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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

Obama's Enablers, Obama's Adversaries, and the Fight to Save the New Deal

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The Democratic base seems to have coalesced around two opposing realities: Either President Obama is inept - if not an enemy of all things good and true - or he's doing the best any human being could possibly do. Both of these seemingly opposing positions lead to the same outcome. They encourage inaction, either through trust or through hopelessness, at a time when action is urgently needed.

Whatever his motives, reports suggest the President's about to make a terrible mistake by announcing cuts to Social Security in his next State of the Union address. If he does he'll be remembered as the "anti-FDR," the President who destroyed the Democratic legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, began the dismantling of the New Deal, and led his party to overwhelming defeat. As for his Presidential legacy - well, you can bet he'll be remembered. Generations of older Americans will mutter his name under their breath every time their Social Security check arrives.

What are his motives? I don't know, and at the moment I don't really care. He's shown that he'll respond to public pressure, and he urgently needs to feel some of that pressure right about now.

Alternate Realities

These days the activists who helped elect the President seem to be living in one of two realities:

Reality #1: Barack Obama is a cynical hack, a sell-out who lied to get elected and then reversed himself as soon as he got the keys to Air Force One. He's a Manchurian Candidate sent by Corporate America to destroy all government, with David Axelrod in the Angela Lansbury role. (Mother, stop it!) We're all f**ked.

Reality #2: Barack Obama is a brilliant, wise, and compassionate leader. His carping critics don't realize that he's playing a subtle, n-dimensional chess game that's beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Sure, it looks like he's caving on key campaign promises before he even fights for them. It looks like he's a weak negotiator, or that these are the results he wanted. But if you could see the whole picture - if, for example, you had the reality-revealing sunglasses Rowdy Roddy Piper wore in They Live - you'd understand.

What do these two seemingly opposite realities have in common? They both lead to citizen inaction instead of citizen action. They have something else in common, too: They're both wrong.

Among the Believers

President Obama is clearly not the candidate he claimed to be. He said this at last week's press conference: "Look at what I promised during the campaign. There's not a single thing that I've 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." Granted, he was under the pressure of relentlessly hostile questions, but he really shouldn't have said that. It was a Gary Hart moment, an unwise challenge to the intellectually curious.

Let's see ... There was the health excise tax, which he opposed and later actively worked to enact; the individual mandate for health care coverage, which he opposed and then supported; some matters of civil liberties; science policy; Internet freedoms ... there were others, too, but you get the gist.

The true believers still say that the President's biggest problem is that he "inherited a mess," and that he's the victim of impatient critics who want him to do everything at once. He did inherit a mess, but impatience isn't the problem. Because of these reversals, a lot of people don't trust him very much anymore. He could regain that trust by fighting to protect Social Security.

All the President's Enablers

Then there are the believers' fellow travelers, the enablers.They'll criticize the President to a greater or lesser extent, but then they'll insist that he's doing a perfectly fine job overall. Steve Kornacki takes an enablers' tack in pieces like "Obama's Silent Majority." "It is the elites that have turned on him," says Kornacki, deftly echoing Nixon's use of the "silent majority" phrase. Yet Obama's approval ratings have been consistently below 50% for the better part of year, which is not a majority.

Okay, wrong title. Kornacki's real point is that Obama's approval ratings remain high among Democrats and liberals, despite the naysaying of the progressive "elite." But how deep is that support? The Democratic base stayed home on Election Day this year. They may say yes when asked if they "approve of" the President. But are they likely to raise money for him or knock on doors? That remains to be seen. (And we need to to watch the trend line on that "approval" figure, too.)

Meanwhile Ezra Klein looks at the post-election polls and concludes that "Obama's brand remains surprisingly strong." Ezra writes: "(Obama) is doing a far better job than his predecessors did preserving his brand within an unfriendly political environment." In other words, these are good numbers - for a guy with less than 50% approval ratings who just led his party to an electoral massacre. Well, yeah, I guess, if that's how you define victory.

Ezra's right, in a limited sense: Obama might be able to parlay himself into re-election, since he's been blessed with such inept and repulsive opponents. But that's far from certain, and if he loses even more Congressional seats (as now seems likely) his second term will be an unpleasant experience for him.

Enablers like my old pal Bob Cesca are a different breed. Bob says that progressives were never Obama's real base (really? during all those battles with the Clinton team over her Iraq vote and Iran posture?) Bob says "progressives have lost touch with reality" when they criticize the President. (He takes exception to seeing him described without the "President" honorific.)

Even if you accept the first highly debatable assertion, here's the real "reality": Most non-progressives oppose the kind of action Obama (excuse me, Bob, make that President Obama) is about to take, too. 76% of those polled oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, including 77% of Republicans--and 76% of Tea Party supporters! 81% oppose cutting Medicare, which will be the next falling domino. (There's more polling information in "The New Silent Majority" - I hadn't seen Kornacki's piece when I gave it that title.)

The believers and enablers are undoubtedly well-intentioned, but they do the President a disservice when they echo the bad advice he's getting from his inner circle. Sure, his approval numbers are holding more or less steady - but no President's ever been re-elected at such a low level. And yes, most Democrats still "approve" of him. But their level of enthusiasm has plummeted. Turnout for young voters dropped from 51% to 20% in this year's election - below 2006 numbers! If he can't turn out his base he'll get clobbered in 2012 - or wish he had.

Can he turn things around in two years? Of course. Can he do it by enacting such widely unpopular policies? Doubtful.

The Powerlessness of Negative Thinking

Disillusionment can be positive - if it leads to action. Unfortunately, too many people have turned to bitterness and personal animosity instead. That's a waste of energy. Have I gotten ticked off at the President? Sure. And yes, I believe he misrepresented himself in the campaign. But he's a politician. As politicians go, I've seen worse.

Obama doesn't always take the right position, but he can be influenced. We saw that to a certain extent during the health excise tax debate, when the unions and other groups pushed back on his mistaken policy reversal. He finally met them halfway. In politics, "halfway" is good.

Too many commentators have suggested that Obama's "cave-in" on Social Security is inevitable. It's not. He delivers the State of the Union message on January 26. That gives the public more than four weeks to stop him from doing something that's both destructive and self-destructive.

A President On the Verge of a Political Breakdown

Any move to embrace the radical recommendations of his Deficit Commission's co-chairs would be disastrous for the President, his party, and his Presidency. (Have I said that enough yet?) For those of you who are asking if he would really do something like that, the answer is yes. He's on the verge of it right now.

The President's "fence-mending" meetings with the Left are very nice, I suppose - but his problem isn't with "the left" and it can't be fixed with meetings. Remember, Republicans and independents don't want these Social Security and Medicare cuts either. He needs to build a fence - around Social Security and Medicare.

Beyond Faith and Cynicism - and Into Action

The President told voters that he wouldn't cut Social Security[1] and that it makes more sense to lift the payroll tax cap instead. Then he fixed the nation's attention on austerity by appointing the Deficit Commission (where's my Jobs Commission?), and appointed two Social Security haters to run it. Now he's being evasive about their recommendations. Voters need to tell him they don't want ambiguity, they want an answer: Is the Administration going to protect our retirement security or not?

We'll be accused of rhetorical excess for saying that the New Deal itself is at stake. But the Republican hostage takers are relentless. The threats and demands won't end with cuts to Social Security. Social Security and Medicare are immensely popular, but so are all the other elements of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Voters across the political spectrum embrace a variety of positions that are stereotyped as "progressive" on topics that include tax policy, student loans, and fighting poverty. Social Security cuts would be the first step down a road that ends in political suicide and an end to 75 years of government achievements.

The haters have given up on on Barack Obama, while the believers and enablers think he's doing the best that anybody could do. Both are wrong. He's no saint, but he's persuadable. It's up to us to save Social Security by pressuring the President - not by attacking him, and not by trusting him, but by pressuring him. That's the political game. There's no need to cut Social Security, and if he does he'll pave the way for future cuts in Medicare and other needed government programs.

It's irresponsible to have blind faith in the President, and it's misguided to give up on him altogether. The only smart course of action is to take matters into our own hands. There's no time to waste analyzing Barack Obama when action is so urgently needed. I want him to have a successful Presidency because I want what's best for the country. And what's best for the country right now is to save Social Security. That can only happen if the White House is pressured into backing down on these reckless and unjust plans, whatever motivations may lie behind them.

We can argue about the rest afterwards.

Sign the petition - 'Tell the President: No More Negotiations With Hostage-Takers. No Social Security Cuts."


[1] Candidate Barack Obama: "What I have proposed is that we raise the cap on the payroll tax, because right now millionaires and billionaires don't have to pay beyond $97,000 a year." Candidate Obama: "If we kept the payroll tax rate exactly the same but applied it to all earnings and not just the first $97,000 ... we could eliminate the entire Social Security shortfall."

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."

Website: Eskow and Associates

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