bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of moderating, by doubling down on economic terrorism through "hostage taking," the GOP is on the receiving end of corporate antipathy and voter opprobrium. Moreover, as the economy heals and budget cuts and tax increases now in place begin to take effect, the budget deficit will shrink and the idea that further cuts will have even less resonance. What skirmishes the Republicans have engaged Obama in over the budget and economy have been portrayed as wholesale failures for the GOP [6]. Regardless, as economic indicators in housing, the stock market and the unemployment rate continue to improve, intransigence will simply allow the President to reinforce the point that Republicans are willing to jeopardize our recovery to fight battles they cannot win at the ballot box. 

On the other hand, at the state level, failed attempts at voter suppression have been replaced by equally ill-thought ideas to rig voting in places like Virginia and Michigan to deprive the winner of the popular vote for President from collecting all the state's electoral votes. Meanwhile, the continued assault on abortion rights continues apace, with TRAP laws and other restrictions being considered and implemented in states throughout the country. Finally, some conservatives are beginning to flirt with the idea of eliminating state income taxes and hiking state sales taxes, a move that would make an already regressive form of taxation even worse, by redistributing the burden downward, because the poor and middle class spend more of their income for basic necessities compared to the wealthy. 

Today's GOP is not unlike a boxer against the ropes vulnerable to a knock out blow, the President need only reach back and swing to knock out his opponent, but to do so, he must do more than just give lofty speeches. It is not enough to demand the swift confirmation of Mary Jo White or Rob Cordray, it is to press, aggressively, and publicly, for those nominees until that happens. It is not enough to simply trumpet an executive order that helps "dreamers," it's necessary to get into the sausage making in Congress to make it happen and lobby for immigration reform outside Washington, D.C.  Making reasonable compromise in the name of budgetary sanity is all well and good, but not at the expense of the most vulnerable in our country or at the risk of losing our competitive advantage in the future by shortchanging education, research and development and student loans. A second term defined by long-term economic and budgetary stability, immigration reform, new gun control measures and continued progress toward full and equal rights for all would be a strong legacy upon which the Democrats' nominee in 2016 could run. Now, we just need the President's actions to meet his soaring rhetoric.

[1]  His not-so-subtle "takers" reference was a rhetorical stiletto aimed directly between the ribs of his vanquished foe Mitt Romney and his still-on-Capitol-Hill running mate Paul Ryan. 
[2]  Elected officials like Marco Rubio and Tim Scott notwithstanding, 89% of Republicans are "white." 
[3] These deficit scolds happily ran up the government's credit card debt under George Bush, passing massive tax cuts that disproportionately aided the wealthy and spent more than a trillion dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by borrowing against our collective future. 
[4] Unless you're Rep. Phil Gingrey.  
[6] I part company with the conventional wisdom on this one, as I wrote most recently:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hey Scary,

    I suppose you know that Mad Men will heat up again first Sunday in April. I look forward to your continued comments on that fine drama.

    I'll comment here only on the 800-pound gorilla - the one that will more drastically affect the less-fortunate in our society - the enormous non-wartime debt the Federal Gov't is running up.

    Our elected reps have a duty to be grown up fiscally (and otherwise). They should give us what we need rather than what we want. This means making actual (not rhetorical) "tough choices".

    Since the mid-90s (probably before) we Americans have been on a spending spree - financed by credit cards and home-equity loans. Banks acted like casinos and not like their sober predecessors. This pumped our economy like crazy until the house-of-cards fell.

    Bush II and both houses (with Republican majorities) did little to temper the spending spree - they certainly did not temper themselves.

    Pres. Obama and both houses have since done little to improve on this.

    Realized from this perspective, the only grownups are the so-called Tea Party men (and women). They tend to be intolerant on social-issues, so are open to (sometimes unfair) ridicule.

    But their insistence on pay-as-you-go is vital in the long run. And we grownups of all convictions know this in our bones.