United States

Nov 13, 2012

Obama is chiselling himself a space on Mount Rushmore

Barack Obama is seeking to nail down a liberal century -- and a budget deal would be his downpayment on becoming a very memorable president indeed.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


President Barack Obama and the Democrats have won a historic victory, snatching a second term from the teeth of a ferocious Right, cashed up by a compliant Supreme Court in the Citizens United and other cases, buttressed by a gerrymandered House of Representatives, with a mass effort at voter suppression and intimidation as the kiss of the whip. He campaigned on defending a semi-universal health care system whose advantages have not yet come downstream, tax increases for the rich, same-sex marriage, taming the out-of-control spending of the 65+ Medicare program (whose bountiful old-style unmetered socialism, the Tea Party will defend to the death), and talked back -- to some degree -- to the hysterical triumphalism of "American global leadership". He and the Democrats were rewarded with an electoral college win that puts the Republicans on the back foot for 2016, a Senate gain of two for a probable line-up of 55-45, and the prospect that two, three or even four new Supreme Court justices can be installed (if a couple of the liberals take a chance to quit under a liberal administration, and Justice Scalia chokes on a lasagne, which would be very sad). This would set what remains of the liberal courts of the 1940s-1980s in stone, styming the gimcrack Right approach of "originalism" -- whereby questions of gun control are adjudicated on what the residents of 1700s Boston would have thought of flamethrowers, etc. The Right have turned into a salamander pond, the type where you can't tell if it's mass murder or a clusterfuck (and volume two of the "schadenfreude chronicles"). The Left are salivating at the prospect that they may now get a genuinely liberal Obama, the haunting fear of the Right. They are going to be disappointed, both. Yes, they are going to get a fighting Obama. As the US government faces the unfortunately labelled fiscal cliff -- the poison-pill legislation the Congress has set itself whereby $1.3 trillion of spending cuts kick in by the end of January (though it can be delayed to some degree by various complex manoeuvres), if a budget has not been approved. He has already made clear that he will not bend to the GOP-controlled House's demand that a budget include an extension of Dubya-era tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year. There is no reason to doubt that, since he made a point of saying it, and threatening a veto, straight after his election victory. The speech was strong and forceful, and suggested a new Obama, more forceful, having shed the last illusions of consensus, and rationality from the other side, and determined not to have a second-term dictated by the House (and if he does reverse his decision on that veto, we'll know the worst of first-term Obama is back). The commitment to let these obscene tax cuts die -- and gain close to $1 trillion in new revenue -- is central to both the symbol and reality of some small shift towards fairness. The whole deal is still pretty obscene: the "middle class" is defined as everyone earning up to $250,000, so those above $200k are still getting a tax break. And the poison pill spending cuts, known as sequestration, are brutal -- they split the cuts between military spending cuts ($600 billion), which would be a bonus, but also impose harsh and indiscriminate cuts on the most basic welfare. Modelling by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that such poorly targeted cuts would tip the US back into recession, in much the same way that the austerity cuts meant to revive Greece, the UK and the eurozone have met with abject failure. However the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the onset of the cuts occur on two different dates, under different bills. So there's no doubt that Obama will veto any $250,000+ tax cut extension.
"Leadership, co-operation and a commitment to fiscal discipline, shorn of the moralising Ayn Rand babble about debt, government, etc, Obama will be the complete leader."
But there's also no doubt he will make a deal, any deal, that avoids the sequester kicking in. And that's where he'll disappoint the left (and the Right, by default). There's an argument, from left Keynsians, such as Paul Krugman, that nothing of the order of these cuts should be put in place -- that a gradual economic recovery would increase tax revenues and allow the public debt (now heading towards $16 trillion, on the way to $20 trillion) to be paid down from the excess. I have no expertise to judge these arguments, and there is the other argument -- that the Left gets into terrible situations, ie. UK 1979-style situations, when it lets debts and deficits spiral. Quite aside from technical economic questions I don't think Obama is going to take the chance on turning out to be the last Carter/Mondale-style liberal. Instead, I think he will take the least worst deal on the sequester he can get, but a deal he will take. Such a deal would offer the chance of apportioning the cuts more effectively, so that they fall less hard on the very poorest, but fall they will, and they will hurt a lot of people. Nor can they be vetoed -- the law that mandates them in the absence of any other deal has already been passed, and authorised by Obama, for better or worse, in 2011. So something is going to happen, and I don't doubt that Obama will use if for a little Clinton-style triangulation. Thus having stood fast on pushing through tax increases on the rich -- which marks off his progressive credentials -- and leading on a deal on cuts, which commits to a 10-year program of deficit reduction and debt paydown, he will have stolen the Republicans' position. Leadership, co-operation and a commitment to fiscal discipline, shorn of the moralising Ayn Rand babble about debt, government, etc, Obama will be the complete leader. The GOP will be hitched to the specific deficit reduction process implemented, and even their right wing will be subject to attack from the Tea Party in the lead up to the 2014 election. Obama will oversee the roll-out of Obamacare, withdrawal from Afghanistan, the brutal evisceration of al-Qaeda and anyone standing nearby through drone wars -- and possibly pull a few more foreign policy advances out of the hat. Should he get a steady economic uptick, and all this other stuff go right, he'll be able to hand the White House to Hillary or whomever, with the GOP facing a Dukakis-style drubbing. For these reasons, some such as Andrew Sullivan have suggested that Obama will be the black Reagan. That is to misunderstand the man. He aims to make Reagan a minor peak in the presidential range, a Wilson or even an Eisenhower. Obama is aiming for a presidency preceded only by FDR's in impact, and nailing down a liberal century, however much recent decades have sought to reverse it. The guy is chiselling himself a space on Mount Rushmore. The budget deal will be the first instalment on that in the new term. Whether that or the rest will follow as planned -- well who knows? But it's going to be interesting to watch.

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7 thoughts on “Obama is chiselling himself a space on Mount Rushmore

  1. paddy

    My latest favourite piece of schadenfreude on the decline and fall of Mittens, is this fact, reported via CBS News.

    [“The Phildadelphia Inquirer reported today that, in 59 precincts in inner-city Philadelphia, the GOP nominee received not a single vote. And according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, nine precincts in Cleveland returned zero Romney votes.”]

  2. johnb78

    People on right-wing blogs I occasionally read are already citing the hilarious Mittens zero-vote precinct news as PROOF OF TEH VOTER FRAUDS!1!11!. Because obviously discarding every GOP vote in precincts where they’d normally get next to nothing anyway would be the most sensible, untraceable and unnoticed way to rig an election.

  3. Keith Thomas

    ‘… the gimcrack Right approach of “originalism” — whereby questions of gun control are adjudicated on what the residents of 1700s Boston would have thought of flamethrowers, etc. …’

    Guy, while you are still over there in the US, can you please devote a piece to help us understand the reverence held – by the gimcrack Right, but also beyond that – for their constitution?

    I participate in a few non-political groups on the web (about fitness, health, psychology, farming, environment, my craft hobbies) and even there the ‘Founding Fathers’, the US constitution and the Bill of Rights are brought out and treated similarly to the way they treat the bible. Is it just part of feeling anchorless unless they have an ultimate truth to refer to (when it suits them)?

  4. Skippy

    Obamas victory had nothing to do with these things you mention. He won because the US voters blame Bush for the economy, nothing less or more. Obama will not be able to do the things you mention. US debt is 109% of GDP increasing at about 10% per annum. When the the debt gets to 150-200% of GDP in 4-8 years. The US will not be able to borrow anymore, Obama or the next democratic president (its unlikely the republicans will win the next election either) will have to start printing money to pay for all the defence and entitlement spending. The poor’s welfare checks will be worth nothing, they will hate the government, the republicans will roll in and rule the roost for 50 years like the democrats did after 1929. Its sad but its economics there is nothing that anyone can do.

  5. Guy Rundle

    Gee i’m glad you know that ‘blame Bush’ thing for a fact, Skippy, and it’s only a shame that you haven’t yet reached the chapter on devaluation of reserve currencies as a mode of debt reduction in your textbook. All qualitative polling indicates that Romney not Bush was the issue for many ‘reactive’ voters, but hell go with your gut. Can a call from FOX News be long in coming?

  6. crawfordyorke

    Guy are you a fan of Bill Maher and his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher?

    His twitter is also funny as ..

  7. Dogs breakfast

    Obama reeks of potential for greatness, but as much as I hope for it I also doubt it.

    The politics of USA is such a muddle, as much as they can throw up an Obama, they can just as readily, it seems, produce a Bush, or two, or god forbid think that Reagan was a great president, not just some guy who turned up at the right time, a la Peter Costello’s time as Treasurer as money rained down upon him.

    I don’t know, I wish him and USA well, but not so well that they forget the obvious lessons of the last decade, that their brand of unfettered capitalism will always result in train wrecks.

    But god knows we need some great leaders on the world stage now. I have no clue where they will come from, and politics seems to be the best way of making sure they never enter politics.

    God, it’s such a rigged game. How do we get out of this?

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