This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.
Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of a preexisting condition. Or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
Sounds great — gotta give a little to get a little. But later in the same press conference, Obama refutes his own argument with a beautiful counterexample: congressional Republicans. They dug in and held out until they got what they wanted:
“I have not been able to budge them [Republicans],” said Obama. “And I don’t think there’s any suggestion anybody in this room thinks, realistically, that we can budge them right now. And in the meantime there are a whole bunch of people being hurt. And the economy would be damaged. And my first job is to make sure the economy is growing, that we’re creating jobs out there, and that people who are struggling are getting some relief.”
Shorter Obama: “I was up against people who were smarter than me, more committed than me, more determined than me. I couldn’t beat that, so I had to grovel a little to keep them from completely kicking my ass.”
I don’t doubt Obama’s belief that extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest is bad policy, and I applaud his willingness to help the “whole bunch of people being hurt.” I don’t even think Obama is a wimp, like many on the left are saying — it had to take an incredible amount of guts to make this deal, knowing as he must have how he would be attacked for it from the left and given no credit for it on the right.
What I question is Obama’s judgment. Obama is arguing that the source of danger to the middle class was Mitch McConnell’s refusal to vote for an extension of unemployment benefits, and that because his deal avoided that outcome, that the deal was good for average Americans. But that’s a profound misunderstanding of what just happened.
I wonder how Obama can actually believe that after thirty years of trickle-down economics, in which the rich have been given a continuous stream financial gifts by the federal government on the theory that if only they can be liberated enough from any actual obligations to the rest of the country, that somehow the rest of us will magically begin to prosper as well, that we have not yet reached that point where these massive giveaways to the wealthy are themselves the main reason why there are “a whole bunch of people being hurt.” The middle class isn’t being destroyed by their employment benefits running out. Sure, this is painful in the short run, but it’s not the reason why the middle class is dying.
The middle class is dying because our country has stopped demanding of the wealthy that they contribute their fair share toward the common good. Over the past thirty years, we’ve relieved the wealthy of their tax burdens at the same time that we’ve allowed encouraged them to outsource jobs without penalty. We’ve sent our troops overseas to fight enormously expensive and unending wars that are only tangentially related (at best) to defending the nation, if by “the nation” we mean the actual American people who live in Rhode Island and Nebraska and Oregon. And now, when we begin to take note of the fact that our budgets are seriously unbalanced because our national spending is so much more than our revenue, we get Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson to tell us that the solution is to cut Social Security and to raise the retirement age. Now those few middle-class people who still have jobs can look forward to more insecurity during retirement. This is how “trickle-down” economics has actually worked.
President Obama has missed the forest for the trees. The problem isn’t Mitch McConnell’s threat to vote against an extension of unemployment benefits, the problem is that Mich McConnell’s political opponents, and Mich McConnell’s predecessor’s political opponents, have caved in again and again for the past thirty years to right-wing demands that privilege the rich, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.
I’m one of those people who think that helping the middle class is good for the country. Every government policy helps some people more than it helps others, and the policies of the last thirty years, I think, have helped the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, and this has gone on for far too long. This is how America becomes a two-tiered banana republic. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. With little deals like the one Obama just made.
Obama’s deal isn’t cowardly. It’s stupid.