The headline writers and pundits have declared President Obama the winner in the negotiations of Fiscal Cliff I. The "left" is claiming he gave too much away. The Right is having apoplectic fits that there are no budget cuts.
They are all right. And yet it is irrelevant.
In 2003 46 out of 48 Democratic Senators and 198 out of 205 Democratic House members voted against Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. In 2013, 49 of 53 Democratic/Independent senators and 172 Democratic House members voted for very much the same bill. What happened?
In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America" changed the parameters of the debate on what kind of America we would have in the coming century. He challenged the America formed by the domestic policies of FDR, JFK, LBJ and, I can't believe I'm writing this, Richard Nixon. Under the guise of budget and tax reform, Gingrich sought to undo over fifty years of progressive domestic legislation. Once President Clinton accepted these parameters, there was a new game in town. It is very hard for me to criticize Bill Clinton, for when I watch him speak I am charmed and convinced of his rightness. But history and facts do not bow down to charm: Clinton signed the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 that changed the inheritance tax rules and included the largest Capital Gains tax cut in history. He later signed the bill that repealed Glass-Steagall Act, which had controlled the excessive instincts of Wall Street since The Depression. From there, when George W. Bush was confirmed as president, and his immensely irresponsible fiscal policies enacted, it was only a matter of when, not if, the financial collapse would occur.
When Obama, a man of superior intelligence, the ability to speak both wonky and direct, with a formidable sense of history and the desire to be a historical president was elected, I hoped for three things, all of which were in his power with his popular support and Democratic control of Congress: A change in the parameters of the economic debate, a return to the legislative agenda of progressive Democratic presidents, and action on global warming. In short order I was disappointed. Obama accepted the fundamental economic principles with which I disagree, and he appointed economic advisers who did not see the need for serious economic reform. And he accepted the neutered phrase of "climate change" over the more ominous phrase of "global warming," and then proceeded to do nothing about it for four years.
I have harbored the secret hope that Obama would unleash his progressive side after he won a second term. I was deceiving myself. The rhetoric of this debate and the names floated for his new cabinet contain the same tired phrases and already seen politicians. Obama may win future fiscal cliff negotiations or he may lose them. The policies that led us this cliff have not fundamentally changed; it's worse, for the Democrats re-passed a bill they hated a decade ago. Yes, Obama has gotten us out of one war and leaving a second seems imminent, and I am grateful, but I am pessimistic he will achieve the needed downsizing of the military and the perpetual war-footing mindset. I had hoped that Obama would be a great president, but I sense he will be remembered by history as the first black president, an achievement of monumental proportions, I admit, but that is all. I sincerely hope I am wrong.
For now, I still await the progressive leader who can win the battle for the soul and future of America.
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