Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Critique of Pure Reasonableness

Steve Kornacki is Salon's news editor, and as a fairly devoted Obama loyalist, representative of the type. Today he's arguing that being abused by the GOP has "positioned Obama well to battle the GOP on taxes." The outcome of the battle over the deficit -- y'all remember that, don't you? -- was that while Obama's "reasonable man" strategy succeeded in getting the populace to regard the Republican Congress negatively and saddle them with most of the blame for the mess,
... it was far from a complete triumph [for Obama's "reasonable man" strategy], because the widespread anger at the GOP failed to translate into newfound support for Obama, whose overall job approval rating (and standing in head-to-head match-ups with potential 2012 foes) has continued to deteriorate since the debt ceiling fight. In other words, he succeeded in making his opponents look very unreasonable, but didn't get any points for coming across as reasonable himself.
That could have been because the mass of Americans realized that while letting the GOP make itself look bad was a strategic victory for Obama and the Democrats, it still resulted in a lousy deal for the ordinary voter. The corporate media and the party loyalists are only interested in how each party benefits, both in Congress and in the next round of elections, but it doesn't seem that I'm alone in having other interests. If the debt-ceiling debacle was even a partial "triumph" for Obama and the Democrats, it was a Pyrrhic triumph: Another one like that and we're done for. And it looks like we're in for more triumphs like it.

Kornacki hopes that this time Obama will take off the gloves and go mano-a-mano with the Republicans, showing them what he's really made of or at least sending some really tough messages and creating an image of toughness. Typical Obama-fan stuff, and we've been there before, though instead of breaking out the pom-poms and going into Full Poodle Skirt cheerleader mode,** Kornacki goes for gravitas.
In a way, though, the debt ceiling experience is a perfect setup for what Obama is now doing. Take his new threat to veto any deficit reduction plan that the congressional supercommittee produces if it doesn't include more tax revenue from wealthy Americans. No longer is Obama instinctively staking out a compromise-friendly position. How this will be regarded by the public is a fascinating and tricky question. On the one hand, polls consistently show that voters strongly agree with the principles Obama is now articulating. On the other hand, public opinion is quirky. As Greg Sargent put it today:

Now, Republicans tend to think such polling isn’t that meaningful. Even if it shows public support for high-end tax cuts*, Republicans are happy to target Democrats on the issue, because they can continue to make the general charge that Dems are tax-hikers, furthering the narrative of profligate Big Government liberals running off the spending rails. Republicans believe this narrative is very potent with moderates and independents. And there very well may be something to this.

When you factor in the the number of pundits and media outlets proclaiming that Obama is playing to his base and ignoring moderates with his new approach, the danger for the president here becomes obvious.

Not "the danger for most Americans," not "the danger for the already reeling economy," but "the danger for the president." Meaning, of course, political danger, like dropping approval numbers or dwindling chances of re-election. Now, if we can get unemployment to drop meaningfully, if we can get some real economic growth happening (instead of flood-up patterns to the rich that increase our already outrageous economic inequality), then maybe I'll care about "the danger for the president." Till then, I think Kornacki has mistaken me and most people for somebody who gives a fuck. The president, like any other politician, is not an end in himself but primarily a means to an end for most citizens: someone who serves our interests, not his own, and the two interests are not at all the same.
How can he combat it? Here the damage that he helped inflict on the GOP 's image this summer could be very helpful. If his Republican opponents are seen as fundamentally unreasonable ideologues, Obama may have more leeway than he otherwise would to behave "unreasonably" -- especially if he is doing it in the name of a principle with which most Americans say they agree. Now when Republicans (or the press) bemoan Obama's supposed unwillingness to reach across the aisle and compromise, he can reply, "I already tried that, over and over and over" -- and there's a chance voters will know what he means.

Of course, there's also a chance they won't, but that's the risk that comes with being president when the economy is as rotten as this.
Of course, Obama as president has nothing to do with the rotten economy.

But notice how Kornacki tries to frame this, and imagine some other possibilities: if voters didn't lavish approval on Obama's capitulation to the Republicans last summer, maybe it was because life isn't a zero-sum game where there's only one winner and one loser, one good guy and one bad guy. Maybe it wasn't because we didn't understand what the president was trying to do, in his latest round of eleven-dimensional chess -- maybe we understood all too well, and we didn't like it. Even though most of us don't seem to recognize this most of the time, it is possible for both sides to be bad guys, and it's possible to blame both Obama and the Republicans for the deal they reached. This is incomprehensible to the corporate media and party loyalists, but if Obama wants to avert "danger to the president," he had better try to understand it. If Obama hoped to make himself look reasonable to the public by putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, then he not only failed but he's even more stupid than I gave him credit for. The Republican Party is going down like a burning dirigible, and Obama seems determined to wire the GOP to his neck and go down with it.

There's nothing "unreasonable," either politically or in terms of people's lives, about blocking the destructive policies embraced by the Republicans, the corporate sector, and the Blue Dog Democrats. It's perfectly reasonable for Obama to raise taxes on the rich; the Bush-era tax cuts should have been allowed to expire long ago. It's perfectly unreasonable to cut payroll taxes (via) that support Social Security and to cut back on Medicare (via) and Medicaid. Notice again that Obama has promised, in his new tough-guy mode, to "veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share." He promised, then, to change -- that is, cut -- benefits for those who rely on Medicare. Give him a bill that raises taxes "on the wealthiest Americans," and he'll happily slash away at Medicare. All of Obama's "unreasonability" is aimed at you and me, not at the Republicans. And this political battle, contrary to Steve Kornacki and his ilk, is about you and me, not about Republicans versus Democrats. Whoever claims victory at its end, they'll be standing on our bodies.

*Is that a typo or a Freudian slip in Greg Sargent's article? What the polls show is not public support for "high-end tax cuts", but rather public support for "high-end tax hikes." The following sentence indicates that he knows it, as does the rest of the article.

** I swear I had no idea when I wrote this that Kornacki was gay; he only came out to the world this past week, 16 November 2011.

P.S. Typo fixed; thanks, JV! (As always, a post which points out a typographical error will contain a similar error itself.)