Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Barack Obama has always projected the persona of the most reasonable person in the room, a person above name-calling. Until this past week, at least. In response to criticism of the deal his minions brokered with the Senate Republican leaders over an extension of tax cuts that included $60 billion of lard per year for the richest two percent of this country, Obama became petulant, even nasty:
“Somehow this notion that we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where I finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for 100 years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. Now if that’s the standard against which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about ourselves about how good our intentions are, how tough we are.”
Just to be clear, the health insurance overhaul did not provide coverage for “all Americans.” When the President starts telling demonstrable lies in such a situation, it is a clear indication that he is overwrought, under pressure, perturbed. I don’t begrudge him such normal human emotions and reactions, but the record needs to be set straight. I have in previous columns listed the dozens of accomplishments he has had during the less than two years of his presidency. He has had a remarkable run after inheriting the worst economy imaginable short of the Great Depression.
But the health care overhaul did not include everyone, and health insurance is still beyond the reach of many Americans who can’t afford to pay $600 a month for coverage. That’s what a friend in his 50s with a preexisting heart condition will have to pay if he can afford it. He can’t. That would take one-third or more of his monthly income. He doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, is not old enough for Medicare, and is left dangling in the wind as he continues paying off his $100,000 bypass surgery of a few years ago.
Of course, such exaggeration is common among the political class, and we now see demonstrable evidence that President Obama, too, is willing to exaggerate. I never read anyone who maintained the purist position that if we didn’t get Canadian-style health insurance (run by the provinces), the health insurance reform was a failure. But we didn’t get that. Another possibility was Medicare for all. We didn’t get that. A third choice was a public option, but we didn’t get that either. Obama and his crowd started the debate without even considering these three better solutions for health care coverage for all Americans. What they wanted most of all was to protect the health insurance industry, not average Americans.
I received a call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a couple of weeks ago soliciting contributions. I explained that while I contributed to individual candidates, I did not contribute to parties–not Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, or any other party. The caller persisted. I became petulant, explaining that when the Senate chairman of the committee considering health insurance reform, Max Baucus, would not let Canadian-style health care, Medicare for all, or the public option be discussed before his committee even by physicians, I had yet another reason for rejecting party contributions. The caller didn’t believe that the incident I recounted had happened. But it did, and I guess Mr. Obama forgot about this incident when he accused his critics of being purists about health insurance reform.
It is not being purist to oppose a deal that gives $60 billion a year in tax breaks to the wealthiest two percent of our population. Benefiting the other 98% would have been enough for most people. While no one can know whether the negotiations would have been different if Obama had sent different people to negotiate with Republican senators, it is a sure bet that sending people like Timothy Geithner to negotiate is a bad choice. Geithner was one of the several people Obama hired who were carryovers from the Bush administration and should be held partly responsible for the near collapse of the economy, especially the banking sector. Obama’s other negotiator was Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew, a Clinton-era official.
But the Democratic senators who failed to engage their Republican colleagues in negotiations also share the blame. They abdicated their responsibility, refusing to take up the issue before the mid-term elections and leaving it up to Obama to initiate negotiations later with the wrong people sitting at the table. But even these people should have realized that there was room for a much better deal when leading Republican John Boehner said that if tax relief for the middle class was his only option he would vote for it.
Now former President Bill Clinton has entered the disagreement, encouraging acceptance of the deal Obama’s people negotiated. Clinton is the president who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, making it possible for the banks to implode with their excessive derivative deals, leading directly to the near economic collapse of 2008. While Clinton left the US economy in good condition, he set it up for the failure we experienced eight years later. Obama’s reliance on Clinton is an indication of how weak Obama has become.
On the face of it, Barack Obama, a person schooled at one of the leading legal institutions in the country, appears to be the quintessential reasonable person. As I watched him over the last three years that he has been in the public spotlight, I have often thought about how reasonable he seemed. So it is not without some concern that I have concluded that he is highly skilled at giving the illusion of being reasonable. Of course, this is what most politicians try to do. This is what good lawyers usually do. Barack Obama is both a politician and a lawyer. And he is skillful at appearing almost always to be a reasonable man.
From the very beginning, where the Obama presidency was going was foretold. When he picked Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff, I started having doubts about how reasonable he was, but his argument was that he wanted to have a balance of viewpoints advising him. While this seems reasonable, it fails to consider the harm of having someone like Emanuel controlling his schedule and access to the President. Emanuel is a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America, a pro-Israel extremist, and a man whose values should be anathema to Obama, but are not. The risk of harm from hiring Emanuel was great, but so also were the appointments of Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, holdovers from the Bush era. In spite of Obama’s professed values, with team members like Emanuel, Geithner, Lew, Summers, Bernanke, and other Bush and Clinton functionaries, we were foolish to hope for anything better than what we’ve gotten. Hope, it seems, comes with its own blinders.
The range of discussion we have been having has not strayed far from how we can stimulate business to create more jobs. Business stimulus does a poor job of creating jobs. What creates jobs is consumer spending. When consumers buy more, more goods and services have to be produced. It is then that businesses hire more people. The entire focus in our tax and stimulus policies should be on getting more money into the hands of consumers who will spend it. The wealthy already spend all they want to spend. Giving them more money does not have a stimulus effect. A quick look at the eight years of Bush stimulus shows that his policies, which have become Obama’s policies, do not have a stimulus effect on job creation. But they do make the rich richer.
Economist Paul Krugman summed up the problems with the Obama-McConnell tax cut package succinctly: “…the tax-cut deal is likely to deliver relatively small benefits in return for very large costs…. The point is that while the deal will cost a lot — adding more to federal debt than the original Obama stimulus — it’s likely to get very little bang for the buck. Tax cuts for the wealthy will barely be spent at all; even middle-class tax cuts won’t add much to spending. And the business tax break will, I believe, do hardly anything to spur investment given the excess capacity businesses already have…. The actual stimulus in the plan comes from the other measures, mainly unemployment benefits and the payroll tax break. And these measures (a) won’t make more than a modest dent in unemployment and (b) will fade out quickly, with the good stuff going away at the end of 2011…. The question, then, is whether a year of modestly better performance is worth $850 billion in additional debt, plus a significantly raised probability that those tax cuts for the rich will become permanent. And I say no.”
The people who need more money are the unemployed and the minimum wage workers. A better stimulus is to raise and extend unemployment benefits and increase the minimum wage. The people who get those benefits will spend that money on the goods and services businesses sell, increasing the need for more production and more employees.
And why should our estate tax policy be designed to benefit only 3500 families? That’s how many will benefit from the 35% tax on estates worth over $5 million. I guess when you populate the Congress and the administration with enough millionaires, it is millionaires they will take care of.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said it well: “In my view, it is a moral outrage that at a time when this country has a $13.8 trillion national debt, a collapsing middle class and a growing gap between the very rich and everybody else that the Republicans would deny extended unemployment benefits to 2 million workers who are desperately struggling to pay their bills and maintain their dignity. It is also beyond comprehension that the Republicans would hold hostage the entire middle class of this country so that millionaires and billionaires would receive huge tax breaks. In my view, that is not what this country is about and it is not what the American people want to see. Our job is to save the disappearing middle class, not lower taxes for people who are already extraordinarily wealthy and increase the national debt that our children and grandchildren would have to pay.”
Even the Tea Partiers should be able to embrace most of Sanders’ views, but apparently they will not be embraced by the President, a majority of his party, or any Republicans. Yet Obama was adamantly opposed to the Bush tax cuts that favored the wealthiest in our society when he was running for president. Just days before the 2008 election his opposition was vehement to the idea that “we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that it trickles down on everybody else. It’s a philosophy that gives tax breaks to wealthy CEOs and to corporations that ship jobs overseas while hundreds of thousands of jobs are disappearing here at home.” The difference between two years ago and now is that Obama has been captured by the very forces he opposed, a capture that he arranged by appointing so many Clinton and Bush people to his own administration.
The middle class may be the Republicans’ captives this week, but Obama is the permanent captive, and I fear that he won’t be released until he is out of office or the deficit is so large that the Republicans will be able to dismantle everything that promotes the “general welfare” of the American people. While Obama’s election has made marginal differences to the people, it is the latest proof that presidential elections are not transformative events–at least not for those concerned with the welfare of 98% of Americans.
© Lamar W. Hankins–Freethought San Marcos