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Miles Mogulescu Headshot

Obama's Failing Second Term Presidency

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Barack Obama decisively defeated Republicans in the 2012 election. But Republicans are successfully kicking his butt in the post election.

You know something's wrong when Obama's biggest second term achievement to date is voluntarily giving back 5 percent of his presidential salary in sympathy with federal workers furloughed by the sequester, which was initially proposed by Obama as something that would never happen in a monumental presidential miscalculation of the nature of the Republican opposition.

Meanwhile Obama has again offered up cuts to Social Security benefits in a ritual sacrifice to solve a non-existent problem to demonstrate "seriousness" as a deficit-cutter to the Republicans and the beltway media elite.

How's that for a potential second term presidential legacy -- being the first Democrat to cut Social Security benefits?

It seems that Obama's dream for a presidential legacy is to strike a "grand bargain" with Republicans and the austerity lobby to slash trillions of dollars in social programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars in "revenue enhancements." Our best hope may be that Obama is denied this legacy by the stupidity and intransigence of a Republican Party too brain dead to say "yes" to Obama's pleas to cave in to a majority of their demands.

But it gets worse. The original recommendations proposed by the Chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles Commission -- which is held up by the Washington pundocracy as the model for a deficit reduction "grand bargain" -- suggested two dollars in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases. But the deals already made by Obama with Congressional Republicans cut more than three dollars in spending for every $1 in revenue increases.

As Bill Clinton famously said in his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech, "It's arithmetic." In the summer of 2011 when President Obama caved in to Republican blackmail to blow up the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, he signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which required $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts over a decade, plus $1.2 trillion in further automatic spending cuts if Congress couldn't agree to further specific cuts, which has now been implemented through the sequester. That's over $2.1 trillion in spending cuts. Meanwhile, with all of the Bush tax cuts scheduled to expire on January 1, 2013, Obama caved in to Republicans on his initial demand to let the cuts expire on couples earning over $250,000 per year -- which would have raised $1.6 trillion over the next decade -- and instead increased taxes only on those earning over $450,000 -- which will only raise $600 billion.

The media hasn't done the arithmetic, but the "grand bargain" has already quietly and incrementally been struck, and on considerably worse terms than than the $2 in spending cuts to $1 in tax increases originally proposed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. It adds up to $2.1 trillion in spending cuts to $600 billion in tax increases -- that's 77.77 percent in spending cuts and 22.23 percent in tax increases.

The results are devastating to the economy, ordinary Americans, and investments in a sustainable economy that Obama promised during his election campaign.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester will slow the economy by 0.6 percent this year and destroy 750,000 jobs. We're seeing the first results in the miserable March 2013 jobs report.

Moreover, Obama based his 2012 presidential campaign on expanding the economy and strengthening the middle class through government investments such as research and development, strengthening early -- childhood education, upgrading infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The deals Obama has already struck with Republicans in the summer of 2011 and the early winter of 2012-2013 mean there will be no money for such investments. Indeed, the sequester will cut $400 billion a year from Head Start. So much for the Obama legacy.

And now, in a quixotic effort to convince Republicans to expand the austerity "grand bargain," Obama is again proposing benefit cuts to Social Security, the singularly most successful and most popular social program ever enacted by Democrats.

Obama's failing presidency can be attributed in part to his willingness to negotiate against himself and his miscalculation of the extent of Republican intransigence. But in fairness, it is also due to a broken political system dominated by outsized campaign contributions from the wealthiest Americans, the revolving door between Congress and K Street, gerrymandering and the filibuster. Achieving progressive goals means actively implementing change. Congressional Republicans can achieve many of their goals by simply blocking change -- e.g. by threatening to blow up the economy by refusing to increase the debt limit without further drastic spending cuts. The wealthy funders who own Congress generally prefer tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the poor and middle class.

So the broken democratic system gives a built-in advantage to the status quo over change. That's why it's somewhat disheartening that Barack Obama has expended zero political capital to make part of his legacy trying to fix the damage done by Citizens United.

It may already be too late for Obama's legacy to be reducing economic inequality and expanding the middle class. If progressive resistance or Republican intransigence forces Obama to abandon his Social Security cuts, the most we may be able to hope for is what presidential historian Douglas Brinkley calls a "firewall presidency" in which the progressive legacy of the New Deal is protected.

It's not much, but it's better than we could have expected from a Romney presidency. Let's hope we get at least that much from Barack Obama's second term.