The die has been cast. Obama’s “nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists,” as an editorial in the normally sedate New York Times described the deal to raise the debt ceiling, is a disaster in the making. It rules out a vigorous government response to the persistent economic stagnation in which joblessness, housing foreclosures and an ever-widening gap between the top 2 percent and the rest of Americans have become the norm.
But to use the word “capitulation” is too kind, since this president, as was Bill Clinton before him, is clearly one of those “New Democrats” who welcomes the opportunity to jettison the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as outmoded political baggage. Otherwise, why would Obama have reached for a “grand bargain” in which he even put Social Security and Medicare cuts on the table before the Republicans rolled him?
That same opportunistic reasoning got us into the Great Recession, thanks to President Clinton joining with congressional Republicans to destroy the sensible controls on Wall Street greed that FDR had put in place in order to prevent a repeat of the Depression. That was also the rationale of the Clinton alums that Obama appointed to clean up the mess they themselves had created. Instead of worrying about jobless workers and swindled homeowners, they bailed out the swindlers, following the example set by George W. Bush.
Those policies caused the 50 percent run-up of the national debt between 2007 and this week, when the debt ceiling had to be raised. While the trillions wasted made the bankers whole, it did nothing for the 50 million Americans losing their homes or the 20 percent of the workforce that can’t find the full-time employment for which they are qualified. The economy has zeroed out in the past six months, relative to population growth, and in June consumer spending had its biggest drop in two years. The fundamentals are rotten, as reflected in the steep descent of the stock market despite the raising of the debt ceiling.
The Republicans in control of the House excluded such dismal facts concerning the actual state of the economy when they set the terms for the debt ceiling debate, terms the president came to accept. Following the back and forth between Congress and the White House, one would have thought that the recession is over and now is the time to fix extraneous problems that are a quarter of a century up the road, like the baby boomer impact on Social Security. If adults, of either party, had been watching the store, raising the debt ceiling would have been a no-brainer. Instead, the obvious obligation to pay debts that Congress had already incurred was turned into an occasion to wage ideological war on the very idea of government.
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In the end, Obama agreed to major cuts at a time when the government needs to spend more money on extending unemployment insurance, mortgage relief to avoid foreclosures, and support for state budgets so that more teachers and firemen are not laid off. That would put money in the pockets of people who would spend it, rather than continue the tax breaks for the rich and coddling the corporations that are sitting on a $2 trillion surplus they refuse to invest.
To cut federal expenditures in the midst of a deep and persistent recession would have been viewed as madness by every modern Republican president, from Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Reagan to both Bushes. Ronald Reagan had no qualms about doubling the entire national debt that had been accumulated by all previous presidents from George Washington to Jimmy Carter.
In the current debate, Republicans were accurate in reminding that the presidents from their party had to contend with Democratic grandstanding, including by then-Sen. Obama, in opposition to the inevitable lifting of the debt ceiling. But raising the debt ceiling was always assured and never once did the Democrats go so far as to threaten to put the United States of America into default or risk the nation’s perfect credit rating.
Neither party has ever dared to use the deficit ceiling to blackmail the entire nation—until now. And for that, the GOP is the party clearly at fault. But it is also true that, in his zeal for centrist consensus, a preoccupation doomed to failure in a time of tough choices, it was Barack Obama who folded.