Mr. President, It’s All About Respect!
For supporters of Barack Obama, the past seven months have been quite a roller-coaster. They bounced from the height of elation to the depth of disappointment, from victory laps to the ignominy of capitulation, from the peak of euphoria to the pits of rage. It is hard for them to fathom that the man who freed the American psyche from the Osama bin Laden syndrome was the same one who buckles time and again when faced with the whims and diktat of Republican lawmakers, whose stated aim is his personal demise and his failure as chief executive of the nation. Unfazed by their overt opposition, the President (“No Drama Obama”) nonetheless tries his hardest to be the “adult in the room”, seek bi-partisanship, and stave off their indulgence in brinksmanship. Is it naïveté or die-hard optimism that leads him to think he can win them over?
In my piece “America Will Be Just Fine” written shortly after President Obama’s election, I presented him as an eclectic, a Hegelian, and a pragmatist, who would not cling to dogma or rigid doctrine to govern. I predicted that, as an eclectic, he would demonstrate a bee-like industriousness, whereby he would glean the best from various sources, transform it into a new brand, and use it in his program of government. I surmised that, as a disciple of Hegel–the German philosopher who introduced his famous triad (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis), Obama would base his dialectic or reasoning method on synthesis, i.e., on reconciling the thesis (the argument for) and the antithesis (the argument against)—in other words, my assessment of his position on issues was that no side has monopoly over truth, but that in reality truth is arrived at from the clash of ideas, through compromise between conflicting sides. I also argued that he would lead as a pragmatist prone to strike alliances with opponents, should their ideas prove to sustain the test of feasibility, balance, or reasonableness. All in all, I predicted that Obama would govern in the middle. In the center. Away from party dogma. Now, half-way through his presidency, the prevailing sense is that he has lived up to this profile. While suffering setbacks in his pursuit of common ground, he does not relent. In so doing, he eyes the support of the Independents–the sector of the electorate whose centrist views he shares, and who traditionally holds the key to close elections. Such tactical choices are perplexing to those who have subscribed to Obama’s change message and rooted for his success; they fear that the President has veered too much to the center and mince no word to let him know of their concerns. If they were to send an open letter to their President to convey their displeasure with his tactics, I suspect they would go at it as follows.
Mr. President, the thrust of your campaign for the White House was to change Washington’s culture, to wrest it from the grip of special-interests groups, and to promote bi-partisanship. In this endeavor, you have been seeking an interlocutor with whom you could dialogue, another pragmatist who would be willing to meet you half-way and bridge the divide. You have tried sublime as well as trivial gestures in behalf of bi-partisanship. A tangible case of sublime gesture was the olive branch you tendered to former Bush officials at the dawn of your presidency. Specifically, you went out of your way to preempt the attributions of your attorney-general and thwart any volition on his part to prosecute these officials; you went ahead and absolved them of their misdeeds in the run-up to the Iraq War, their manipulation of intelligence, their encroachment of Constitutional guarantees and violation of the Geneva Conventions insofar as the practice of rendition and torture. You feared that their prosecution could be viewed as polarizing. Instead, you opted for forgiveness (this very Christian act, indeed!), hoping that it would be seen as a goodwill gesture that would secure the Republicans’ cooperation on your domestic agenda. Mr. President, you must admit that this act of forgiveness came out of left field; no one from your Party saw it coming. Did President George W. Bush make a plea to you in favor of his cronies in the letter he left you on the day of your inauguration? Hmm!!! Based on his loyalty towards his team, such a request from Bush would hardly be surprising… No need to answer, we understand. From one President to another, there are State secrets that cannot be divulged, especially if they involve a rogue vice-president, the wild-card Dick Cheney… We understand. In any event, the immunity that you had secured on behalf of Cheney and his acolytes did not win you their gratitude, earn their trust, or translate into Republican support for your recovery program. This has left some from your camp seething.
Mr. President, you also tried less grandiose gestures, from Super-Bowl party at the White House to golf game with the Speaker; at the end of the day you could never win their support. You went it alone on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, dubbed Stimulus; they deserted you on the auto industry revival plan; they balked at your financial regulatory reform. You watered down your initial healthcare reform bill, scratched out Public Option, incorporated Republican sweeteners in the final bill… for the sake of compromise, specifically to win bi-partisan support in Congress for the bill. Yet, not one single Republican voted for the Health Care Reform & Accountability Act of 2010. Consistent with your eclectic instincts, you altered your proposal also to placate the Independents. You court them because, supposedly, their pragmatic approach bears no allegiance to Party politics, because they symbolize the middle ground, and, above all, because they prove to be a force to reckon with. You did all that at the risk of sacrificing ideals that are sacred to Liberal Democrats. Mr. President, do you really believe that your courtship of the Independents is worth alienating those in your Party who remain faithful to the liberal cause, considering the Independents deserted the Democrats in the mid-term elections? The Independents gave as much as a ten-point advantage to the Republicans, despite the obstructionist role the latter played during the 111th Congress. This was quite unexpected, as conventional wisdom holds that the Independents abhor grid-lock and obstructionism. Their behavior during the mid-term showed otherwise. In fact, they rewarded the GOP. Does it occur to you that they might just be closet Republicans, and actually that they follow no grand theory of governance
or a particular philosophical line of thought?
Mr. President, as you know, it takes two to tango. You are desperately looking for a partner. You have got to resign yourself to the fact that there is none to be found. You have adversaries for whom nothing is out of bounds, who have used every trick in the playbook to keep you off balance and off message. One common theme of the Republicans’ wall-to-wall assault is your personal defeat and the failure of your Administration. As a person, they seek to dehumanize you, to make you feel that you are not one of them. In their view, you are a fraud–a Black, Kenyan, Socialist, Radical, Muslim, Alien, Antichrist, (pick the order!), who usurped the rights bestowed on natural born Americans and, out of some nefarious plot, found your way to the Nation’s tiller with a secret plot to dismantle the American way of life. And they want their “country back.” Sadly enough, no voice of reason rose from their hierarchy to dismiss such demented talks as worthy of the trash can. To the contrary, they cater to those toxic effusions, hoping to score political points, and forcing you to engage in the futile exercise of proving or disproving the absurd.
Mr. President, since the mid-term elections there has been a recrudescence of the Republican assault against you—this time, better orchestrated, more sharply focused, but equally vicious. From politics to policy, from the birthers’ challenge of your citizenship to the raucous resistance of the Tea Party (the “enfant terrible” of the 112th Congress), to the threat of government shutdown during the period of Continuing Resolution, or to the continuous blocking of nominations to key administrative posts, or lately to the squabbling over the debt ceiling, the assault is relentless. From radio personality Rush Limbaugh to Senator Mitch McConnell, to businessman Donald Trump, there is unity of message. From a cross-section of the American power structure—the media, the political establishment, the business community, the message cannot be any clearer and is articulated in a way that unveils a visceral aversion not just to your policies but also to you personally: You must fail. To this bold statement they make no caveat. Seemingly, they would not mind seeing the country fail as long as YOU fail. Yet, you still illusion yourself that you have a partner in this venture. This is the culture—or rather, the cult—you are up against.
Mr. President, it is about respect.
Around the world, you enjoy adulation and respect. You repaired the damage caused by the rowdy policies of the previous administration, and restored our foreign policy to its pre-9/11 standards. At the same time, you show steely resolve vis-a-vis friends and foes alike. You put everyone on notice —from friendly governments to enemy regimes, from Somali pirates to Al Qaeda-Taliban fighters and hierarchy along the Afghan-Pakistani border–that whenever misdeeds and harm are committed at the expense of the American people, you will bring the awe and might of the formidable American military to bear. They all heed the warning and take you seriously. The word for that is: Respect. However, on the domestic scene, you are not the same man. The Republicans do not feel the courage of your convictions. They do not feel the firmness and power of your grip. At their hands, you are like a domesticated pet, predictable, and ready to roll over. And after you do, you walk proudly to the microphone, praising your so-called “partners” on a wonderful work of bi-partisanship, instead of castigating them for brinksmanship. Why, then, don’t you show the same resolve in the domestic arena? Why is it that, when the Republicans dare you and stare you down, you blink? It was most outrageous last December to witness the fact that you let the Republicans get away with murder. They threatened to vote against extending unemployment benefits for another year to provide relief to the army of unemployed, while at the same time, they went all out to prolong the Bush tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. Coming from folks who garnish churches’ pews every Sunday, this passion exhibited on pleading the case of the well-to-do at the expense of the little guy was antithetical to the pillars of Christ’s doctrine—his embrace of the poor. Such hypocrisy lets one wonder whether the Jesus these guys pray to is the one who said (paraphrasing), “Whatever you do for the smallest amongst us you do it for me,” or the Jesus who said to one of his followers: “If you want to follow me, get rid of all your wealth.” Their stance did not make sense from an economic viewpoint either, as there is no evidence that those billions would translate into jobs in the United States. In India and China, for sure, but not here! Their hypocrisy and wicked policies were not lost on the American people, as evidenced by all polls. The stage was set for a showdown between the wisdom of ordinary Americans, the venality of our politicians, and the greed of big business lobbyists. It was a clear victory for ordinary folk, with you on their side: there was no rhyme or reason why the unfunded Bush tax cuts should have been extended, thus causing the deficits to worsen. This, again, showed the extent of the Republicans’ hypocrisy, as they made the fight against deficits their new battle cry. A bit of populism would not hurt. Surely, they would accuse you of promoting class warfare. What would be new? You should in no way recoil from your position and become defensive? After all, Alan Greenspan, the Republican former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was (and still is) against extending the tax cuts. So, Mr. President, by agreeing last December to their terms against your principles, you set a dangerous precedent, which the Republicans capitalized on. They read the agreement NOT as an exemplary case of bi-partisanship BUT as a blue-print for capitulation. In effect, emboldened by their success, they tried again during the Continuing Resolution, when they threatened to shut down government. Once more, they showed how less they cared, as long as in the process you would look bad. So is the state of their politics.
Mr. President, when it comes to policy, it has been obvious for some time that the Republicans have not much to show for. All they have is a credo: No taxes! Less Government! You mus
t engage them on that front. You must relentlessly call them out on the fact that they cater to the high power of big business whose unfettered freedom they advocate, whose hefty contributions they rely on for their reelection campaigns. They complain about the supposedly high corporate tax rates at a time when corporations are raking in astronomical profits and sitting on trillions of idle dollars. Yet the Republicans want them to have more through tax cuts. Their model is (actually was) Ireland. Not too long ago, they championed Ireland as a free-market haven with stellar economic outlook, fueled by its excessively low corporate rate. Ireland was the model the new supply-siders showcased as the future of the free market economy, where government is relegated to the sideline, public spending cut to the bone, and a corporate rate as low as 12.5%. Once again the conservatives succumbed to the fallacy that tax incentives or tax cuts would spur economic growth and bring employment to optimal levels. For reasons the Republicans do not comprehend, the multiplier effect does not work as well on the supply side as it does on the demand side. A dollar ploughed into the economy, say in an infrastructure renovation project, triggers a chain of reactions upward and downward in terms of demand for goods through the multiplier effect, and translates into hiring. A dollar cut from corporate tax expenses goes straight to the bottom line and does not necessarily translate into hiring or into higher wages for workers. The reason for that is multi-fold: corporations enjoy the higher profits; technological advances spur higher productivity, which makes it counter-intuitive for businesses to engage in any wholesale hiring; especially in an environment that calls for workforce and product line downsizing. Low corporate tax rates coupled with draconian cuts in public spending are a recipe for disaster. There was one miscalculation on the part of the supply-siders: Ireland, the crown jewel of the new conservative economics, has defaulted on its debt and their bonds are relegated to junk status. The Republicans like to point to Greece as the looming disaster that awaits us. In reality, our case is closer to Ireland’s.
Mr. President, take your case to the American people. The policies that supply-side economists have implemented in Ireland are the very ones these Republicans want to impose on the nation, in the name of conservative orthodoxy. The Ireland medicine to cure the economic ills of the country would be catastrophic. The result would be a magnified version of a bankrupt Ireland. The American people’s proverbial common sense tells them that there is something fundamentally unsettling about the Republican position. They just cannot articulate it. But you can. Do it with passion, with analogies they relate to. Let them see you as the roadblock against the GOP’s one-sided, simplistic, and failed economic policies of the past. For, in the fall of 2008, the US was on the edge of the precipice as a result of reckless handling of the economy, inept governance, and skewed priorities …We dodged the bullet thanks to the Stimulus. It is unfortunate that the stimulus package was modest (5% of the gross domestic product–GDP). For, countries that undertook bold interventions, such as China whose public spending was about 15% of its GDP, enjoy unparalleled growth at 9%, while we are trudging along with a measly 1.5%, susceptible to any little bump on the recovery road. As if they did not do enough, the same culprits are coming back for more… equipped with the same policies, backed by the same special-interests groups, inspired by the same credo, with the only difference that, this time, they cloak themselves under the mantle of deficit-busters. Let it be remembered that these recidivists were the deficit mongers of the past decade, who passed unfunded tax cut legislations and drug benefits, waged two wars without funding, and turned billions of budget surpluses they had inherited from the Clinton Administration into record deficits. Mr. President, you have to call them out in vigorous terms. You cannot let these hypocrites have their way. You cannot let the country follow Ireland’s path.
Mr. President, the month-long showdown on the debt ceiling exemplified once more the Republicans’ brash attitude, their disregard for fairness, equity, and common sense when these values do not square with the interests of big business. America witnessed their opposition to closing tax loopholes and slashing subsidies to Big Oil and other big business concerns as part of the scenario to curb government spending and close the deficit. At first, this new showdown looked like a scene replayed to satiety, where the outcome was known in advance–i.e., you were going to buckle once again. But when you drew a line in the sand, threatening to veto any bill that would not contain revenue increases, your supporters cheered. The point you made was clear and consonant with the desiderata of the American people—not a one-sided approach to the problem (spending cuts only that would hurt only the poor and elderly), but a balanced approach that would take into account tax increases and spread the pain across the board. We applauded your unequivocal stand. For, at issue was the United States’ default on its debt—an unprecedented event in the annals of the country’s history. This alone should be sufficient to deter the gamesmanship and puerility of the Republicans’ posturing. At stake was the prestige of the United States, along with the irreversible consequence of a financial meltdown that would exceed by far the darkest hours of the fall 2008 crisis. Facing such nonsensical behavior, we expected the man who took out bin Laden to stand tall and respond in kind. Mr. President, why did you rule out exercising your executive privileges under the Fourteenth Amendment, which in case of grave danger to the nation and inaction by Congress allows you to invoke presidential powers and take appropriate action. That Republican lawmakers made light of this event and dragged the process till the eleventh hour bordered on irresponsibility. This should not have stood. A Lyndon Johnson or a Harry Truman would not have allowed such tantrums on the part of Congress to stand. Likewise, the man who freed America from the specter of Osama bin Laden, at the very least, should have never taken off the table his Fourteenth Amendment prerogatives. It is a matter of respect. The fact that you did emboldened them. And once again… we all know the rest all too well: you blinked again. The Republicans had their way once more: It was all cuts and no revenues–no balanced approach! And once again you walked up to the lectern and praised the spirit of bi-partisanship, consoling yourself that no one got what they wanted.
But, guess what, Mr. President, it was not all good news. This last defeat added insult to injury. On your watch, for the first time in its history the credit worthiness of the greatest economy on earth has been downgraded from AAA to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s, one of the rating agencies. Your presidency is forever tainted by this ignominy. Fast-forward and picture the relation of this event in history books. Do not illusion yourself, Mr. President: in this setback you have no partner; you share this infamous distinction with no one—not with John Boehner, not with Mitch McConnell. By the way, they will be laughing all the way to the Republican Convention, congratulating each other over the fact that they got you where they wanted—in the pits. Be prepared for insidious presidential slogans against you. Be ready for renewed cries of nostalgic folk wanting their country back! How many times are you going to let yourself duped by these Republicans?
Mr. President, allow this boxing analogy. The bout is half-way through and your belt is at stake. Yet, the contender has not felt the sting of your jab and the power of your punch. And, looking in your eyes, he does not feel the heart of the champion… or the steely resolve of the man who had the better of bin Laden. How then could you be surprised that he shows you no respect?