Monday, August 01, 2011

Andrew Sullivan and Obama's Leadership on Fiscal Reform

When Obama punted on Simpson-Bowles way back when, Andrew Sullivan came down hard on him for his lack of leadership then. And now Sullivan is contending that Obama’s behavior in this current round of debt/deficit debate was just awful. I disagree. Maybe I am hopelessly deluded by my rose-colored glasses when it comes to trying to understand Obama, but as someone who considers himself a die-hard liberal worried about the country’s real debt/deficit problem, I can’t help but be immeasurably impressed by Barack Obama.

This is how I read Obama on the whole debt/deficit situation, even going back to his punting of Simpson-Bowles. We all know that a big part of the solution to getting our fiscal house in order involves paring back government spending, and making serious reform both to entitlement programs and the tax code. All of those necessities require tackling the sacred cows of the liberal left. That means they are MY sacred cows. And they are. And yet … Barack Obama knows that to get movement from the left on reforming our sacred cows (hell, even just acknowledging that we are fanatically wedded to them), he’s got to transform the left’s way of thinking about our sacred cows.

Obama also knows (as does everyone) that his ability to influence the trajectory of fiscal reform is greatest on the left. He can get more done on that front than he can on the revenue side given the current state of the GOP. So he concentrates on where he can be most effective. But Obama also knows that he’s got to move deliberately and slowly lest he face a Tea Party revolt of his own from the more irresponsible of us on his left flank. So, what did he do?

He first created a crack in the entitlement program sacred cow on the left by building in the idea of Medicare reform as a means of cost containment into the overall health care reform plan. There was nary a peep from the left because the overall goal of health care reform was such a big deal that imposing cost controls in Medicare as part of a larger health care reform effort that would expand healthcare coverage to many more Americans was acceptable. So the idea of cost control reforms to Medicare got a positive presentation and reception on the left. Seemed reasonable to me! A small dent in one entitlement sacred cow that most of us among the left came to accept, if not embrace joyously.

Then he got Simpson-Bowles to put entitlement reform on the table. Yes, he promptly punted; but he still got the idea circulating out there in liberal land that entitlement reform had to be included in any debt/deficit negotiation. Once again, we on the left grumbled, but the left’s culture of entitlement reform intransigence inched a bit more towards the end goal of reform necessity. Simpson-Bowles didn’t get most on the left to buy into such reform; but it conditioned us not to automatically knee-jerk into opposition mode by the mere mention of reform to our sacred cows. Because Simpson-Bowles came from Obama, we on the left listened a bit more than we would have otherwise. I know I did. Now we get this debt ceiling situation and the current compromise deal, and we on the left still grumble loudly (and I think with good reason); but it is unmistakable that we’ve been brought to a much more responsible position regarding our entitlement sacred cows and their need to be on the reform table.

When I look at my own attitude and thinking over the past two years, I see an evolved person. I almost don’t even recognize it; but there it is. It’s been incremental. Almost imperceivable. But Obama has brought the only constituency that he really has much influence over to a position where we on the left are much more comfortable than we ever would have been with doing what we need to do with our own entitlement sacred cows to put our fiscal house in order.

As many others have noted, the country’s fiscal house cannot be put in order without attention to the revenue side of the equation. We simply can't cut our way into solvency without throwing this country into a demoralizing and disastrous economic depression. That’s where we on the left justifiably bitch and moan. But, frankly, that’s a problem that bedevils the Republicans; and it is responsible leadership on the right that will have to do the hard work of bringing their side along on their own sacred cow of “no higher taxes.” Eventually, Obama will have to push hard on that side, too; but he’s doing his part with the left. And he’s done it (and continues to do it) brilliantly. He hasn’t abandoned his liberal principles, but he’s tried to recast them in the light of a fiscally responsible liberalism. And though his popularity numbers are on the downwards slope, they’re not atrociously bad. He certainly hasn’t lost me (and I’d venture to make that claim for many others on the left, too). And win or lose 2012, he has done his part to win for America with the left. I just wish some responsible Republican would do the same on the right.


Eric said...

I think you give Obama too much strategic credit here, but for the moment let's assume it is true. Then how do you trust him? How do you trust a politician who, based on the (unchallenged) assumption that he holds a superior knowledge of political reality, refuses to attempt to reason with his base and instead employs subtle psychological tricks in order move them to his side? Do you not object to being manipulated in such a fashion? Won't this kind of politics inevitably result in you electing a candidate whose true positions you can't/won't know until their term is well underway?

Huck said...

Eric - The problem is not with Obama and his being manipulative. To my knowledge, he has never lied about entitlement reform and, in fact, he has always claimed the need for such reform. I don't think he has ever put the "lock-box" language around entitlements like Al Gore did. The problem never was with him, but with us liberals believing that he would really move down this road, and bring us along with him. I don't feel at all manipulated. I would say that I was gradually persuaded by what I would call Obama's incremental and gentle "nudging" along the path - both in terms of rhetoric and in terms of policy. Obama's true positions were always out there (i.e. he did fashion himself a uniter of blue and red America and a compromiser), it just took some time to really buy into them as something he meant seriously. I can go back through my blog and look at Obama's policy positions and attitudes and it's surprising how non-dogmatic and how pragmatic he is and always has been. I think, in part, this is what has always at the core attracted me to him, which is why I think I'm much more understanding of his "caves" or his position shifts when they happen than I would be with the dogmatic pledge-maker's breaking a promise.

Eric said...

If Obama didn't betray any liberal principles, then what did he nudge you into supporting that you didn't support before? Or are you saying he nudged you into re-prioritizing existing principles?

Diggin a bit deeper, it's easy to say we need entitlement reform, but really the devil is in the details. Could Obama have won broad support among liberals by telling them he wanted to end Medicare Advantage programs that cover the prescription drug 'Donut Hole' in 2014, but not fully subsidize the drug costs for the people who lose this coverage until 2020? How about charging seniors extra for maintaining Medicare Advantage vision and dental plans? If he'd have made it known early on that he was willing to sign off on a healthcare reform package that didn't include a public option, how would that have flown? What he did instead was campaign on a somewhat general concept of reform, and then after he was elected he helped shape it according to what was politically possible. While that is the status quo for how things get done in Washington, I think there are a growing number of people who see that formula as flawed, lacking integrity, and potentially dangerous.

What I see you advocating for here is a President who keeps his cards close to his chest, even where his base in concerned (FWIW, I don't think this is what Obama has done... I believe he's probably as surprised as anyone at what Obamacare ended up looking like). I just don't have enough trust in any elected official to allow them that kind of free rein. I look for politicians who support my ideological agenda, I support them, and then I expect them to go to bat for those ideas and either get a hit or strike out. If they want to try to get me to change my opinion on certain issues, they should drag their ideas into the public forum and reason with me. 'Nudging' me gently in a direction they knew I'd never have gone on my own is probably the fastest way to lose my support, because once that happens I would lose all trust in their integrity. Straying from this formula was actually the mistake most conservatives made with Bush: when he campaigned on "compassionate conservative" ideas like Medicare Rx and doubling federal spending on education, we cynically thought he was just telling moderates what they wanted to hear in order to get elected. When it turned out he really supported all those things, I felt betrayed... but it wasn't Bush who had betrayed me, it was my own cynicism. So the lesson I (and many conservatives, especially of the Tea Party vein) took away from that experience is this: make politicians tell you exactly what they want to do, believe them, and then then hold their toes to the fire. In fact, my tepid support for Tim Pawlenty exists wholly because he is the only GOP candidate who has released much of anything in regards to policy proposals at this point. He's the only one who has lit a fire I can hold his toes to.

Huck said...

Obama didn't betray core liberal principles, he just managed to get me to look at my principles through the prism of the reality of our political system coupled with an acknowledgment that real issues demand real solutions within the realm of the possible. In essence, he didn't get me to change my principles one iota regarding the fundamental value and need for our social safety net entitlement programs, only to stop being the intransigent pouting purist in the corner refusing to engage the world as it is because of those meanies on the other side.

It's a very Saul Alinsky strategy. (Alinsky is one of the most misunderstood people by rightwingers. Have you read any of his works? I'd love to resuscitate our reading club to tackle some of his writings, because I'd love to hear your thoughts on him.)

It's not nudging me in a direction I'd never gone in, it's nudging me not to be such an ideologue for purposes of being oppositional that I wouldn't even be open to considering an arugment about why going in a particular direction really is good for my interests. For instance, having the Tea Party drive us off the cliff of default on principle may very well not serve the very principle they claim to be adhering to. That's a position worth seeing beyong the blinders of partisan ideology and considering thoughtfully.

What Obama wanted to do, what he always said he would do, is exactly what he has done: not holding his governing captive to an impossible partisan/ideological purity. He told us what he believed in, but he only promised us he would govern according to his beliefs within the constraints of the pragmatic and the possible. Some of us liberals wanted a fire-brand ideological purist, but Obama never sold himself in that way.

As I wrote in response to one of your comments in a previous thread, our governing system is not designed as a winner-take-all system. It is a system fundamentally predicated upon compromise and protecting the inclusion of opposition in the governing dynamic. What Obama has done is to promise us liberals to fight for our causes within this context, but he never promised us that he would govern as if he were President only of us liberal Americans. And that is what he nudged me towards -- not towards a sacrifice of policy principles, but towards a need to put those principles in the service of a system designed against ideological purity.

I fear, Eric, given the nature of our system, that you will always be living in frustration and disappointment, because what you seem to want is just systemically not possible without dramatic changes to the foundational nature of our constitutional democracy.

Eric said...

It's funny you should mention Alinsky. About a year ago I ordered an 'organizational packet' from FreedomWorks centered around starting a local Tea Party chapter, and 'Rules For Radicals' was one of the books that came with it. I have still not read it but it is shuffled somewhere in the stack of books by my nightstand. I will say this: most Tea Party conservatives I know who are actively engaged in organizational politics consider this book to be required reading. The problem is, after spending a year being heavily engaged in state politics, I can't stand most Tea Party people who are involved in organizational politics (as opposed to politically active individuals who are inspired by Tea Party idealism without being beholden to any particular group of Tea Party activists), and if there is any danger of this book making be behave like them, I don't want to read it. ;-) But I digres...

I see your point about our governmental system being designed to facilitate comprimise, but I'd make two counter arguments here:

1) It is not designed to enable compromise so much as it it is designed to disperse potentially dangerous concentrations of power. It is designed to protect against the tyranny of the majority. However, this does not mean it completely disposes of the idea of having political winners and losers, and in fact the inability to align the nation with politically committed lines of action is one of the reasons the Founders did away w/ the Articles Of Confederation in favor of the Constitution. Which leads to my second point:

2) The problems we are facing are not caused by too little compromise. They are caused by a decades long period of neverending compromise and constantly reiterated splitting of political differences, wherein political egos get satisfied but political problems are constantly punted. The result is that it is very difficult to seperate the jumbled mass of systemic components that are creating our problems, and even more difficult to objectively identify the ideological roots of each one (and they do all have ideological roots, because every government action started as an idea, and every political idea is guided by a political worldview).

Budget compromises wherein we apply a $1 Trillion band-aid to a $14 Trillion problem are not going to save this nation. I believe if the Republicans continue to press forward with major and decisive (and yes, often divisive) in an uncompromising manner, they could actually do some good. Coburn has a plan to trim $9 Trillion off the budget and reduce the size of the federal government by 25%. That's the kind of stuff we need to see Republicans working on, arguing for, supporting, and voting for. Maybe they'll even nudge some liberals into thinking it is a good idea. But at the end of the day if our system won't allow for one side or the other to break free of the constraints of political compromise (which I believe is more habitual than systemic) then perhaps it does need foundational change... either way, I never expect anything other than frustration and disappointment when it comes to government, because the human weaknesses that make government necessary in the first place are pretty damned frustrating and dissapointing!

Eric said...

Another point I failed to finish making in the above post: As voters, *we* are responsible for sending people to Washington to fight for the idea we want to see implemented. It is their duty to vote accordingly, not to compromise on those ideas. That is how the tyranny of the majority is meant to be defended against in our system; not by constant compromise, but by votes (and by a representational system that, via the Senate and electoral college, gives smaller states a bigger political voice than their population merits).

eric said...

Also, Huck, I'm glad you are blogging again!