We already know that the Obama team knows how to run for office and we know it knows how to pass legislation. The worry is, it doesn’t know how to do the former after it’s done the latter. On Wednesday in Cleveland, with his party apparently heading for a historic humiliation in November, President Obama finally decided to return to campaign mode and see what might be done to save the second half of his presidency.
But by complaining that when Boehner appeared at the same forum he offered “no new policies... no new ideas,” well, if you closed your eyes, Boehner morphed into Bush and we were back in 2008 again.
Judged on its own terms, the president’s approach made quite a bit of sense. The policy itself is quite sound as befits the superwonk in chief. As Simon Johnson, who has found Obama far too wimpy in the past, acknowledges, “the Obama administration has finally begun to make some sensible proposals. These include: temporary tax breaks for business investment (allowing firms to deduct all their capital spending through 2011, which would hopefully bring forward hiring and reduce unemployment), tax credits for research and development, and a more coherent strategy for infrastructure development (although this takes time to have effects).” James Galbraith, another critic from the left, also finds himself in a far better humor than usual. Crediting Obama with a “confidence trick,” but in a good way, he argues that Obama is doing what smart Democrats have done in the past: Use government to induce corporate America “to take a chance, and hire some workers.” In addition to the tax cuts aimed at business hires, Obama is proposing to, um, stimulate the economy with $50 billion in infrastructure spending. This has no chance of passing at a time when Democrats are running away from the first stimulus—despite its impressive success in helping to prevent a complete meltdown of the economy—but many Democrats, grateful for small favors, are happy to see Obama willing to propose something he knows has no hope of passing. All that Rodney King “Why Can’t We All Get Along” stuff didn’t work out so well. Finally, in the 13th or 14th round, the president is putting up his dukes and slapping the other fellow around a bit.
And if you doubt that, take a look at the direct hit he was willing to take at the already-measuring-the-drapes-in-the-Speaker’s-office John Boehner. Personally, and strictly from an entertainment standpoint, I am only slightly less eager to see Boehner as speaker than I would be to see Sarah Palin as president. The man can barely hold together a coherent thought long enough to strangle it. When asked by a friendly Chris Wallace on Fox whether he was aware that “a number of top economists say what we need is more economic stimulus,” Boehner replied, with breathtaking obtuseness, “Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists. All I need to do is listen to the American people, because they’ve been asking the question now for 18 months, ‘Where are the jobs?’”
As president, Obama must be more decorous, of course, than merely mocking the man. But by complaining that when Boehner appeared at the same forum he offered “no new policies... no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy we already tried for the last decade—the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations,” well, if you closed your eyes, Boehner morphed into Bush and we were back in 2008 again.
Can it work? It’s hard to know. We live in a political world where, as Bob Dylan warbled, “ wisdom is thrown in jail.” MSNBC’s First Read explains that “the original $787 billion stimulus package has largely been deemed a failure—at least in a public-relations sense—even though economists believe it helped lift the economy and boost employment.” Tea Party stalwarts are out marching on behalf of billionaires. And billionaires—and even mere millionaires—complain about Obama’s desire to extend only part of the Bush tax cuts, even though Obama is proposing not only gifts to big business but a tax cut in which, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “the largest beneficiaries of the administration’s plan to extend the middle-class tax cuts would be rich people.”
Boehner is, of course, still beating the tax-cut drum, ignoring the Congressional Budget Office, which found that extending all the Bush tax cuts would add $2.3 trillion to the total 2018 debt: “If the president is serious about finally focusing on jobs, a good start would be taking the advice of his recently departed budget director and freezing all tax rates, coupled with cutting federal spending to where it was before all the bailouts, government takeovers, and ‘stimulus’ spending sprees.” The statement, as First Read helpfully notes, “referred to a recent op-ed by former White House OMB Director Peter Orszag, who recommended extending the Bush tax cuts—for all Americans—for two years before ending them completely,” which is not quite the same thing.
Still, the reason Obama is president and Orszag is kibitzing from the sidelines is that the president understands that come election time, it’s important to give people a choice between you and the other guy. Obama is saying he’s for middle-class tax cuts, and the other guy wants to give away billions more to the right. Obama wants to put people to work building bridges and dams and fiber-optic networks, and the other guy thinks it’s just fine to see people lining up to be checkout clerks at Walmart. It may be too little, too late, but at least it’s something. It is a measure of just how dispirited the Democratic base is that its members were not sure that Obama had even this much in him. We’ll see if he means it enough to say it over and over, say, five or six times a day between now and Election Day. It will take all that more to make up for just how little attention this White House has paid to saving even a portion of the historic majority it was handed in what today feels like a hundred years ago.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.