12/14/2010 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Cements the Reagan Legacy

In January 2008, right before the Nevada Caucus, Hillary Clinton slammed Obama for making comments to the conservative Reno Gazette Journal that appeared to praise Ronald Reagan. Specifically, Obama said Reagan "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." Of course, it was merely a benign - and not-very-controversial - observation that Reagan had indeed been a transformative President (while a back-handed swipe at the Clintons.) But it actually made me hopeful that Obama knew how unremarkable Clinton was as President, and that he would be a transformative President. But last week, Obama not only surrendered to Republicans on Bush tax cuts for the rich - he cemented the Reagan legacy by tying tax cuts with "job growth," as if there are no other ways to create jobs. Then he brought Bill Clinton to come sell the deal. Clinton mastered the art of "triangulation" in the mid-1990's - by throwing progressives under a bus with DOMA and Welfare Repeal, so it was no surprise that he would endorse this capitulation. But when Clinton sold us out, it was over things that were politically popular - and here it's indefensible.

Obama's press conference on December 7th where he defended the tax cut "deal" was offensive on many levels, and was the first time since the Bush Administration that I found myself yelling at a President on the TV screen. Obama assured us that extending tax breaks for the rich was only "temporary" - that he would "fight" in two years to have them expire.

That would be funny, if he didn't think we were so stupid. One of Obama's campaign promises was to affirmatively repeal the Bush tax cuts. Shortly before his Inauguration in January 2009, Obama back-tracked on this pledge, saying he would let them expire at the end of 2010 - much to Nancy Pelosi's frustration. Now he won't even let the tax cuts expire, because the Republicans won't negotiate.

Obama promises he will "fix this" later, which reminds me of how Bill Clinton signed Welfare Repeal in 1996 - while acknowledging there were parts of the legislation he found distasteful. Clinton urged progressives to line up behind him anyway, because only he could "fix" it later. But with a Republican Congress, that never happened.

Assuming that Obama disagreed with Senate Republicans about tax cuts for the rich, it's baffling to see why he would go along for political reasons. When Clinton cut deals with Republicans to pass Welfare Repeal and other such atrocities, it was the "popular" thing to do - so one can defend it for Machiavellian reasons. Besides, Bill Clinton campaigned as a "new Democrat" who would "end welfare as we know it" - whereas Obama was a former community organizer, who empowered the grass-roots on a campaign of change.

The President even acknowledged that the American people opposed what he was doing. "The issue is not me persuading the American people," he said. "They're already there. The issue is, how do I persuade the Republicans in the Senate who are currently blocking that position. I have not been able to budge them." In other words, he was going to let them win - even though, by everyone's admission, they are out of touch with America.

It's like the public option fight - where poll after public opinion poll showed that voters supported it, even in districts represented by Blue Dogs. Nevertheless, we had Democrats in Congress (and the President) tell us repeatedly that we just "don't have the votes" to pass it. In other words, they admitted that Congress was out of touch - but nothing would change.

No, the most offensive part was how Obama explicitly endorsed the Reagan legacy of supply-side economics. We're in a recession, he warned us, and allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire so we can stand on principle would endanger job growth during these tough times. And that's the part that bothered me the most - the premise that only cutting taxes would create jobs.

Let's get real. You don't create jobs merely by cutting taxes, even if some targeted tax cuts have a derivative "stimulant." As the New York Times' Paul Krugman has explained better than I ever could, Obama's mistake with the federal stimulus was that it was too small - with one-third of it tax cuts to appease a handful of Republicans. Nearly two years later, unemployment is up - and most voters don't realize they got a tax cut.

When FDR was President, the federal government created jobs outright - with programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that gave Americans a tangible benefit. How did we pay for them? We raised taxes on the wealthy. But today, letting Bush tax cuts expire so we can pay for programs that put people to work is not being seriously considered in Washington.

Did the Bush tax cuts in 2001 create jobs? No, they plunged us into a deep recession - but "jobs" is the only message that Obama has for progressives unhappy with the deal.

On Friday, President Obama - facing a revolt from House Democrats over the deal he made with Senate Republicans - brought former President Bill Clinton to a White House press briefing to sell the package. It was ironic on so many levels. Candidate Obama had candidly admitted three years ago that Clinton was an unremarkable President, who did not fundamentally change the "trajectory of America" in a way that Ronald Reagan did.

And for House Democrats furious at his triangulation, bringing the Triangulator-in-Chief himself - a man who cut deals with Republicans on Welfare Repeal - was insulting.

At Huffington Post, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich - who is no longer on speaking terms with the ex-President after writing Locked in the Cabinet - lamented how the tax cut deal "confirms the Republican worldview." It's even worse. What Obama did was cement the Reagan legacy, when we desperately need to start undoing it.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.