Robert Kuttner
Published: Sunday 20 January 2013
So where is Obama’s running room to pursue a more far-reaching agenda? And where is the running room for progressives to move him?

Obama’s Running Room – And Ours

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President Barack Obama won a tactical victory on New Year’s weekend by forcing Republicans to raise taxes on the top 1 percent, but he has far bigger challenges to address—and so do progressives.

The economy is still at risk of several more years of hidden depression, with a high level of unemployment and no wage growth. The initial budget deal, thanks to Obama’s post-election toughness on tax increases on the rich and pressure by unions and progressive organizations not to cut Social Security and Medicare, was better than it might have been. But still to come are debates over budget cuts, with Republicans having the leverage of an automatic $120 billion “sequester” for this fiscal year now postponed to early March, if Congress fails to legislate its own additional deficit reduction.

In principle, Obama has committed to $4 trillion in budget cuts over a decade, a sum that would be a huge drag on the recovery, leaving too little for the public investment necessary to create jobs and for the scale of infrastructure spending needed to mitigate future superstorms like Sandy. Since the election, the president has walked back some of his earlier commitment to spending cuts. But even as he forced major concessions out of the Republicans, he has continued to embrace deficit reductions as a necessary path to recovery, a strategy that makes no economic sense and that only whets the appetites of the right-wing anti-government crusade and its close ally, the corporate-sponsored Fix the Debt campaign.

So where is Obama’s running room to pursue a more far-reaching agenda? And where is the running room for progressives to move him?

The president still faces a rigidly conservative Republican House. The Senate, despite a slightly larger Democratic margin of 55 to 45 and the retirement of prominent budget hawks Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman, has at least six centrist Democrats—enough to deny the president a reliable working majority on some key issues.

But Obama would be wise to pursue a more progressive agenda, for multiple reasons. First, he has his legacy to worry about. Once it sinks in that budget cuts will not produce a robust recovery, Obama will increasingly wish to avoid being remembered as the Democrat who presided over eight years of declining living standards. Second, he is somewhat liberated in that he will not be up for re-election. Third, coming out of his victory, Obama found that progressive stances are good politics. He drew a bright red line on raising taxes on the wealthiest rather than cutting aid to the middle class, and the voters agreed. Finally, progressives are pushing him hard—maybe harder than in his first term.

Both Obama and the progressive community can learn from the missteps of his early years. Soon after the 2008 campaign ended, the new president’s political team wound down Organizing for America as an independent grassroots army and rebranded it as Obama for America, under the thumb of the Democratic National Committee. It’s understandable why the White House did not want a semi-independent mass movement to the president’s left acting in Obama’s name, complicating strategy and message. But the move also deprived the president of the kind of popular fervor that might have helped him shift from a candidate of change to a president of change—and offset the voter frustration that was captured by the Tea Party.

In 2009, Obama kept extending olive branches to Republicans who were determined to destroy him. He appointed a centrist economic team. As the recession deepened, he declined to push for a second stimulus package even though congressional Democrats were eager to pass one. (They finally did so in December 2009 with no help from the White House, only to see it die in the Senate.) He did not push the Employee Free Choice Act, despite the prodding of a labor movement that had gone all out to elect him. Even though a massive liberal coalition on health-care reform helped Obama enact the Affordable Care Act, the one provision that progressives most dearly wanted—a Medicare-style “public option”—was watered down and then jettisoned.

In his State of the Union address in January 2010, Obama pivoted to deficit reduction, even though the economy was far from a strong recovery, and the labor-liberal wing of the party seethed. In short, in Obama’s first term, progressives found they had little leverage on a president who turned out to be more moderate and conciliatory than they expected. All concerned suffered in the 2010 midterm Democratic congressional defeat that followed.

Will this time be different?



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ABOUT Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is an American journalist and writer. Kuttner is the co-founder and current co-editor of The American Prospect, which was created in 1990 as "an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas," according to its mission statement

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7 comments on "Obama’s Running Room – And Ours"

CorPARAnoid

February 08, 2013 6:39pm

As Obama has caved to tax a higher bracket than what was originally proposed to help with our Deficit, how is that good? With all the additional cuts to the middle class there will be fewer people making these incomes in the next generations to pay for OUR debt. If we don't tighten our belts now and insist that ALL who profitted HAS to PAY. Stop the Usury and Crony Capitalism, MIC ..., tax monis from Gun $ales to help pay for medical - mental problems , stop Subsidies to ANY CONGRESSMAN, Ban Corp for Profit Lobbyists, and tax havens aboard . We NEED to cut out ALL Loop Holes, to protect the American People from Too BIG to Fail Corporations. We need to REDUCE their sizes NOW. No more monopolies. No more conglomerates. No more FIAT Loans, worthles derivatives, unethical business practices that only benefit the few at the top. Reinstate Glass Stegall.

CASnyder

January 20, 2013 9:05pm

BHO has done almost nothing about the most critical threat during his term of office - the threat of run-away climate change. But the alternative would have tried to block citizen action on the issue, so he was slightly better by default.

ccrider27

January 20, 2013 2:44pm

In his initial negotiations, Obama made most of the tax cuts on the rich permanent. Those making $250,000 - $400,000 now know their tax cuts are permanent . Thus he has given away a major bargaining chip that he could have used to protect safety net programs.

Estate taxes have now been permanently repealed for all but the 0.1% richest. And he locked in low capital gains and dividend taxes. The loophole that multinational corporations use to dodge taxes on foreign subsidiaries was retained which is an incentive to export jobs.

Workers are hit with a large increase in Social Security taxes as rates revert to 2010 levels.

During the negotiations, he proposed huge cuts to safety net programs.

Obama is doing nothing but the will of those that put him in power - the entrenched wealthy and that is all he is going to do for the next 4 years - just as he has done for the last 4.

Nation of Change is embarrassing itself with this sycophantic articles that search for any iota of hope and change.

Fact it. There is none.

Thanks Obama-bots. You did this to all of us.

danh

January 20, 2013 9:04pm

You know, i really, really hope that CCRider is wrong.

However, whatever moves the President makes, for as long as we are staging multiple multi-trillion dollar wars, and maintaining hundreds of overseas bases, we will be in economic decline. (Why on earth can't we at least get out of Japan and Korea?? There's not even any oil there for us to steal.)

So: hope you're wrong CCRider, but time will tell.

Carolynmikula1

January 20, 2013 1:17pm

Obama better stick to his campain promiss. Giving middle class tax breaks and the big 3 safty nets will not be cut. The Seniors can not be an answer. SS and medicare we paid for and cutting it will only make things worse. The Congress doest not want to pay their bills. All they have to do is get rid of a lot of the loopeholes.

DHFabian

January 20, 2013 12:43pm

A big mistake of this generation is the failure to address poverty, much less how our anti-poor policies (and attitudes) are so effectively shrinking the middle class. We need to find the gumption to point out the obvious: If you don't expand the number of consumers, businesses won't sell products. If they don't sell products, they don't need to hire workers, leading to more and more poverty. We have got to restore a legitimate poverty relief program - welfare. When Clinton ended welfare, he took an ax to the rungs out of poverty. Welfare provided a measure of stability necessary for people to keep their families together, housed and fed, so that they could get back on their feet. Today, a single job loss can result in losing absolutely everything, with no way back up. How do you get a job without a home address, phone, clean clothes/bath, bus fare?

Sunflowerbio

January 20, 2013 11:40am

Obama has a lot of maneuvering room available to him if he chooses to use it. High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage could free Obama form the deficit hawk-tea party chant of "out of money" and allow him to pursue a full employment green economy. See Ellen Brown's post above.