03/13/2013 09:12 am ET Updated May 13, 2013

The Problem With Charm Offensives: If They Are Needed, They Have Already Failed

Faced by insurmountable odds as the Carthaginians swept down the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War, the Roman general Fabius Maximus simply retreated and retreated, wearing the opposition down by declining to engage with them at all. Watching the Republicans play the President right now, the scorched earth policy that the Romans used to briefly frustrate Hannibal is all too evident again. It didn't work that well for the Romans. Hannibal wasn't delayed for long, and he wasn't looking for compromise. These days, however, the President apparently still is looking for compromise -- for some "grand bargain" -- so our modern day Republicans might be on to something here. After all, they aren't facing anything more substantial this week than an offensive based on charm.

As the latest iteration of the Ryan budget serves to remind us, the president's opponents are currently willing to meet the administration only on terms that are entirely unacceptable to mainstream and liberal Democrats. So in spite of all the supposed desire for bipartisanship, nothing in Washington actually gets done. Or rather, nothing progressive gets done. Public programs get cut, of course -- the sequester is already in place -- and as finance for those programs is cut, so too are the chances of effective legislation on a string of other vital issues: immigration reform, infrastructure renewal and even modest gun control. Instead of policies being implemented that have majority public support, an entrenched minority of conservative legislators ensures that, drip-by-drip, the mandate for progressive change (and the associated rejection of trickle-down economics) that was delivered by the American electorate last November slips imperceptibly away.

In the ghastly dance that now passes for politics in Washington, D.C., delay is itself a policy. Sins of omission may be less visible than those of commission, but they are no less venal for that. Slowly and incrementally, the erosion of public programs triggered by the sequester is beginning to bite. There is no one dramatic moment in that process, of course, just slow death by a thousand cuts. But unfortunately the bulk of the Beltway media don't do slow. They only do drama; and since there is no drama, watching them cover Washington these days might persuade you that there are no cuts -- certainly none of any substance. But you would be wrong. There are.

So where is the moral outrage when, due to Republican intransigence, the poorest amongst us find their resources diminished, while the profits and incomes of the rich and privileged bounce back as if no recession had ever happened? And where is the sense of alarm (except in a few liberal corners) when the president starts again on a charm offensive with the charmless, offering to meet them halfway as they retreat ever further into their austerity bunker.


We have seen this political play before: it cost us public programs in 2011 and it left us a sequester crisis in 2013. Unless the president stands firm now -- and lays responsibility publicly and openly on a Tea Party political project that is economically flawed and morally bankrupt -- we seem likely to see that play again. Can we therefore please remember, and constantly tell each other, at least the following things.

The sequester is already hurting -- and hurting the least privileged among us. The director of the CBO estimated that 750,000 jobs will be lost this year because of the sequester, and some of those jobs have already gone: teachers in Arizona, construction workers in Indiana, FAA employees in Nevada. The list is long and growing. Cuts now loom for programs delivering food stamps, unemployment insurance, public housing and children's health insurance. And cuts have already happened across the public sector in anticipation of the sequester -- "everything from schools to new police officers to parks" -- cuts that shrank the economy faster in the last quarter of 2012 than the Republicans' much-vaunted private sector growth could cross-compensate.

The debt that the sequester is supposed to bring down is already falling, and needs no extra immediate help. According to the Office of Management and Budget, because the $85 billion cuts have to be implemented in 7 months rather than through a full fiscal year, they involve reductions of "approximately 13% for non-exempt defense programs and 19% for non-exempt discretionary programs:" and as such "will be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments and core government functions." Yet cuts already agreed and tax hikes already made are together pulling the federal deficit down: to less than $1 trillion in 2013 according to the CBO, and "continuing to plummet in 2014 and 2015, to less than 3 percent of the overall economy for much of the decade." Conservative commentators only manage to deny that the deficit is already under control by running together the federal deficit and the national debt. Each is different of course, though as percentages of GDP both are currently on the way down.

The economic growth needed to ease the debt-to-GDP ratio is ever threatened by the very cuts advocated to strengthen it. That is not just my view. It's also the view of the International Monetary Fund and of a growing number of leading American economists -- 350 of whom issued a public warning in February that sequester cuts could kill the recovery. Across the G-20 as a whole, key policy-makers now worry that debt clearance by leading economies will make a sustained pick-up in global economic growth more difficult to achieve, rather than less: and they point to the European experience as a warning. To quote the economists: "As Great Britain, Iceland, Spain and Greece have shown, inflicting austerity on a weak economy leads to deeper recession, rising unemployment and increasing misery." How could it be otherwise, when the government is a major employer of key workers, and when "one in every five Americans works for a company whose customer is the government."

Economic growth is needed because unemployment is high and wages are stuck. Though the official unemployment rate has eased down slightly, the economy remains nearly 9 million jobs short of its pre-recession level, and much of the downward movement in official figures is not the result of Americans finding full-time work. It is rather the result of job-seekers giving up the search for full-time employment or settling for part-time work instead. The EPI's projections actually leave unemployment rates high and essentially unchanged for whites, Latinos and African-Americans throughout the whole of 2013, amid reports that U.S. employers remain slow to hire -- the average length of an unfilled vacancy is now up to 23 business days from its low of 15 days in 2009 -- as many companies "string... job applications along for weeks or months before they make a decision." And those jobs, when they come, invariably pay less than before the Great Recession. As the recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco put it: "the vast majority of job losses during the recession were in middle-income occupations, and they've largely been replaced by low-wage jobs since 2010."

The rich and privileged are already flourishing again, back to their old ways as those nothing unpleasant had ever happened. It's the wealthiest households who are carrying the spending load: as Mark Zandi recently put it, "People in the top half of the income distribution are doing just fine. They're spending enough to keep the economy moving... but the lower half is having a difficult time keeping their heads above water." Certainly the nine senior hedge fund managers who took home over $1 trillion between them in 2012 are coping admirably, as are those who kept their jobs on Wall Street. Bonuses there were up 9 percent in 2012. The Dow is at a record level. Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac are recording big profits again: but the housing crisis continues, and the bulk of American consumers spent the opening months of 2013 offsetting rising taxes and gas prices by getting out their credit cards all over again.


Not much of this makes it into the central concerns of those who provide us with our daily diet of news and entertainment. For the bulk of the belt-way media have a built-in enthusiasm for process rather than content. They regularly praise bipartisanship over principle, as though how decisions are made is of greater importance than the quality of the decisions themselves. But as we saw so clearly in the president's first term, the asymmetry in programs that divide Republicans and Democrats always gives Republicans the edge in the pursuit of the bipartisan. For if that pursuit fails, as it invariably does in so divided a city, public policy fails: and Republicans are no enthusiasts for successful public policy. It is Democrats who need Washington to work; and Washington will not work until the Tea Party hold on the House of Representatives is only a memory.

So let the president be charming, by all means. But let him also stand his ground. Better he does that, and works assiduously to win back the House for Democrats in 2014, than he strikes a grand bargain that cuts Social Security for the old and Medicaid for the poor. The "not so grand bargain" struck in December to avoid going over the fiscal cliff has already taxed the poor and the middle class enough. It is time for the rich and the corporate to bear their share, and time for the Democrats to remind the Republicans that it was Barack Obama's notion of change, not Mitt Romney's, that won in November. Gerrymandering may have kept one house (the House of Representatives) safe for Paul Ryan and his kind in that election, but not even attempts at voter suppression on an unprecedented scale could give them the other house (the white one).

The president has already made extensive cuts in federal spending and has proposed still more -- cuts and proposals that Republicans regularly fail to either concede or even acknowledge. So this time he must let the Republicans come to him for a change, while actively using every ounce of available executive power to protect the poor and vulnerable from the full effects of the sequester whose implementation the entire political class failed to stop. The president's charm offensive needs refocusing: from the Republicans to the poor. In the days and months ahead, the President should use his executive power openly and explicitly to protect the most vulnerable Americans: in the process easing their burdens slightly while simultaneously clarifying where Republican priorities actually lie. We need to know. Are the Republicans ideologically so opposed to federal spending that they will let the full weight of spending cuts fall on those least able to handle them, while continuing to protect low taxation for those best able to do so? Are they so opposed to presidential power when it is in the hands of a Democrat that they will block the use of that power for anti-poverty purposes? The president needs to flush the Republicans' Tea Party prejudices out into the open -- as he did so effectively in November -- out into the clear light of day where their minority status is publicly visible.

So please, Mr. President: no grand bargains with the defeated. No toleration of their scorched-earth policies. Stop inviting Republicans to dinner. Start eating them for lunch. Avoid the temptation they continually place before you -- of winning an election on one set of principles and then governing on another. Instead, replace the charm offensive with a principled campaign designed to win back Democratic Party control of both Houses of Congress in November 2014. Make a principled stand now, the better to deliver effective policy later. Democratic charm-offensives focused on Republican law-makers can come at too high a price. Let's make sure that this one most definitely does not.

First posted, with full citations, at

Equivalent commentary on the first term of the Obama Presidency is available in

David Coates, Pursuing the Progressive Case? Observing Obama in Real Time

(Bloomington: iUniverse, 2013)