"In Love with the Idea of Obama"

I received an email this morning from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) urging me to sign the following pledge:

"President Obama: If you cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits for me, my parents, my grandparents, or families like mine, don't ask for a penny of my money or an hour of my time in 2012. I'm going to focus on electing bold progressive candidates -- not Democrats who help Republicans make harmful cuts."

You can sign the pledge, if you so wish, here.

In its email, the PCCC included some of the reactions of Obama supporters and donors in the 2008 campaign to the fear that the President in his speech today will embrace the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit cutting commission which envisions deep cuts to New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs. Here are those comments because they are well worth the read: 

Susan Carpenter, Obama volunteer from Ohio:

"Like many volunteers on his campaign, I was in love with the idea of Obama. I haven't given up on him quite yet, but I'm mustering the energy to work on the resistance. He needs to know who we are." 

John Rotolo, Obama volunteer from Florida:

"I'm almost too heartsick to comment...I'm at a loss."

Barbara Louise Jean, Obama volunteer from Nevada:

"It's ludicrous to cut Medicare for seniors when Wall Street created this mess without being held accountable. At 69, I'll be in financial trouble if Medicare benefits are lowered."

Joelle Barnes, Obama volunteer from Pennsylvania:  

"This is like a knife through my heart! This is a Republican thing!" 

Suzanne Fair, Obama volunteer from Maryland:

"I know he has to compromise sometimes, but it seems that he is caving to the Republicans far too often. We elected him for real change and I would like to see him stand strong against the corporate rich."

Margaret Copi, Obama donor from California:  

"I contributed more to Obama's campaign than I have to anything else in my life, but no more dollars from me and definitely not a moment of volunteer time, unless he makes huge shifts and starts to fight for the peoples' interest." 

Frankie Perdue, Obama volunteer from Colorado:

"I do not think that Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security should be on the negotiating table at all. Have the corporations pay their fair share of taxes."

Deborah Finn, Obama volunteer from North Carolina:  

"This is wrong! We did not elect Obama to have him make cuts in valuable, important programs. He needs to stand up to the Republicans. And he needs to speak to the American people about why it is morally wrong to cut the programs."

Michaele Bonenberger, Obama volunteer from South Dakota:  

"This does not sound at all like the Barak Obama that I worked so hard to get elected in 2008." 

Dotty Hopkins, Obama volunteer from California:  

"It makes it hard to gin up enthusiasm for 2012. More like hold your nose and vote again! As a former Obama volunteer, I'm already worrying about my lack of desire to do any campaigning and I'm on our County Central Committee for heaven's sake."

I do think that tonight's speech from the George Washington University is a break or make moment for President Obama vis-à-vis for many in his liberal base that worked so passionately to elect him in 2008. But I'm not sure that the President's campaign team feels that Obama needs all of them this time around given the campaign is a battle for the political center and that center clearly wants, if polls are to be believed, movement on reducing the deficit. To a certain degree, Obama's campaign strategists believes that many liberals have no place to go and that when push comes to shove they will back the President. In this, they are probably right. 

Going back to the notes above, I was most struck by Susan Carpenter's statement. An Obama volunteer from Ohio, one of the three most crucial battleground states in every Presidential election since 1960, Ms. Carpenter confesses that she "was in love with the idea of Obama." I think that pretty much sums what befell the progressive left in 2008. We fell in love with an idea and ignored the substance. Unfortunately for us, we now have to face up to and live with the substance of Obama and desperately need to come up with an idea for 2016.

Roger Simon of Politico yesterday wrote that he doesn't think that "Barack Obama will have a hard time defeating his Republican opponent in 2012, barring a financial meltdown or a major foreign crisis" but rather that Obama should worry about a Democratic opponent from the left. Simon, a staunch old school conservative, goes on to tout the possibilities of Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich.

None of these at any point in the last two years have ever even suggested that they are interested in challenging President Obama and they are not likely to do so now. Hillary Clinton is really the only one who could mount an effective challenge given her name recognition but she has repeatedly forsworn any interest in any elective office once she retires as Secretary of State. Moreover, she still hasn't even paid off her 2008 campaign debt to Mark Penn as yet. 

The reality is that President Obama is gearing up to raise $1 billion dollars for his run. In an America where money has become the determinant factor in our politics, that is a hefty obstacle to overcome. Barring some unforeseen crisis, Barack Obama will be re-elected President simply because his talents as a fundraiser are unsurpassed. For the progressive left, I believe it would serve us better to focus on electing true progressives to Congress so that we might draw the political center leftward because right now the political center in Congress is of all people, John Boehner. The imperative of recapturing the House could not be clearer.

What Obama Did Save

It is not unsubstantial. From the Associated Press:

A close look at the government shutdown-dodging agreement to cut federal spending by $38 billion reveals that lawmakers significantly eased the fiscal pain by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs President Barack Obama had targeted anyway.

Such moves permitted Obama to save favorite programs — Pell grants for poor college students, health research and "Race to the Top" aid for public schools, among others — from Republican knives.

And big holes in foreign aid and Environmental Protection Agency accounts were patched in large part. Republicans also gave up politically treacherous cuts to the Agriculture Department's food inspection program.

The full details of Friday's agreement weren't being released until overnight as it was officially submitted to the House. But the picture already emerging is of legislation financed with a lot of one-time savings and cuts that officially "score" as savings to pay for spending elsewhere, but that often have little to no actual impact on the deficit.

As a result of the legerdemain, Obama was able to reverse many of the cuts passed by House Republicans in February when the chamber passed a bill slashing this year's budget by more than $60 billion. In doing so, the White House protected favorites like the Head Start early learning program, while maintaining the maximum Pell grant of $5,550 and funding for Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative that provides grants to better-performing schools.

Still the two DC related riders and the appalling sacrifice of the not-for-profit healthcare centers are hard to swallow. The Pentagon had $2 billion cut from its budget meanwhile the entire $2 billion slated for these non-profit healthcare centers was cut. Recall that these centers were a consolation prize for not including a public option in the Affordable Care Act of 2010. 

Larry Summers: ARRA Was Too Small

Reporting from the Institute for New Economic Thinking's weekend conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect offers this tidbit:

Larry Summers, now back at Harvard, was the after-dinner entertainment, interviewed by the prodigious Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, the world’s most respected financial journalist.

Summers was terrific, acknowledging that the stimulus of February 2009 was too small, that the idea of deflating our way to recovery is insane, that de-regulation had been excessive, and that much of the economics profession missed the developing crisis because its infatuation with self-correcting markets.

If only this man had been Obama’s chief economic adviser!

It reminded me a bit of Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning of a military-industrial complex, or Citizen Jimmy Carter’s sublime post-presidency. Why do these people find their consciences and souls after they give up power?

If Larry Summers was the after-dinner entertainment, let's hope the guests found Alka-Seltzer tablets instead of mints on their pillows when they returned to their hotel rooms for the night. I suppose we should be relieved that Summers has found his Keynesian religion, but it wasn't as if his $787 billion fiscal stimulus number wasn't criticized at the time for being too small. 

Certainly, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker all thought the number too small. So did Congressman David Obey who first put together a $1.4 trillion package and then a $1.2 billion package only to be told to pare the numbers further. And inside the White House, Christina Romer argued for a bigger fiscal stimulus making the case that long-term unemployment posed a threat to the economy. They were all outweighed by a political calculus.

Ultimately Barack Obama, and not Larry Summers, bears responsibility for that decision. And it's a lesson, he still doesn't seem to quite mastered as yet. Back on February 9, 2009, Paul Krugman wrote this in his New York Times column:

I blame President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide — a belief that warped his economic strategy.

After all, many people expected Mr. Obama to come out with a really strong stimulus plan, reflecting both the economy’s dire straits and his own electoral mandate.

Instead, however, he offered a plan that was clearly both too small and too heavily reliant on tax cuts. Why? Because he wanted the plan to have broad bipartisan support, and believed that it would. Not long ago administration strategists were talking about getting 80 or more votes in the Senate.

Mr. Obama’s postpartisan yearnings may also explain why he didn’t do something crucially important: speak forcefully about how government spending can help support the economy. Instead, he let conservatives define the debate, waiting until late last week before finally saying what needed to be said — that increasing spending is the whole point of the plan.

And Mr. Obama got nothing in return for his bipartisan outreach. Not one Republican voted for the House version of the stimulus plan, which was, by the way, better focused than the original administration proposal.

In the Senate, Republicans inveighed against “pork” — although the wasteful spending they claimed to have identified (much of it was fully justified) was a trivial share of the bill’s total. And they decried the bill’s cost — even as 36 out of 41 Republican senators voted to replace the Obama plan with $3 trillion, that’s right, $3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years.

So Mr. Obama was reduced to bargaining for the votes of those centrists. And the centrists, predictably, extracted a pound of flesh — not, as far as anyone can tell, based on any coherent economic argument, but simply to demonstrate their centrist mojo. They probably would have demanded that $100 billion or so be cut from anything Mr. Obama proposed; by coming in with such a low initial bid, the president guaranteed that the final deal would be much too small.

Such are the perils of negotiating with yourself.

There's more...

Obama to Outline Deficit Reduction in a Speech

Appearing on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, David Plouffe, White House senior adviser, revealed that President Obama plans to deliver a major speech this week laying out a more aggressive path for deficit reduction -- including reform of entitlements, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. Plouffe said Obama will continue calling for higher taxes on the wealthy but will resist any attempts to raise taxes on the middle class. White House communications director Dan Pfieffer later added that Obama would deliver the address on Wednesday.

Plouffe also commented on Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposals. Via Politico:

Plouffe indicated that Obama would address finding savings in Medicare and Medicaid, but would not endorse many of the proposals in the long-term deficit reduction plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“It may pass the House. It's it's not gonna become law,” Plouffe said. “I don't think the American people are gonna sign up for something that puts - most of the burden on the middle class, people trying to go to college, on senior citizens while not just asking nothing of the wealthy - giving them at least a $200,000 tax [break] and so that's a choice you're making.”

Plouffle also indicated that Obama would propose rescinding the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy as part of his deficit reduction plan.

“For upper income Americans he does believe that they need to contribute to deficit reduction in this country,” Plouffe said on Fox News Sunday.

But when host Chris Wallace asked whether such a proposal would pass in light of opposition from House Republicans, Plouffe indicated that Obama would make the point that the GOP proposal is cuts services for seniors and the poor in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy.

“They’re plan is a trillion dollar tax cut,” Plouffe said. “So again, the reason you have to ask more for seniors, the middle class and the poor… is because you’re giving the rich these tax cuts.”

The Possibility of US Troops Remaining In Iraq Past 2011 Grows

In February 2009, President Obama flew to Camp Lejeune , a US Marine base in North Carolina, to fulfill a campaign promise, indeed the one campaign promise that had galvanized critical support for his candidacy early in 2007 when he remained largely an unknown first term US Senator. There amidst a crowd of some 6,000 Marines, the President delivered a passionate speech outlining the end of combat operations in Iraq, a war that at point had lasted over six years claiming 4,425 Americans dead, costing well over a trillion dollars while laying waste to Iraq plunging that country into a bitter sectarian civil war from which it has yet to fully emerge. Then he intoned, "Let me say this as plainly as I can - by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

Of the 142,000 US troops then in Iraq, some 92,000 were withdrawn by August 2010. The mission at that point changed, from combat to one that dealt primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism. Even if some 50,000 US troops did remain past the end of combat operations in August 2010, they would be withdrawn in toto by the end of 2011. The President's words were as clear and crisp as the weather on that February day: "Under the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honour that they have earned."

That was then, this is now. There are currently some 47,000 US troops still stationed in Iraq, there ostensibly to train Iraqi forces and to engage in counter-terrorism. This week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, making his 13th and likely his last trip to Iraq, mentioned the possibility of an US presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. From the Army Times:

U.S. officials, including at least some top military officers, believe that Iraq has significant gaps in its defense capabilities, including a lack of air power to defend its own skies. They see this as posing a risk, in the absence of U.S. forces, that the political and security gains that have been achieved over the past eight years could unravel.

In remarks to U.S. troops at Camp Marez, Gates said that in his talks with a full range of top Iraqi officials they had indicated an interest in an extended U.S. troop presence.

“We’re open to that,” Gates said. “It obviously would be a presence that’s a fraction of the size that we have here now.”

He mentioned no numbers, but there currently are about 47,000 U.S. troops in the country.

One soldier asked Gates how much longer the U.S. would stay if asked.

“That would be part of any negotiation,” Gates replied.

He said it could be for “a finite period of time” at an agreed number of troops, or it could be a phased drawdown for two or three years beyond 2011.

Or, he said, it could be a long-term U.S. role to advise and assist Iraqi security forces “that just becomes part of the regular military-to-military relationship.” That appeared to be a reference to arrangements such as those that have existed in Japan and Korea for more than 50 years, in which U.S. troops are based there to train with local forces and act as a regional deterrent.

Speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, Secretary Gates said the United States would keep troops in Iraq beyond December 31 if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate an extension of the final withdrawal date. The takeaway from Secretary Gates' comments is that the Administration is laying the groundwork for a long-term, permanent presence in Iraq akin to our presence in Japan, Korea and Germany.

Certainly, there are segments of the Iraqi population, such as the Kurds in the north, that would welcome a continued American presence in Iraq. On the other hand, there are segments that remain diametrically opposed to any continued US military presence in Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera, Moqtada al Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric who recently returned to the country from exile in Iran, has threatened to revive his Mehdi Army and relaunch armed resistance against continued US presence in the country. Al Jazeera correspondent Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that this time Sadr had not only warned against a continuing US troop presence but also against the contractors who prevent ordinary Iraqis from gainful employment.

Here at home, it is hard to figure how the news of an extended stay in Iraq a la Japan or a la Germany is going to play. Certainly the war hawks like Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman are bound to be pleased but the move is unlikely to win President Obama any votes in his re-election campaign. In fact, it is likely to further alienate his already rather disenchanted base even if news like this is largely confined to back pages of American journalism.

One more point really needs to be made. Iraq in 2011 is not Japan or Germany 1946 nor is it Korea 1953. Iraq is Iraq, a country that remains a match stick away from going up in flames. While we certainly owe the Iraqis much, having torn their country asunder, the idea that we can garrison the globe ad infinitum is a non-starter.  In this recent budget showdown, Democrats fought for and won a $2 billion cut from the Department of Defense, knocking the military appropriation for the rest of the year down to $513 billion. Meanwhile, the Republicans won over $36 billion cuts to social programs and infrastructure plans. At some point, we on the left must engage in a full throttle defense of domestic priorities and cast aside some of our global ambitions of an empire without end.


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