Glenn Greenwald: Why Do We Assume Obama's Actually Trying to Enact a Progressive Agenda?
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In December, President Obama signed legislation to extend hundreds of billions of dollars in Bush tax cuts, benefiting the wealthiest Americans. Last week, Obama agreed to billions of dollars in cuts that will impose the greatest burden on the poorest Americans. And now, virtually everyone in Washington believes, the President is about to embark on a path that will ultimately lead to some type of reductions in Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits under the banner of "reform." Tax cuts for the rich -- budget cuts for the poor -- "reform" of the Democratic Party's signature safety net programs -- a continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies and a new Middle East war launched without Congressional approval. That's quite a legacy combination for a Democratic President.
All of that has led to a spate of negotiation advice from the liberal punditocracy advising the President how he can better defend progressive policy aims -- as though the Obama White House deeply wishes for different results but just can't figure out how to achieve them. Jon Chait, Josh Marshall, and Matt Yglesias all insist that the President is "losing" on these battles because of bad negotiating strategy, and will continue to lose unless it improves. Ezra Klein says "it makes absolutely no sense" that Democrats didn't just raise the debt ceiling in December, when they had the majority and could have done it with no budget cuts. Once it became clear that the White House was not following their recommended action of demanding a "clean" vote on raising the debt ceiling -- thus ensuring there will be another, probably larger round of budget cuts -- Yglesias lamented that the White House had "flunked bargaining 101." Their assumption is that Obama loathes these outcomes but is the victim of his own weak negotiating strategy.
I don't understand that assumption at all. Does anyone believe that Obama and his army of veteran Washington advisers are incapable of discovering these tactics on their own or devising better strategies for trying to avoid these outcomes if that's what they really wanted to do? What evidence is there that Obama has some inner, intense desire for more progressive outcomes? These are the results they're getting because these are the results they want -- for reasons that make perfectly rational political sense.
Conventional D.C. wisdom -- that which Obama vowed to subvert but has done as much as any President to bolster -- has held for decades that Democratic Presidents succeed politically by being as "centrist" or even as conservative as possible. That attracts independents, diffuses GOP enthusiasm, casts the President as a triangulating conciliator, and generates raves from the DC press corps -- all while keeping more than enough Democrats and progressives in line through a combination of anti-GOP fear-mongering and partisan loyalty.
Isn't that exactly the winning combination that will maximize the President's re-election chances? Just consider the polling data on last week's budget cuts, which most liberal commentators scorned. Americans support the "compromise" by a margin of 58-38%; that support includes a majority of independents, substantial GOP factions, and 2/3 of Democrats. Why would Democrats overwhelmingly support domestic budget cuts that burden the poor? Because, as Yglesias correctly observed, " just about anything Barack Obama does will be met with approval by most Democrats." In other words, once Obama lends his support to a policy -- no matter how much of a departure it is from ostensible Democratic beliefs -- then most self-identified Democrats will support it because Obama supports it, because it then becomes the "Democratic policy," by definition. Adopting "centrist" or even right-wing policies will always produce the same combination -- approval of independents, dilution of GOP anger, media raves, and continued Democratic voter loyalty -- that is ideal for the President's re-election prospects.