Barack Obama may be an enormously relevant figure of history, and may even prove to be one of the more successful US presidents, in terms of his ability to be win election and re-election with minimal effort. He may also be a very good man, and a very moral and thoughtful human being.
But it’s becoming increasingly evident that he is neither a very skilled nor wise politician, and a thoroughly inept leader of both his political party and the larger ideological movement which it purports to represent.
As I write this, the President has just inked a bill to raise the US debt celling which can only be regarded as a complete and utter failure for “his side.” After weeks of debate, the bill is only a victory for the White House in the narrow sense at it, a) exists at all, and b) delays the next Congressional reexamination of the debt ceiling issue until 2013, after the presidential election. But on every other front, Obama and the Democrats have gained absolutely nothing — neither politically, strategically, or morally — from its passage, and have instead assented to a bill which dramatically shifts the overall American political narrative to the right.
The bill, which GOP leader John Boehner has described as containing “98% of what we wanted,” is entirely cuts-based. It trims over $900 billion from the federal budget over the next ten years by reducing allowable discretionary spending to the lowest levels since the Eisenhower administration.
And that’s pretty much it. Obama stated repeatedly that he also wanted the deal to contain some revenue increases, via tax hikes for the wealthy, but none actually made it into the final legislation. This, of course, was due to the Republicans’ extremist posturing on the matter, portraying any sort of tax increases as an all-or-nothing deal breaker. So Obama caved.
True, some Tea Party types are still upset. The bill does not contain a balanced budget amendment to the US constitution (it merely mandates a separate vote on one later), and the $900 billion cuts are a far cry from the $4 trillion figure that was being thrown around in the early days of the negotiations. All parties have likewise expressed some unease over a weird “Super Congress” provision, which mandates the creation of a six-and-six committee of Republicans and Democrats that will suggest $1.5 trillion in further budget cuts this fall. If its demands are not approved by Normal Congress, in turn, a “default” set of equally large, but more painful and less politically attractive cuts will kick in automatically.
But overall, the conservative narrative that American fiscal solvency can only be obtained by cut, cut, cutting seems pretty much entrenched. At no point did Obama and the Congressional Democrats mount a convincing counter-narrative, and they certainly had no ideological “deal breakers” of their own. Early on, the Republicans declared that they were willing to go to the brink on the debt ceiling issue — their terms would be met, or the country would be pushed into default — and the Democratic response was to gently convince them to put down the gun. When you negotiate like this, starting from the position that your opponent is far more dangerous and serious and powerful than yourself, it’s pretty hard to extract concessions.
As I note in the essay below, pretty much every major American liberal pundit has blasted President Obama in the aftermath of (and lead up to) this bill, and a new poll suggests that the majority of Democrats and liberals believe that the Democrats gave up “too much” in their drive to secure its passage. This may or may not have electoral consequences (I’m inclined to think it won’t, since liberals have nowhere else to go) but it still signals a distressingly high level of incompetence. Democratic politics, after all, is in large part about delivering the goods. After a while, if a politician repeatedly demonstrates he cannot eke out even minor victories for his side, as Obama has consistently proven unable to do in regard to the wars, taxes, Gitmo, the surveillance state, the public option, and immigration reform, you have to conclude that the man is simply not a very good politician.
That’s not an ideological statement, it’s simply a functionalist assessment. If I was a liberal, I’d be seriously looking into primary challengers.