We raised the debt ceiling. The cracks in the floor remain unrepaired.

Some thoughts for Labor Day.

I thought President Obama did a beautiful job in this speech today. He showed some fight. He needs to.

Oh yeah. Here is my op-ed about Chicago’s economic challenges in today’s New York Times. I interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others. A little excerpt:

[Jackson] had choice words for banks and for Tea Partiers, whom he called “kamikaze zealots.” His bluntness is jarring. National politicians don’t talk like that.

Maybe they should. Mr. Jackson brings an urgency, an identification with struggling people that is otherwise lacking…. Lambasting the debt ceiling agreement, he said: “They’ll raise the roof, but the cracks in the floor will go unrepaired.”

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, tnr.com, 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.

26 thoughts on “We raised the debt ceiling. The cracks in the floor remain unrepaired.”

  1. “I thought President Obama did a beautiful job in this speech today. He showed some fight. He needs to.”

    I think the problem is, nobody actually sees any fight from him outside of his rousing speeches. One headline reading “Boehner Relents to Obama Pressure” would go farther than fifty stump speeches emphatically calling for action. I am trying to stay with him because, like Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman”, I have nowhere else to go. However, I worry that this might be part of the problem. Obama continues to try to court his critics and be the unitererer Dubya could not be. Yet with every open palm extended, he pulls back a handful of shit only to toss that away, wipe off the mess, and stick his hand back out for more. There’s a reason why most of this nation hates that Lucy Van Pelt (my guess is there is a segment who actually cheer each time that ball gets pulled away), yet it’s the weird round-headed kid who deserves the lion’s share of the blame at this point.

    I believe the conversation over the speech debacle should have been firmly rooted in Boehner’s disrespect and not “Obama Bumbles Again”. The same as the ACA, debt ceiling and a dozen other conversations should have been about unprecedented Republican obstructionism. Regardless, the media has now firmly established “Obama Caves; Obama Weak” and the only way Obama can reverse that is by piling up win over unlikely win for the next 14 months. And while I am not a political insider I can tell you one thing: nonsense like postponing the new EPA regulations not only maintains the “Obama Caves; Obama Weak” image, it also fails to ease criticism or gain any allies from the right. Maybe the Obama presidency is operating on the “If everybody is unhappy, then we must be doing something right” theory? Whatever theory they are operating under, they really should conisder a change of plans.

  2. Perspecticus : “One headline reading “Boehner Relents to Obama Pressure” would go farther than fifty stump speeches emphatically calling for action.”

    Obviously it would. But what kind of pressure could the White House exercise that Republicans in the House would bend to?

    More importantly, a major obstacle is the American electorate. Republicans could not get away with what they’re doing if they hadn’t been able to sell the public at least partly on their agenda. A good example here is taxation: Federal revenue is becoming more and more inadequate with respect to necessary spending. The public doesn’t like taxes (except for people who aren’t them). and they don’t like spending cuts (except those that don’t affect them). The principle of TANSTAAFL is poorly understood by most Americans, who apparently think that roads magically get repaired overnight by the free market fairy. This severely limits serious options that politicians have and makes life easy for demagogues.

    I do think that Obama made some unforced errors. But I don’t see how a single man, even the individually most powerful man in America, could fix the dysfunctional aspects of a political system that is built around limiting the power of any single individual (and properly so). I sometimes think that Democrats want a philosopher king wisely ruling by decree when they are in power and a president bound by democratic controls when the Republicans are. But that’s not how liberal democracies work.

  3. “National politicians don’t talk like that.” Don’t you mean “National democratic politicians don’t talk like that”? National republican figures talk like that and more all the time.

  4. Shows how two people can look at the same set of facts and come to opposite conclusions. Who’s been running Chicago anyway? The last Republican mayor was … before my time, I guess? The Jackson’s, Obama’s and Dailey’s have been around forever. They say things libs like to hear and repeat but accomplish little or nothing for the people they supposedly are concerned about. A cynic might wonder if this doesn’t actually serve their purpose. After, all, should their constituents achieve economic comfort and have a stake in the system they might become …Republicans!! What a nightmare!

    Continuing down the same path that hasn’t ever worked is the classical definition of insanity. Yet, that is the politics of the left. Why is it surprising that so many now understand that their solutions will not come from the political theater?

  5. One other small point – the President’s speech yesterday was a campaign speech. No one took it seriously, and as a Presidential address, it would have been an embarrassment, but we’ll just give him the benefit of “campaign license.” The speech before Congress will be the one that puts his “jobs program” proposal on the record.

  6. Katja: Thank you for the breath of sanity. If you start with the assumptions that the Congress is not a separate and equal branch of government and that the American people’s political views roughly track those of the French in the 1970s, you come to the conclusion that Obama could crush Congressional opposition at any moment but has chosen not to; ergo he is either a weakling, a traitor to liberalism, or both. If however you do what you do in your comment and accept reality, it becomes more complicated (which may be why some people avoid it, complexity is less emotionally satisfying than a simplistic good vs. evil framing of politics).

  7. Keith, if you can take a minute from your congratulations, could you please address Paul’s comment?


  8. paul: National republican figures talk like that and more all the time.

    And does it buy them anything politically, outside of approval from their base?

  9. Yes it gets them things. They get stuff handed to them by Democrats.

    Keith Humphreys: yes, I’ll concede that after the midterms, the President had a tougher road. So what? And even before that he had to deal with Blue Dogs, however, where is the evidence that he ever really got in their “grill,” as the young people put it? I don’t recall that happening. And those of us in the bleachers could tell that the “bipartisan” thing was over circa the HCR debate, but he seemed to keep at it.

    Problem is, now whatever he says really doesn’t matter, and we all know it. I know pretty much for a fact that nothing in his “jobs speech” that needs Congress will happen. And anything he can do himself, then why the BLEEP isn’t it already done? So, what’s the point now? This is all just theater.

    I still plan to vote for him, and I still want a challenger. We need to push back on this cr*p narrative the right has been selling.

  10. From the linked article: “The administration has said he will lay out a series of steps that Congress could act upon including transportation infrastructure initiatives, practices to help homeowners, and tax breaks to support new worker hires.”

    Sure, Congress *could* do those things.

    I’m sorry, but they should have planned ahead for this time period. There was a serious political miscalculation, or perhaps a series of them. The fact that the Dems are trying to help people and the GOP is selling the same old line may count for much less than they imagine at election time.

  11. And as a total outsider in all ways, I have to ask: does the Obama administration not get along with the Congressional Dem leaders, or do they ignore them, or what? Because Pelosi and Reid must have been telling him for a while that he was going down the wrong road.

  12. The time for the president to focus on job creation was 2009 or 2010. Right now it just seems very late in the game. Of course, he still has to try, and I guess I’m marginally happy he’s giving a speech on it. But I don’t think even Humphreys can argue that he’s given this issue its due once he got done with HCR.

  13. Okay, I’m going to stop now, but isn’t the story in a few days going to be, “Obama gives good speech, then nothing happens?”

    Note: would love to be wrong about this.

  14. paul: “National republican figures talk like that and more all the time.”

    Katja: “And does it buy them anything politically, outside of approval from their base?”

    Let me help; I didn’t realize that you weren’t cognizant of some important stuff. I apologize if I was harsh on you.

    Here in timeline 45X-A4 [nicknamed ‘Bush the Lesser’, major components: Bush II + 9/11 + Great Financial Crash of 2007-08], the GOP trashed the country (and much of the world, but I’m focusing for now on the domestic politics). Their last year in office was not a slow, lame-duck playing out of the term, but an unmitigated disaster.

    Even so, their candidate for President (McCain the Warmonger) got 47% of the vote, which even I at the time found ominous. And the GOP decided to double down on the crazy, and go further rhetorically and votewise into extremism.

    And they were successful – they not only retook the House, but gained more seats than the standard models would predict.

    They also totally recast the ‘mainstream’ narrative so that it wasn’t about what they had done, but about how more people need to be hurt.

    This has led some perhaps whackjob people to come to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, the right (a) means what they say, and (b) their extreme rhetoric (on the whole) helps them.

    Somebody in writing about mass media and the internet once made a beautiful comment (warning, quote from memory):

    “In normal times, those who look out the window and see what’s happening are called pragmatics, and sensible. Those who refuse to look, who sit in windowless rooms discussing nonexistent worlds are called ‘idealist’, or ‘dreamers’.

    In a time of change and turmoil, this is reversed – the people looking at what is actually happening are called ‘dreamers’, and the people in the windowless rooms ignoring reality are called ‘sensible, practical’.”

  15. “I thought President Obama did a beautiful job in this speech today. He showed some fight. He needs to.”

    Hmm…isn’t the road to hell paved with good intentions? Anyway, when confronted with an impossible situation, you can either fight or die. Figuratively speaking, of course. And you might well “die” if you fight. Or, how about this? You could fight and win. Or lose all of the initial battles but win the war in the end. As did another President from Illinois when faced with an existential threat of another kind. But if your only response to your predicament is the faint-hearted voice of so-called sweet reason directed at the unreasoning as well as the unreasonable, you will get precisely what you deserve. And no one will have won in the end. It’s just that some won’t realize it. Now or ever. Alas.

  16. “paul: National republican figures talk like that and more all the time.

    And does it buy them anything politically, outside of approval from their base?”

    “Yes it gets them things. They get stuff handed to them by Democrats”

    More than that, it gets to set the national understanding of the issues. If Republicans say, all the time “taxes destroy jobs and GDP”, and Democrats stay silent, the Republican claim, by default BECOMES the mood of the national electorate.

    Those defending Obama (and saying that his rhetoric is unimportant) don’t seem to understand this. Where does the public’s understanding of economics and politick tradeoffs come from? It comes from certain points being repeated over and over and over. The Democrats COULD repeat an alternative story. They COULD state in every speech that taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society, that we need to pay to maintain our infrastructure, our schools, our courts, our WAY OF LIFE. But they apparently have no interest in doing so. You set a national tone by deciding on a script and sticking to it, for years on end, not by making one speech.

  17. Barry, we were talking about aggressive rhetoric by national Republicans, not their designated attack dogs. Insofar as the leadership has been doing it (which has been relatively little), I haven’t seen them deriving a political benefit from it. And they generally do avoid it.

    For example, during the midterm election campaign, Sarah Palin talked about death panels. Joehn Boehner said the following:

    “I believe that the health care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt our country. That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that’ll bring down the cost of health insurance.”

    Mitch McConnell said:

    “On health care, that means we can — and should — propose and vote on straight repeal, repeatedly. But we can’t expect the president to sign it. So we’ll also have to work, in the House, on denying funds for implementation, and, in the Senate, on votes against its most egregious provisions. At the same time, we’ll need to continue educating the public about the ill-effects of this bill on individuals young and old, families, and small businesses.”

    Obviously, one can and should have doubts about the sincerity and truthfulness of these comments (and lament the inadequacies of our press corps when it is reporting lies as though they were facts). But John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were careful to sound like elder statesmen. That’s on purpose.

  18. NCG: “Yes it gets them things. They get stuff handed to them by Democrats.”

    I disagree. What gets them stuff is the need for the Democrats to fix the economy combined with the sophisticated three-pronged strategy the Republicans employ in Congress, namely:

    (1) Vote no.
    (2) Vote no.
    (3) Vote no.

    Rhetoric doesn’t play into it. The Republican willingness to drive the country over a cliff combined with the Democrats trying to avoid that does. This is just some old-fashioned blackmail.

  19. Frankly, I found his speech pithy and insincere. I admit it’s colored by what I know about how he acts. Now for an inspiring Obama speech check out this. Granted it’s pre-mid-term (1/2010), but he’s taking on the reeps on their own turf and winning. They learned never to do that again.

  20. Maynard Handley: “Democrats COULD….COULD….COULD…but they don’t”

    They “don’t”


    today’s “democrats”

    are not


    Other than that, I agree completely with your comments.

  21. Uh, Katja:

    from right in the middle of the 2009 elections we have: The House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, said, “This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia.” Perhaps not as “elder statesmanlike” as you might recall.

  22. The best thing the Republicans can do is accept a jobs bill, but not until at earliest the first quarter of 2012. That way, if/when the economy picks up after the November election, (assuming they win) they can take all the credit for it (particularly if they make the Dems grovel for everything) while still hammering the Dems on the economy during the election. And if the economy doesn’t pick up, they can keep blaming Obama’s “Keynesian socialism” for at least a good two years (Honeymoon!).

    Of course, that depends on if the polls look really good for Mr. Perry vs. Mr. Obama by then. If not, then of course they’ll continue to be the Party of No and do everything they can to make the economy even worse before the election.

  23. Paul, I’m pretty sure you could find even more slip-ups. My point is that these don’t buy the Republican leadership anything; not that they are necessarily perfect at their kind of public performance art (let alone honest).

  24. Katja: Do you actually have evidence that the nasty talk doesn’t buy the republican leadership anything? All the evidence seems to point the other way. Talking about death panels and shooting hostages works.

  25. Paul, obviously disinformation campaigns and political slander can be highly successful. Equally obviously, political parties have engaged in them since times immemorial, going back to ancient Rome. But in practice, you don’t let your political leadership lead the charge when it comes to disinformation; you let your attack dogs (e.g., Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh) hammer home the narrative. La calunnia è un venticello. There is no need or benefit for your leaders to employ the same rhetoric; it’ll only harm their image without lending additional momentum to the campaign; instead, they’re better off sounding mature and concerned. “Obviously, these claims are exaggerated, but where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire …” or something along these lines.

    The general problem that the Democrats are facing is that the United States are a very conservative country; “liberal” still has a strong connotation of “commie mutant traitor”. Consider that the American public hates, hates, hates taxes. Consider the traction that Reagan’s claim gained that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” Consider that Kay Bailey Hutchinson reportedly dropped the idea of using the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham against Rick Perry after a member of a focus group reportedly said, “it takes balls to execute an innocent man”. Consider the popularity of the various “Law and Order” TV shows. Consider that the American electorate has routinely rewarded presidents for killing a few thousand foreigners in a war by upswings in their approval rating. Barry seemed surprised that “McCain the Warmonger” (his words) got 45.7% of the popular vote. Umm, yeah? McCain probably would have gotten more if he had a successful war or two under his belt (and dumped Sarah Palin). Conservative ideas tend to resonate very well with the American electorate, like it or not, while progressive ideas tend to face an uphill battle.

    Are you really surprised that Democrats have problems selling the ideas of social democracy to such a crowd? How do you sell universal healthcare to a voter who tells you to “keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare”? No single person can turn around public opinion on such a scale, not even the president of the United States — heck, especially not the president, where the opposition will immediately roll out their spin doctors to counter anything he says.

  26. Katja: consider that roughly 70% of the electorate is in favor of raising taxes on incomes over $1M. And in favor of almost all of the individual components of Obamacare. In favor of the continuation of medicare and social security. Vastly more interested in jobs than reducing the deficit. And this after 40 years and billions of dollars of right-wing propaganda. (And a decades-long campaign aimed at promoting right-wing reporters, pundits and other opinion leaders, and of eliminating moderate and liberal voices from the airwaves and newspaper pages.)

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