Here’s the thing. I know Tea Party Republicans were behind the debt-ceiling standoff that wreaked needless damage on confidence in the United States. I wrote weeks ago of Standard & Poor’s outrageous nerve in threatening a downgrade when America’s ability to pay its debts can’t possibly be in doubt. In short, I know who the real villains are at this volatile moment.
So why am I so mad at Barack Obama?
I know I’m not alone. In conversations with folks across the center-left in recent days, everyone’s basically had it with the president. I’ve had policy frustrations before: Obama’s never aimed high enough on school reform and he’s failed miserably to advance a real jobs agenda, to name just two. I’ve said repeatedly that we need a third party to shake things up. But at the same time a part of me has always cut the president some slack — after all, look at the mess the man walked into! Yet somehow the debt-ceiling fiasco and the downgrade, punctuated by these horrific jobs numbers and stock market gyrations, has made something in me (and, I suspect, millions of others) snap.
It’s the sound of confidence in Obama’s leadership breaking.
Yes, other forces may be “responsible” for the bad news. But in the end a president has the most power to shape the debate. How could Obama have let the entirely foreseeable debt-ceiling standoff turn into a hostage drama? Why didn’t he have the spine to say “send me a clean debt limit increase or I’ll raise it myself and see you in court”? How could he leave us in a position where every future debt-limit hike now becomes an occasion for blackmail? And where Chinese officials can blithely say that “the U.S. government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could just borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone”?
Events keep screaming that the president is weak, weak, weak. That this can happen so soon after his gutsy call to take down Osama Bin Laden is striking. First the president gets rolled on the debt limit. Then S&P lowers the boom. Then China piles on. Then the White House rushes out word that Tim Geithner is staying put. Can anyone explain exactly who that news was meant to reassure? It can’t be that we’ll all now breathe easier because Geithner-crafted policy has been such a smashing success. So is this move a function of Obama’s fear of not being able to get a new Treasury nominee confirmed — or his inability to attract someone of stature for what could be an unpleasant one-year stint? Either way, it smells weak.
Then there’s the president’s measurably ineffective pep talk as the market plunged on Monday. And the cynically inadequate “pivot” to jobs. Coupled with what will surely be a more-than-ample pivot to character assassination, with news that Team Obama’s plan for 2012 is to metaphorically “kill” Mitt Romney.
Now, I’m happy to stipulate that Romney is a craven flip-flopper and maybe even a mistreater of dogs. But when 25 million Americans can’t find full-time work, hearing macho strategists speak with glee of this coming assault seems truly off key.
Does the president sense what the moment requires? It helps to think like Mitch McConnell. Once you do, you’ll see there’s no way Republicans will partner with Obama to do anything that matters, because they have the president right where they want him, with “full ownership” of a lousy economy. That’s why the super-committee is doomed to fail, because McConnell’s only goals will be a bipartisan Medicare reform that takes the issue off the table, plus a deal with no tax hikes.
This means that, for all the attention it will consume, there is no way the super-committee can deliver. (And the awful cuts that are supposed to ensue if it fails will never happen; they’ll be “triggered” yet scrapped or put off after the election.)
Once Obama sees that this struggle for power ensures no substantive progress in the next 15 months, he has two alternatives. He can campaign small — via Mediscare and fresh taxes on millionaires and billionaires, while demonizing the GOP candidate as “worse” — and hope to squeak across the finish line.
Or he can go big — with mega-plans for jobs, education, infrastructure, and research and development, while calling out GOP nihilism as the obstacle. But “big” means pairing this with bolder (and much more candid) long-term deficit-cutting plans that kick in once unemployment comes back down— including higher taxes on the best-off, yes, but also sensible steps to slow the growth of Medicare and Social Security, bigger defense cuts, and modestly higher taxes for everyone on consumption, dirty energy and financial transactions.
Will Obama go big? I think not, because no honest agenda for American renewal can avoid trims and taxes that impose costs on the middle class (as part of a long-term plan to save it). Yes, the president will sound “big,” and so will his opponent. But it’ll be phony. Instead, we’re in for another season of charades as both parties fight for 51 percent with symbolic “ideas” unequal to the size of our challenges.
If this is how it plays out, people like me won’t just be mad at Obama. We’ll be mad at ourselves for believing he was going to be different.