Sunday, August 07, 2011

My thoughts on the debt ceiling debacle

It's now been several days since Obama completely caved to Republican debt ceiling pressure, on an issue that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described as "a hostage that’s worth ransoming".

And while stocks have dropped and people are now talking about a double dip recession, we still don't know how bad it's going to get. As I'm writing this, US markets have not yet reacted to late Friday's news that S&P downgraded US debt. (Monday should be interesting, judging from the concerns of these important people.)

Predictably, liberals are piling on with criticism of Obama. Nobody likes it when their leader completely capitulates. One of my Facebook friends has started sending links to pro-Hillary articles again (she took a break when Hillary lost the 2008 primary).

So I found myself wondering: Would we have been better off with a hard-core liberal like Hillary, who presumably would have done a better job playing political hardball against take-no-prisoners Tea Party Republicans? After all, it's hard to argue that Obama's middle-of-the-road approach to negotiations is not pushing the country harder to the right.

On the other hand, there are those who say Obama may lose a battle here and there, but he's really a master chess player who will beat everyone in the end. He may not throw liberals a lot of red meat by taking and holding on to tough positions, but he wins on policy grounds by striking compromises and getting stuff done. Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the most articulate proponent of this view:
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.
I'm mostly in Sullivan's camp. But I think is the best feature of the Obama presidency is this: We have a president who respects the opinions of Congressional voters.

After all, if the population of the United States keeps voting for Tea Party activists and other far-right leaning Republicans, then policy (especially on spending and taxation) should take their views into account. That's what democracy is all about.

Fundamentally, I don't think the country is well served by having master tacticians (of either party) as presidents, even if it might serve my own personal agenda (fiscally moderate, socially liberal) in the short run.

Put in different terms: If you think the Tea Party is a destructive force, then it may be best to let them destroy some stuff so that people stop voting them into office. This argument is frequently made in Europe about right-wing extremist parties (such as the Progressive Party in Norway that Anders Breivik was briefly member of), and I think it's an important one. (Especially when you want to take oxygen away from extremists such as Breivik.)

Of course, there is no guarantee that actual destruction will prevent people from voting destruction-minded politicians into office. Especially since the media's cult of balance is likely to distort the picture. However, I believe "the truth" gets out eventually if the political system functions reasonably well.

And that, I suspect, is Obama's biggest concern: The health of the democratic process and our political system. And on that, he deserves our support. The alternative is the end of American leadership and pre-eminence in the world.

UPDATE: Having said all that, I do hope that Obama will read this Drew Westen piece: What Happened to Obama?.

Though unlike Westen I am more worried about the quality of the political system itself and less worried about the absence of superman-style personalities like the version of Obama he wants. If we want to make a better country then we should improve the press, elect better people to Congress, and contribute to better general discourse.

UPDATE II: More good comments about Obama and the Westen piece from Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan. This, from a Sullivan reader (second link) has certainly been a wake-up call for me:
What you (and I) thought was a phenomenon mostly inherent/related to the Clintons and Bushes is structural; it has far more to do with the closed informational loop on the Right and the Aileses and Kristols and Norquists and Limbaughs guarding the door... guys who sure as hell weren't going to let Obama in, no matter how even-keeled his temperament or how many nice things he said about Reagan.


melonleftcoast said...

Drew Westen's op-ed is spot-on how I feel about Obama and his time as Pres.: he has been a horrible leader. I guess you defending Obama makes sense in the context of your post, which I believe is that Obama thinks a majority of American's don't want big government and taxes (because that is what the Tea Party represents), so he capitulated. I could be convinced to gut the fed. gov., but that would have to include a tiny army for defense only (i.e. no foreign wars) and NO bailing out companies or Wall Street. So, essentially, erasing 100+years of history. Is that a world that I would like to live in? Not really, but I would prefer it to what we have now, which is an oligarchy. I firmly believe that it has to get worse, much worse, before it gets better.

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