I really hope Sasha and Malia did something nice for their father for his birthday, because he got precious little sugar from the outside world. In quick succession, he a) signed into law the debt ceiling extension that was a near-total victory for his opponents; b) saw the stock market fall 500 points in one day (a feat that was bested today); c) saw the publication of another dismal employment report; and d) witnessed the first downgrade in history of the creditworthiness of the full faith and credit of the United States government. Happy birthday, indeed.
I felt rather bad for Jay Carney, the President’s spokesman, trying to put a nice gloss on all this. He was badgered by ABC’s Jake Tapper: “What’s the President doing? What’s he doing?” “The President is consulting with his top advisors…” stammered Carney. The global economy is going to pieces and he’s “consulting”?
In Carney’s defense, there isn’t much President Obama can do without repudiating the first thirty months of his term. Keynesian stimulus has been tried and found wanting. Indeed, think it through and it must fail: if spending does in fact stimulate growth, then it must also be true that withdrawal of the spending must curtail growth – unless the spending continues in perpetuity. For a temporary boost in economic activity, borrowed from future periods, the government racks up extra layers of debt.
So Obama finds himself in a corner with no good options – spending more won’t work, and Congress won’t let him do it anyway. Cutting taxes is anathema – he thinks they are too low already. The only thing that might salvage his presidency would be to put through a root-and-branch reform of both spending and taxes, something like the Bowles-Simpson plan (which he binned as soon as it hit his desk) or the Ryan plan (which he barely acknowledged while he was busy not preparing his own budget).
I’ve been listening to progressive talk radio a bit lately, wanting to see how the other side is dealing with the near-implosion of the Obama presidency. As a general rule, their response is two-fold: first, consternation that Obama and the Democratic Senate leadership weren’t more successful in standing up to the Republicans in the debt battle, and, second (and much more widespread) outrage at the Republicans and most particularly at the Tea Party.
The Tea Party has succeeded Sarah Palin and before her George W. Bush as the favorite object of liberals’ hatred. All the Kumbaya talk of the need for civility in our public discourse in the wake of the Gabby Gifford shooting has long since been tossed overboard – in just a couple of days I heard the Tea Party described as crazies, bozos, terrorists, racists, idiots, bomb-throwers, enemies, and evil. Liberals also like to invoke the sinister image of David and Charles Koch, as if they are the evil Svengalis behind the scenes, bringing about the downfall of civilized America for their own nefarious ends.
There is a lot of discussion too about how to “take control” of the message in today’s politics. The talkers that I heard seem to think that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have somehow kidnaped the airwaves, and are forcing gentle and unsuspecting folks to convert to blood-red right-wing conservatism. As if the combined might of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, much of Hollywood, etc, etc, was simply no match for the conservative talk radio.
David Axelrod and John Kerry produced an inspiring talking point this weekend, though, and the liberal talkers were aglow with it: this is the “Tea Party Downgrade.” “This is our talking point!” crowed Norman Goldman. “Let’s repeat it and repeat and shove it down their throats!” They seem to think, like Joseph Goebbels, that the message is more important than the policy, and that they are losing this debate because the Republicans are louder and more stubborn about their simplistic message. I even heard one host complain that the problem with liberals is that they are more nuanced and intelligent, and they just get steamrolled by the right-wind simpletons.
Others complain that Obama has not been strong enough in standing up for liberal values. I heard one say with some dismay that Democrats seem to find it easier to go to their constituents and say “you have to give this up” than to go to the other side (“with all their money”) and ask them to pony up to make a deal. Their naive view of the way politics works is simply astounding. As Obama himself said (and probably regrets saying today), “elections have consequences.” The election of 2010 is what is consequential today.
As to policy, here’s the thing that progressives don’t seem to understand: the money’s not there. When they complain about resolving our debt crisis on the backs of the poor, the anguish is genuine, and the impact on millions will be great. But the point is the same – the money is not there. When they had the chance, the Pelosi-Reid Congress to their disgrace expanded the rolls of Medicaid, SCHIP, and all the other dependencies, to promise more government aid that we can’t afford.
If the talk radio folks are a sign of what’s going on in the liberal psyche these days, they are facing a crisis of their own. They feel like they’ve lost control of the political momentum that just a couple of years ago seemed like a progressive tidal wave. They are in denial about the real reasons the populace voted out the Obama majorities (hint: it was not because they were insufficiently liberal). And they are having second thoughts about their Lancelot.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the President has another year and a half to try to pull things together. For the sake of our country, I hope he manages to become the post-partisan healer he held himself out to be. As I said last November, if Obama were actually to embrace the recommendations of his own deficit commission, I could actually see myself voting for him. We need a serious “conversation,” as he likes to say, about getting our spending under control.
But as long as he insists on using the power of government to redistribute income, to constrain rather than to free entrepreneurs, and to hamstring our ability to grow, his next birthday is likely to be even grimmer than this one.