Come on, progressives, let’s be honest. Of course it’s necessary and proper for progressives to criticize Obama’s budget compromises as either bad economics or lousy electoral strategy — or both. Heck, that’s the progressive coalition’s job and progressives would be derelict in their duty if they didn’t firmly oppose the compromise of basic progressive positions and goals.
But there’s no reason to resort to armchair psychiatry or to otherwise impugn Obama’s motives – saying he’s “timid” “gutless” “a DINO (Democrat in name only)” “gullible”, “in wall street’s pocket”, “a corporate tool” “a phony progressive” and all the other personal accusations against him when deep down we all know perfectly well the real reasons why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Let’s face it. Every Democratic president has to walk a very fine line in dealing with the business community and the economic elite of this country. That group is not entirely composed of extreme right wing ideologues like the Koch Brothers (although there is a very disturbingly large group who are). Many are relatively pragmatic individuals who are willing to accept a certain range of progressive policies when the political climate of the country overwhelmingly favors them. The majority of American businessmen are not going to go on a John Galt-style “producers strike” and shut down all their banks, offices and factories to protest a modest tax increase nor will they try to foment a military coup because they don’t like Elizabeth Warren.
But on the other hand, any Democratic president absolutely has to maintain a certain working relationship with the business community or face huge obstacles to almost all of his domestic priorities. Had Obama seriously threatened to prosecute substantial sectors of the business and the financial community for their role in the financial crisis when he first took office in 2008, he would not have gotten the stimulus bill, the modest financial regulation bill that he did get or health care reform. There were only a few major business figures who went overboard with hysterical accusations that Obama was out to destroy the entire free enterprise system in 2009, but if he had really come down hard on business and Wall Street that attack would have been picked up and become so widespread in the business world that plenty of Democratic Congress and Senate members would have melted away from supporting Obama’s first term agenda like snowflakes in forest fire.
Now, sure, its loads of fun to imagine an alternate reality in which a fiery populist president “takes his case to the people” and develops such titanic, fierce, ferocious and powerful grass roots support that American big business has no option except to meekly accept the president’s firmly populist agenda. And yes, we can all cheerfully recite Roosevelt’s stirring line “I welcome their hatred” as the great rhetorical model for how a really tough populist Democrat could deal with the business community.
But, come on, let’s face it, if intense grass roots support for that kind of muscular populism had really existed in recent years, Dennis Kucinich or John Edwards would have won the Democratic primaries by a landslide in 2008, blowing away the far more centrist Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. In 2004 Howard Dean would have walked away with the Democratic nomination without raising a sweat and in 2000, Ralph Nader would have outpolled Al Gore. Right wing populists like George Wallace and Ross Perot pulled a major slice of the national vote in their campaigns in past decades while no left wing populist in the post-war era has ever even come close. You can’t just go around simply assuming and asserting the existence of some huge, sleeping left-wing populist majority that is just waiting to be mobilized as if it were a given fact of American political life when somehow or other it never seems to be able to drag its butt out of bed and go out to vote for firmly populist candidates on election days.
So let’s stop with the alternate reality stuff for a moment and try to visualize the strategic situation as Obama has to see it when he looks across the table during a meeting with a group like the Business Roundtable or similar organizations of the economic elite. He starts out knowing that a large segment of American business won’t even sit down with him at all – that they are wildly, irrationally and passionately opposed to everything he stands for and are willing to invest huge sums of money to defeat him and every policy he advocates.
So the members of the business and financial elite who are indeed willing to sit across the table from him are the ones he really needs to keep at least reasonably neutral if he doesn’t want an absolutely united front of business opposition to everything he does.
Now the business guys at the table are not completely unreasonable. A recent opinion study “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” by Benjamin I. Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, indicates that the “1 percenters” — those with $8 million in net worth – are at least somewhat open to some relatively liberal economic ideas. Most agreed, for example, with improving public infrastructure such as highways, bridges and airports; scientific research; and aid to education. They also agreed that the Social Security system should ensure a minimum standard of living to all contributors, even if some receive benefits exceeding the value of their contribution and they also agreed that people with high incomes actually should pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than those with low incomes. And they recognized the need for sensible regulations.
But on the other hand, the study also found the following:
When we asked respondents how important they considered each of eleven possible problems facing the United States, budget deficits headed the list. Fully 87 percent of our wealthy respondents said deficits are a “very important” problem facing the country. Only 10 percent said “somewhat important,” and a bare 4 percent said “not very important at all.” The high priority put on this issue was confirmed by responses to an open-ended question about “the most [emphasis added] important problem facing this country today.” One third (32 percent) of all open-ended responses mentioned budget deficits or excessive government spending, far more than mentioned any other issue. Furthermore, at various points in their interviews many respondents spontaneously mentioned “government over-spending.” Unmistakably, deficits were a major concern for most of our wealthy respondents…. [In contrast, unemployment and education] were mentioned as the most important problem by only 11 percent, indicating that they ranked a distant second and third to budget deficits.
So it’s not just the professional deficit scolds like Pete Peterson or the PR shop called “Fix the Debt” who are pushing the deficit fixation. Nor is it just the columnists and editorial writers at the Washington Post. The belief that dealing with the deficit is the most important national issue is pretty much a consensus opinion of America’s wealthy and business elite.
And now here’s the funny thing. If you ask progressives, most of them would passionately agree that “the one-percent” — the economic elite like those in the survey above — really run the show in America and make the political system dance to their tune. Many progressives will be happy to recite in vast detail how the economic elites in countries like Chile organized the overthrow of democratically elected populist presidents when the latter got the plutocrats really ticked off.
Yet, at the same time, when it comes to evaluating the political strategy and political compromises a Democratic President has to employ in dealing with the economic elite and the business community, the pivotal role and power of the 1% suddenly does not have to be taken into account. It’s like suddenly they don’t have any power at all.
But in reality Obama is faced with a basic choice: he can tell the sector of the business community that is indeed willing to sit across the table from him that he thinks the whole deficit issue is completely overblown – just like Paul Krugman says it is — and accept the fact that they will walk away from the table completely unsatisfied with his answer or he can say that he understands their concern and is willing to make compromises if the GOP will meet him halfway.
Now progressives can insist that as a matter of fundamental political strategy Obama should choose the first course rather than the second and be willing to accept the negative political consequences for his administration and agenda, no matter how severe they are. This is a debatable but defensible view.
But the point is that the choice between these two approaches is a serious choice between two political strategies, each one of which has profound consequences. It’s not some test of Obama’s moral fiber or personal machismo. Guys like Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders, if they were actually elected president and had to deal seriously with the consequences of their decisions, would almost certainly still choose the first choice rather than the second. But neither one would say that there were no serious negative consequences to their choice or that they didn’t have to even bother to seriously weigh the costs and benefits of the alternatives.
So let’s stop being so damn sanctimonious and self righteous, arguing that Obama’s choice must be due to timidity, cowardice, conservatism, obsequiousness to the wealthy or whatever else because (in the words of a thousand irate, hyperventilating progressive commenters) “any idiot can see that the first choice is the only correct one”. A progressive can disagree with a president’s choice of strategy without necessarily attributing it to personal weakness or bad moral character.
Obama has made a basic strategic calculation about how far he has to go to propitiate some part of the economic elite that holds tremendous power in American society. Progressives can and should debate his decision and, if they disagree, criticize it on that realistic strategic basis. They should not get sidetracked instead by arguments based on extraneous and essentially irrelevant claims regarding Obama’s flaws of character, defects of personality or inadequate fealty to the ethos and ideals of progressivism.