President Obama: I love you, but you need to raise your game

The apparent cave in on Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is the most depressing episode of the Obama presidency.

Judging by recent press reports, the White House is apparently folding on the Bush tax cuts for people with incomes exceeding $250,000. On several levels, this is one of the most depressing episodes of the entire Obama presidency. At-best, this represents a damaging walk-back of a serious political mistake

Most obviously, caving in on this issue amounts to bad social and fiscal policy. (See Jonathan Chait’s several hundred columns making the rubble bounce on this theme.) The Bush tax cuts on the $250,000+ group squander $700 billion over the next decade. Especially in these hard times, when it’s a heavy political lift to finance basic services, that is vastly irresponsible.

Across the country, poor and disabled people are facing punishing service cuts. Teachers, police officers, public health workers are being laid off across the country. Those of us who have comfortable, secure jobs should be paying a bit more in this time of serious economic trouble. People who earn more than $250,000 per year can afford to pay a few percentage points more, as they did during the Clinton era.

This entire debate provides a depressing commentary on the state of American politics. Raising taxes on the top one percent of the U.S. population apparently brings greater political penalty than do state and federal budget cuts that hurt many millions more people. This political reality exemplifies the fact that affluent people simply have too much political influence these days. Implicitly and explicitly, this influence distorts policy debate.

To take one nonrandom example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that permanent extension of Bush tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers has an almost eerily similar impact on federal deficits as does the entire unfunded liability of our Social Security system. Somehow, all that scary talk about deficits and Social Security’s genuine but manageable long-term shortfall doesn’t carry over to this numerically equivalent issue in tax policy.

Perhaps most depressing, this episode illustrates the periodic preemptive surrenders that are frustrating to the President’s closest supporters. It’s disappointing not to win key items such as the public option. It’s a lot more demoralizing when progressives sense that we dither, when we negotiate with ourselves, when we allow rather popular positions undercut by moderate and conservative Democrats. Before we know it, we’ve lost things that are important to us without getting anything in return, without even a clear and compelling defense of what should be core Democratic positions.

To give up on this issue backtracks on a clear campaign plank from 2008. Worse, it concedes to Republicans a mandate they have not earned and should not be allowed to retrospectively construct based on the midterm election results. The “American people” do not support tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor, for that matter, do majorities support the deficit commission’s fundamentally conservative vision of limited government. (Large majorities support health reform’s measures to insure 32 million people and to more stringently regulate insurers, for example.) I see little evidence that Americans support conservative positions on the environment, a whole range of social issues, progressive taxation, and more.

President Obama, you have done well when you have gone head-to-head with Republicans, when you have civilly but frankly defended specific appealing liberal positions. When you and your minions lecture liberals on the need to be “realistic,” you demoralize your strongest supporters and embolden Republicans.

I am one of your proud and strong supporters. I will continue to be. Yet it’s time for you to raise your game, to counterpunch hard against a Republican congressional majority which claims a much greater mandate than it actually has won.

Don’t give them that.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “President Obama: I love you, but you need to raise your game”

  1. By "fundamentally conservative vision of limited government", I presume you mean, "government increasing in size faster than the rate of inflation for the foreseeable future"? Because that's the only vision of government the deficit commission has demonstrated. "Limited" only in the sense that it's not "infinite"…

  2. There's something to be said – as discussed on Charlie Rose last night – for a purportedly towering intellect, thoughtful reflection, broad grasp of scale, all that. And there is also something to be said for efficacious leadership too. Knocking some heads. Pounding the bully pulpit. Carrying a big stick.

    But we are effectively a plutocracy or corporatocracy. It is hard to knock heads or be efficacious in such an environment. So all we can do is adjust the equation of the negative slope on the chart of our decline as this BS continues.


  3. "Perhaps most depressing, this episode illustrates the periodic preemptive surrenders that are frustrating to the President’s closest supporters."

    At some point, one would think, the president's closest supporters will accept the empirical evidence. The president's actions are not preemptive surrenders. They are concrete steps taken to achieve policy goals. President Obama is a moderate conservative. In many substantive ways the Obama Administration represents a third Bush term. (Yes, there are differences, a couple of which are significant, but on the whole the similarities overwhelmingly trump.) I know it hurts, but the sooner progressive supporters of the president accept the reality, the sooner they can stop wasting their support on someone who does not share their objectives.

    Just an anecdote, but amusing nonetheless:

    Naturally the [2008] election came up in conversation. Trying to be even-handed and polite, the Brits said something diplomatic about McCain’s campaign, expecting Bush to express some warm words of support for the Republican candidate.

    Not a chance. “I probably won’t even vote for the guy,” Bush told the group, according to two people present.“I had to endorse him. But I’d have endorsed Obama if they’d asked me.”

  4. I second the motion, encapsulated in the post title.

    Obama would better serve himself and his constituency by picking a few fights, even losing fights. You get the feeling every potential conflict is getting permanently rationalized into a line of least resistance.

    DADT kinda sums it up … Obama is waffling his way into finding that the Republican Congress just elected will not rescind it, for fear of Obama getting the credit, no matter if they think it is right or wrong.

    After hearing about the cave on the deficit, I have trouble remembering what Obama stands for.

  5. Democratic Party leftists: Give it up on Obama already!

    Obama has been reading from the Clinton playbook all along. If he continues to be a good boy, he hopes the Repubs will reward him with a Designated Loser(tm) candidate, as with Bob Dole, or John Kerry for the Democrats, or McCain for that matter. That's how the two parties share power.

    The only hope for putting a monkey wrench into this forlorn, foreordained process is if the Democratic Party leftists get solidly behind a genuinely "progressive" candidate (no, obviously not Hillary!) to run against Obama. The campaign should be as nasty, acrimonious and divisive as possible, focused on Obama's naked betrayal of the obvious mandate entrusted to him by those that elected him in 2008.

    You know the list. We can now add Obama's lie about Afghan withdrawal, and extension of the Bush tax blackmail/giveaway to the wealthy. Obama is like clockwork with the electoral schedule, isn't he? The guy is so blatantly in your face with the deceptions and betrayals, isn't he? If none of this makes you very angry, then let me suggest that you stop following politics altogether – you don't belong in the arena.

    No, it wouldn't be "self-destructive" – it would be destructive of the Clinton-Obama line of consistent, contemptuous betrayal of the hopes so misplaced in them. Self-destructive would be to not extract retribution for the betrayals – only by showing that that which elects, can also unelect, will you gain any RESPECT for your politics.

    I don't support the Democrats, but I would fully support this kind of effort. We are moving into very angry times. Stay tuned.

  6. JM understates when he says that Obama is a moderate conservative. He is a radical who has fundamentally changed the nature of this nation by continuing to imprison people without due process and by attempting to murder them. These actions, together with his refusal to prosecute Bush and other torturers, is a violation of law (the Convention Against Torture). By these actions and failures to act, Obama has turned the United States into a nation of men, not laws. Bush was merely a criminal, and criminals come and go. Not prosecuting them is the more serious action. It places the President above the law, and that, actually, is more serious than giving tax cuts to the rich. I don't know how Obama's 2008 supporters can continue to love him. Personally, I am ashamed of myself for having been taken in by another politician. Hope may spring eternal, but never again will I be taken in. (Sadly, given the state of the Republican party, I may still have to vote for Obama in 2012 as the lesser evil.)

  7. I wrote, "Sadly, given the state of the Republican party, I may still have to vote for Obama in 2012 as the lesser evil," before I read Matt Russo's comment. What progressives are there? Alan Grayson is the only one who comes to mind, and he was defeated.

  8. To paraphrase something I just read somewhere:

    I was one of your proud and strong supporters.

    I regret the past tense.

    It is so far past time for you to raise your game that whatever you do will make no difference now, or in the foreseeable future.

    Counterpunching hard (yeah, right) against a Republican congressional majority, which you have enabled due to your obsessive desire to take it to those of us who elected you in the first place rather than the collective enemy that wishes you only ill, won't make a goddamn bit of difference. Especially since you are more likely to hit one of us instead of one of them.

  9. I sat back for two years when the Dems and their leader had absolute control . It became obvious that these folks are bought and paid for by the same shadow rulers . Any distinction I used to make between the two parties has evaporated into thin air . If Obama caves in on the tax issue for the rich , I will not only disown him , but will actively work against him in 2012 . Ben Franklin was quite correct when he commented that we will only have a Republic if we can keep it . For now , Fox News and the Wall Street pimps and the real power brokers behind the scenes are ruling the roost . The real lovers of democracy and freedom are going to have to adopt much more radical means of protest , and have both parties in their sights when they do .

  10. LEW, as my prior comments indicate, I too have lost faith in Obama. But there remain an obvious distinctions between the parties. Any Republican president will openly and enthusiastically torture people. Obama will share the blame for this because he has not prosecuted Bush, but they will do it, whereas Obama has, for the most part, stopped torturing. (I say "for the most part" because of the allegations concerning his formerly secret prison in Afghanistan.) We owe it to potential future victims of Republican torture to make preventing a Republican presidency a very high priority.

    Also, any future Republican president would likely sign a bill to repeal Obama's health insurance reform, and people will die as a result.

  11. It's not just the affluent. I know plenty of non-affluent people, including one who is dirt poor by US standards, who are exuberant cheerleaders for low or nonexistent taxation on the richest Americans.

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