President Barack Obama has announced that a deal has been reached on raising the US debt ceiling, one involving around $2 trillion in cuts over a decade, coming equally from military and social spending — but with key social welfare programmes ring-fenced.
The deal ensures that the question will not need to be returned to before the 2012 election, a big strategic win for the Democrats — nor does it rule out tax raises absolutely. However the question of tax and spending cut detail will be referred to an ongoing joint House-Senate ‘supercommittee’, a prospect leading to months of hard wrangling on detail, and all but removing the possibility of tax raises — a major win for the Republicans.
Both sides have conspired in a major fudge within the deal — atributing military savings to the wind up of wars in Aghanistan and Iraq, a dubious inclusion of proposed non-spending as saving on existing commitments.
In other words, it is the ideal compromise — not only does it please no-one, it does not address the issues it was meant to solve in any terms, neither the Right’s concern about US public debt, nor the Left’s demand that taxes on the rich be raised.
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Structurally it leaves the US to stagger on into the maw of a renewed recession with no solution to its structural problems — primarily, the vast underinvestment in infrastructure and education, vast overinvestment in private consumption and the savings of the rich.
But both sides will be able to claim some political credit: Obama for holding off the ‘Tea Party’ infused hordes, Boehner and the GOP leadership for forcing through trillions of dollars in spending cuts. Weirdly however, such ‘victories’ will appeal to the heartland of neither player.
For American liberals, Obama’s performance in these negotiations was the final straw. He stands accused of being willing to give away bits of the entitlements without being asked to, of not drawing a line in the sand on raising taxes, of being unwilling to take the unilateral option and simply raise the debt ceiling by Presidential fiat (relying on the notion that the debt-ceiling law is unconstitutional by virtue of the 14th amendment by knowledge on this topic extending no further than that).
For the writers of Counterpunch, this is really what Obama wanted to do all along — he’s a creature of Wall Street, dominated by Goldman Sachs alumni, secretly in league with a Republican agenda to privatise government. To read Maureen Dowd, he’s a bumbling Carter figure, unable to assert his will, run rings around by a savvy Right.
But when you read the Right-wing media, you find the opposite. There, even the toughest deal Boehner put forward is condemned as a charade, or as ‘only marginally better’ than the Reid plan.
In the left media, the GOP and the Tea Party are a muscular bunch, asserting their will against a hapless centrist. In the Right media, Obama is a smooth ultra-leftist leaving the massive public programmes untouched while presenting himself as a negotiator.
At this point one recalls the wisdom of the German Jew in the 30s,who read only Die Sturmer, the Nazi paper: “cos when I read our papers, my God, it’s terrible. But in Die Sturmer, we have all the money, we run the world…” etc. What can explain this double fantasy where each side defines itself by the imaginary strength of the other?
My tentative opinion on this would be that it is neither the quality of the leaders, nor their parties, nor their strategies, that frustrate many partisan people, but the very structure of the American political system, that makes an expression of general will the exception rather than the rule.
I’ve oft remarked here that people who live inside Westminster or European systems really don’t understand the radical nature of the US system, in which there is a genuine separation of powers, not the pseudo-separation of Westminster ones (de facto combined executive/legislative branch, weak judiciary).
But in their frustration, it seems as if many Americans do not understand it either, or if they do, do not want it any more — they want, whether they know it or not, the great “other” of the political systems that emerged in the eighteenth century, a system which regularly generates a government elected on a programme, with the power to implement it.
The Right want this, but as they cannot criticise the Constitution, they have no way of speaking about it. Hence they focus obsessively on myths of distortion and sabotage — from Obama’s birth certificate, to the obsessive argument that Al Franken stole the Minnesota Senate race.
Faced with the most divided government possible — chambers in control of separate parties, President and the lower house from different parties — they cannot square the chaos, with the idea — implicit and explicit in US life — that the founders’ acts were driven by providence, that the US system is literally a godly creation. Fallible humans — demonic liberals — have betrayed the vision.
For a Left whose interest in the minutaie and logic of the system is often close to nil, Obama fails because — well, because he takes the office seriously. What American liberals want is another FDR, whose most audacious attempt to take an end-run around the constitution was his scheme to double the size of the Supreme Court in the late 30s, the additional justices all being good Democrats.
A great plan to get round the Court’s obstruction of New Deal legislation, but such plans were only possible because there was a mass movement behind him (it was eventually defeated not by the Republicans but by southern Democrats).
Today, many American liberals want Obama to reprise such FDR moments ab nihilo, amid an atomised and image-swaddled America. The Chicago University professor of constitutional law, who spoke throughout the 08 campaign of compromise and consensus, is being slated for … obeying the constitution and reaching for consensus.
Many have rallied round Bill Clinton’s helpful remark that he would have unilaterally raised the debt ceiling “in a trice”. Well maybe. But one suspect it’s far more likely that Clinton would have “triangulated” it, slashing public welfare as he did in ’95, and spinning it as “getting America moving again” appearing with Boehner in the Rose Garden, with hands held high.
Such remarks have fed American liberalism’s wholly imaginary sense of what is possible at the moment, and nourished their deep and absolving desire for noble failure. Thus the Democratic President who slashed welfare, and cemented in the underclass inaugurated by Reagan, who failed on healthcare, has become the rallying point against a president holding the line on benefits, and protecting the provisions of the health care bill he did achieve. When perception have become that reversed, you know that the relationship between reality and fantasy has been comprehensively reversed.
For Obama, the main game — not merely in career terms, but as a political achievement — is a second term, as a centrist, even European-style centre-Right President. Why? Because the Democrats will not regain the House in 2012, and they will most likely lose the Senate.
Facing a united, and hard-Right legislative body, Obama’s domestic mission will be two-fold – to show that the first black President can represent the spirit of the system as well as anyone, to protect what has been achieved through the veto power, and to hope against hope that one of the five conservative Supreme’s falls under a bus — giving him the opportunity (subject to Senate composition) to influence the shaping of US society for decades to come.
A new Carter? No, I think not. For after all, had he gone the route of unilaterally raising the ceiling, for the good of the country, then the GOP would have once again be united by what they opposed. You only have to look at John Boehner’s cringing apologetic announcement — “not the best deal we could have got” — to see what the main purpose of this carnivale was: to bang a wedge into the Republican party, with the hope that it will produce primary season chaos, and possible third party candidacies.
Bumbling? Strikes me more as hard-fought politics under tough circumstances. And so with all the troubles he faces, I say unto thee once again … NUBO NUBO NUBO … never underestimate Barack Obama.