Obama's imaginary budget-cut mandate

Budget cuts to Social Security and Medicare have long been on Obama's private agenda, supporters have been in denial.

    Significantly reducing health care costs was one of Obama's top campaign promises [AFP]
    Significantly reducing health care costs was one of Obama's top campaign promises [AFP]

    "Did you know that Obama has a mandate to slash Medicare and Medicaid? Probably not, I'd wager. But it seems that Obama believes he has such a mandate, according to an item at the Washington Post's website." I wrote those words over four years ago, in a January 17, 2009, diary at Open Left, the weekend before he was inaugurated. Today, with Obama's newly unveiled budget proposing cuts to Social Security as well as Medicare - two central pillars of the Democratic Party's achievements in the 20th century - it is vital to recall just how long Obama has had this goal, despite its wild unpopularity with voters, and just how flawed it has always been, both as policy and politics. It is likewise vital to realise that his supporters have long been in denial about his true agenda. The excerpt from the Post I went on to quote read: 

    President-elect Barack Obama will convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" in February designed to bring together a variety of voices on solving the long term problems with the economy and with a special focus on entitlements, he said during an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors this afternoon.

    "We need to send a signal that we are serious," said Obama of the summit.

    Those invited to attend will include Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (ND), ranking minority member Judd Gregg (NH), the conservative Democratic Blue Dog coalition and a host of outside groups with ideas on the matter, said the president-elect....

    Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices - particularly in regards to entitlement programmes like Social Security and Medicare - should be made on his watch. "We've kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road," he said. 

    There are at least five noteworthy things in this brief excerpt that have a direct bearing on Obama's unveiling, four years later, of a budget slashing both Social Security and Medicare, the crown jewels of Democratic Party governance in the 20th century.

    The first is that Obama was voluntarily talking about cutting the two core pillars of the American welfare state. There were no Tea Party Republicans forcing him into this. Tea Party Republicans did not yet exist. This is what Obama freely chose to do - and he would repeatedly return to it again and again.  Most notably, when Senate Republican co-sponsors of a Congressional debt-reduction commission withdrew their support, Obama created his own presidential debt-reduction commission ("Simpson-Bowles").

    This was not a decision forced upon Obama, it was a direction that he himself freely chose, one that he obviously deeply believes in. Which is why he should have been a Colin Powell type Republican all these years. But, of course, then he could not be President, any more than Colin Powell could be. And that is what Obama believes in most of all. 

     Inside Story Americas - Obama's budget:
    A deal with the Republicans?

    Which brings us to the second noteworthy things about the excerpt above. "This is not just something he didn't run on. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what he ran on." I wrote at the time, citing an op-ed by economist Dean Baker, in which he wrote:

    Although Social Security is paid for long into the future, Medicare does face problems due to the explosion of private sector health care costs. The way to address Medicare's shortfall is to fix the private health care system, as President Obama has pledged to do.

    Obama's campaign promises

    Indeed, significantly reducing health care costs was one of Obama's top campaign promises. Fulfilling that promise would have rendered moot any major worries over Medicare. Just to be clear what Obama actually ran on, here is a list of Obama's top 10 campaign promises, and what percentage of Americans regard them as "very important", from a USA Today/Gallup poll that I also cited in that same diary: 

    Promises and the percent who said "very important"

    Ensure all children have health insurance coverage: 73 percent
    Double the production of alternative energy: 70 percent
    Reduce health care costs for the typical American family by up to $2,500 per year: 70 percent      
    Enact a major spending program to strengthen the nation's infrastructure: 60 percent
    Cut federal income taxes for 95 percent of working families: 57 percent
    Withdraw most US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months: 51 percent
    Increase US military strength in Afghanistan by at least two brigades: 43 percent
    Lift restrictions on government funding of embryonic stem-cell research: 42 percent
    Close the US prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo: 32 percent
    Make it easier for labor unions to organise: 28 percent  

    So, #3 on the list - with 7 in 10 saying it is "very important" that Obama deliver - is "Reduce health care costs for the typical American family by up to $2,500 per year". And this is precisely what Baker is saying would be key to controlling the deficits that Obama is so worried about - but somehow forgot to explicitly hammer home as a top priority during the campaign.

    The third thing worth noting about the excerpt above is the fraudulent elite narrative - call it a big lie -that Obama has adopted and tailored for his own ends. It is implicit in Obama's formulation that (a) lack of "fiscal responsibility" is a bipartisan problem, (b) particularly involving social insurance programmes, (c) which politicians have failed to deal with for decades, (d) but which Obama, for the first time, is going to meet head-on. All four elements of that formulation are false, as can readily be seen by looking back at recent history.

    In the real world, fiscal irresponsibility is a decidedly Republican problem, dating back to the election of Ronald Regan, which signalled the sharp reversal of a 35-year trend of declining debt-to-GDP ratios. President Clinton was elected in 1992 after 12 years of Republican rule, and spent his entire term in office restoring "fiscal responsibility", producing the first budget surpluses in more than a generation.  True, Clinton did not "solve" the "problem of Medicare", but that is largely because Medicare's problem is not Medicare: it is the extraordinary costliness of the entire US healthcare "system", which spends 50 percent more per capita than the next most costly county, and twice the per capita average of all other advanced industrial democracies - as I also discussed in that 2009 diary.

    The fourth problem is a delusional lack of political realism that follows directly from the falsity of this narrative. Clinton laboured mightily to produce budget surpluses, only to see the short-, medium- and long-term budget outlook swiftly plunged into deep deficits by his Republican successor. Even if one believed that Clinton's policies were otherwise acceptable, the fact that they did nothing at all to prevent their immediate subversion by George W Bush clearly shows how foolish it is to make "fiscal responsibility" per se a top goal of Democratic Party governance. Whatever concessions a Democratic president may make in such a process will surely be taken as the new "extreme left" position going forward. 

    Obama himself proves this point: He never for a moment considered restoring Clinton-era tax rates, except for the top 2 percent. Rather than repeating the Clintonian fool's errand, what Democratic leaders have to do is prioritise a positive Democratic vision, creating a Democratic defined framework for policy debate and political battles. The Clinton/Bush record showed quite clearly that playing on a Republican playing field is a lose-lose proposition for a Democratic president: even when he wins in the short run, he loses in the end. And so, too, do the American people.

    The fifth and last thing to note in the excerpt above is who was included in Obama's prospective summit, and - even more importantly - who was excluded. Those included were Senate budget leaders of both parties, conservative House Democrats (the Blue Dogs), and "a host of outside groups". Those pointedly excluded were: the House Democratic leadership (either the Speaker or Budget Committee chair), much less the House Progressive Caucus, which most faithfully represented Obama's political voter base. Thus, Obama's betrayal of those who elected him was strategically integral to his planning from the very beginning. 

     Discussing US health care reform

    Social Security benefits

    My 2009 diary also included combined polling data from all the four most recent General Social Surveys at the time - 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006 - showing that the majority of the American people thought we were spending too little nationally on health care and Social Security. This is yet another indication that Obama could never have been elected President if he had openly campaigned on what he is trying to do now. 

    It is not just liberal Democrats who oppose what he is proposing to do. Conservatives said were spending "too little" on health care versus "too much" by a 9-to-1 ratio: 65.2 percent to 7.2 percent. On Social Security, the ratio was "only" just under 7-to-1: 54.3 percent to 7.9 percent. Of course, liberals were even more supportive, with ratios of better than 20-to-1 in both cases. But the figures in these cases are overwhelming across the political spectrum.

    The GSS question format provides a valuable baseline for comparing attitudes across issue areas and across decades of time. But it does not reflect how people will respond to short-term political conditions, manufactured crises and propaganda campaigns. For that, we must rely on more ordinary polls.

    Almost throughout Obama's entire term in office, Republican economic framing has dominated among political elites, with significant help from Obama, as indicated above. I have written before (here and here) about the "beltway deficit feedback loop" identified by Greg Sargent, which has functioned to marginalise discussions of unemployment, even as tens of millions remain out of work. This deficit obsession has taken its toll, particularly among Republicans when combined with incessant demonisation of Obama. 

    As a result, a March 2013 Pew poll found that the public still supported keeping Social Security benefits as they are, rather than "taking steps to reduce the deficit" by a 21-point margin: 55-34, while Republicans favoured the cuts by 52-37. In contrast, Obama's base, Democrats, opposed the cuts he is now proposing by an overwhelming 73-19 percent, while independents also opposed cuts, though by a narrower 49-37 percent margin. Thus, Obama's persistent policy orientation - which I first flagged in a diary just days before his inauguration in 2009 - remains diametrically opposed to the overwhelming majority of his own party's base, as well as a clear plurality of independents. The only broad public support it enjoys comes from the Republican base. But even that is bound to be ephemeral, given the long-term GSS polling data I have already cited.

    As with so many other things, such as the individual mandate, as soon as Obama is firmly committed, conservative elites are certain to start attacking him, and their political base will not be far behind. How do we know? Well, it already happened during the 2010 election, when Republican candidates mercilessly attacked Democrats for cutting $500bn from Medicare - even though it was entirely on the provider side, and did not affect benefits at all. 

    Why Democrats would want to invite another four decades of similar attack ads is utterly beyond me. But, of course, Obama is not going to be running again. He will be collecting speaker's fees from the donor class. And they like what he is doing just fine. Obama's real base, it turns out, is exactly the same as George W Bush's: the have and have-mores. This budget is for them and them alone. To think otherwise is to continue living in denial.

    Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

    Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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