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The summer of Obama's discontent
August has historically been a treacherous month for the president. But Obama can own this month, this year, and next, if he regains the fierce urgency of now
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

For Barack Obama, August has long been the cruelest month.

In August of 2007, with Hillary Clinton all but universally seen as securely ahead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama had to face down grumbling from his supporters that the campaign had to get more aggressive — or it might simply fade away. Obama stood the ground of his strategy, carried Iowa, and was on his way to the nomination.

Two years later, months after the passage of the stimulus bill that prevented a descent into depression, and with Congress apparently ready to pass health care reform in the fall, August of 2009 was the time when town halls convulsed into near riots and the Tea Party moved from the cranky edge of American public life toward dominance in the Republican Party. Obama stayed his course and finally won health reform the following spring, but what was left of the president's vision of bipartisanship shriveled as the aisle he aspired to reach across became a chasm.

Just because the Tea Party is crazy doesn't mean progressives should let them make us crazy. Obama is all we've got.

August of 2010 revealed a lack of resonance for Obama in the midterm elections. By then, "the greenshoots of recovery" prematurely heralded by his principal economic advisor were more like a brownfield of intractable unemployment. The president asked Americans if they wanted to go back, and it turns out they did — not to Bush, certainly, but to job security, stable home values, and worthwhile 401(k) plans. Blaming the past failed. And after the political cataclysm of November 2010, Obama — and Vice President Joe Biden — bridged the partisan canyon to negotiate a deal on the Bush tax cuts that also provided a dose of additional stimulus in the form of a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment compensation.

There are two continuing strands in this pattern: The recurrence of political superstorms in the dog days of summer — which happened again this year; and Obama's staying power in the face of adversity, which sustained his candidacy and then his presidency. But over time, the sheen of hope has been worn away. And nowhere is this more obvious than with his own base. Aggrieved by the loss of a public option in the health care bill, and the lack of a second major stimulus bill, activists were vocally disappointed when Obama agreed to a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts — no matter what the president extracted from the GOP in return. The Left's premise is that if he had stood his ground more resolutely, or stomped his foot harder, somehow events would have moved 'round to him.

Now, with the debt ceiling bargain comes the Summer of Obama's discontent — proclaimed not only by erstwhile supporters, but generally by the purveyors of Washington wisdom. The president must wish that he could abolish August, never more so than this year. There are dark warnings that his own disappointed supporters won't show up next November — and even silly grumblings about a primary challenge from the Left. Analysis after analysis argues that Obama's authority is "weakened," and his presidency "irreversibly neutered," as the columnist George Will happily hopes. And Jeb Bush, who had been prudently passing on 2012 in favor of the next time around, has just shown an inch of leg in the current race, telling Fox News: "You never say never."

Well, as Republicans discovered when they called Bill Clinton "irrelevant" in the mid-1990's, presidents are rarely "irreversibly" anything. This kind of instant analysis is a spasm of the moment, almost always wrong — and especially wrong when it manifests itself as it has here in the swelling chorus of an echo chamber.

The progressive choir does have a point that is substantive, persuasive, economically right — and beside the point. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues that what's needed in the near-term is more spending, not more cuts, with a long-term deficit reduction plan tied to the pace of recovery. Those that press this idea — or who believe the president could have achieved a public option, an extension of tax cuts for the middle class but not the wealthy, or a debt ceiling bargain that raised taxes — have yet to describe a practical path that could have gotten him there.

For example, the notion of ignoring Congress on the debt ceiling and invoking the 14th Amendment could have served as a useful pressure point or as a last resort in extremis. Actually doing it would have set off a constitutional and probably a financial crisis. It might have offered psychic satisfaction, but exactly how would it have advanced progressive purposes?

During the debt debate, the president too readily took up the clichéd mantra that government, like a family, has to live within its means. Perhaps crediting one advisor's early prediction that unemployment would never rise above 8 percent, perhaps counseled that one round of stimulus was enough, Obama chose not to talk economic sense about the uses of deficits in a downturn and the imperative of balancing budgets over the economic cycle; but no president except JFK has ever ventured an explicitly Keynesian argument. Even if this one had, could he have defeated a deeply embedded popular mythology about the inherent evils of deficit spending? Incredibly, polls regularly report a prevailing view that cutting spending is the way to create jobs — a fiction Republicans conveniently and constantly repeat and reinforce. It is fantasy politics to assume the president could have overcome generations of fantasy economics — and it's all but certain that no matter what he said, there never would have been enough votes for a second stimulus package in a filibustering Senate where an all-powerful Republican minority was and is dead set against any Obama plan to revive growth and jobs. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it bluntly: His party's highest priority is to deny this president a second term.

The politics of "no" yielded just enough in the debt ceiling negotiations — the GOP had to abandon their constitutional blackmail on a balanced budget amendment — and in whole or in part because its congressional leaders, despite the overheated breath of their Tea Party members, worried that Republicans would be blamed for the disaster of a default. The result for Obama, for progressives, and for the country: Default and a double-dip recession averted with what was nearly the worst possible deal... except for all the other deals that were realistically possible.

Obama and Biden did secure concessions beyond the relegation of the balanced budget amendment to a symbolic and losing congressional vote. Yes, the final bill is anything but stimulative; but only $21 billion of the more than $2 trillion in cuts over the next decade will hit in the next year. Programs like Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and Pell grants have been protected. Medicare and Social Security may or may not be modified by the super-committee charged with identifying the second phase of the cuts; but even that outcome would be very different from Republican proposals to voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security.

The president also demanded and won cuts in the Pentagon which will be even deeper if the super-committee falters and Congress rejects its recommendations. And contrary to the received story line, revenues are on not off the table — either in the form of tax reforms in the committee's proposal — or with Obama re-elected, the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts on Dec. 31, 2012.

Maybe then it's not nearly the worst possible deal except for all the others. It's not good enough — but just about the best the president could achieve.

Democrats in general, as distinct from disappointed activists, may not know all the details, but they seem to sense this. Obama's approval among liberals is high — and among Democrats it stands at 77 percent — even at the most fraught passage of his presidency. So much for the chimera of a primary challenge. From whom? Dennis Kucinich — who no longer has a congressional district in Ohio?

Just because the Tea Party is crazy doesn't mean progressives should let them make us crazy. Obama is all we've got. There's no proof anyone else could have done better as president — and in fact, he's forged landmark progress from health and financial reform to saving the auto industry. And too much is at stake in 2012: Not only the Supreme Court, the social safety net, claims of equality, and the imperatives of investment in the future, but an increasingly stark choice between a 19th century America and a 21st century America.

In the nation at large, the president is anything but a spent force — as he's about to demonstrate. This year he's not ceding August; he will instead set out on a bus tour of the Midwest as he focuses on jobs and the economy. Republican complaints about the trip testify to its wisdom. Given that the expert doomsayers are all saying the economy will get worse, it may just get better.

The president can't bank on the course of events; he has to shape events. Visiting a factory or an office park is not enough. By the State of the Union, and far sooner, he should be arguing for a jobs agenda even as the GOP adamantly rejects it. All along, Obama has to draw the dividing lines and ask the big question: Who stands up for the middle class? Who stands up for you? What he says out there — in and to the country — is at least as important as being out there in the first place.

Time and again, most recently during the manufactured debt crisis, the president has already proved that he's the reasonable person in the room. Now he has to prove that he's the passionate person in the room — and that he's passionate about the things that matter to ordinary, hard-working, and out-of-work Americans. This is where he would do well to listen to his progressive ranks and his own progressive instincts. He has to put an edge on his message, as FDR and Harry Truman did. This is critical — it can be genuinely decisive — in a campaign waged amid high unemployment, as in 1936, when FDR was re-elected in a landslide, even in the face of double-digit unemployment.

It is not enough for Obama to plead, as he did in a fundraiser in Chicago on Wednesday, that change will take more time. That plea is defensive; it asks people to wait, not march. The choice it offers is simply to endure. That skirts perilously close to the Carter argument in 1980.

Instead, now and all through 2012, he can and should campaign to make the wealthy pay their fair share; Americans overwhelmingly want to end the tax cuts and loopholes for those at the top. He can and should campaign to safeguard and strengthen Medicare and contrast that with the GOP plan to end Medicare as we know it and force seniors to pay $6,500 more a year for coverage. He has to set out the same kind of choices across the board — whether the issue is Social Security, or making college loans work for students not big banks, or regulating Wall Street instead of letting speculation loose to explode into another financial collapse.

There is a theme running through all this. To update a phrase, Obama can and should pose a choice between the people and the privileged.

Some will charge that this is "class warfare" — as the Elmer Gantry-esque Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, already has while preparing his run for the White House. That's a fight worth having — because the real class warfare comes from a GOP which would burden the middle-class to lavish benefits on the few. That's what preacher Perry has practiced in the Lone Star State — which now ranks dead last in health coverage, with 25 percent of Texans uninsured. Obama and the Democrats should welcome a confrontation with, as FDR once put it, "the forces of greed and privilege."

Others will caution the president to triangulate his way to victory as Bill Clinton supposedly did in 1996. But what Clinton actually did, and it worked with an assist from Newt Gingrich, was to define the stark choice as early as 1995: Do you want to slash Medicare by $270 billion to finance a reckless Republican tax cut of $250 billion?

The criticism of Barack Obama in the last campaign was that he was all speech and no substance. As president, he's been mostly substance, much of it historic, and rarely the speechmaker of 2008. But in the fierce urgency of this now, it is time for speech again, for a clarion call. Let's hope we begin to hear it in the sounds of August.

 

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