Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Obama: Centrist or Weakling?

President Obama made most of the concessions to Republicans and Tea Party hardliners that have led to the debt ceiling deal that averted a US default. He gave way to most demands of the Tea Party faction of the Republicans - deep spending cuts and no revenue increases by raising taxes or closing tax loopholes for the rich. The Democrats had little choice but to go along or else crash the US economy.

But they are not happy.  In his Aug. 1 NYTimes column "The President Surrenders" Paul Krugman scathingly explains why Obama's capitulation is a catastrophe in both economic and political terms.  Joe Nocera in his companion "The Tea Party's War on America" talks of this group and the Republicans taking the country hostage and being rewarded with near-complete capitulation by Obama.  Even William McGurn in the right wing WSJ today calls the accord a "conservative victory" and a "striking achievement." 

There is a difference between a Bill Clinton type centrist who compromises and someone who is reluctant to take a stand, and when forced to do so repeatedly backs away to become the appeaser in chief. Emboldened by their successful brinksmanship Republicans are likely to take Obama's (abject) pliability for granted in future negotiations on key issues.  That said, I've a couple of additional observations:
  •  The US government may not be "of the people" or "for the people" in the sense that the Administration and Congress are adequately acting in the interests of the populace, rather than key special interests. That's why approval rates for Obama are at 45% and of Congress at an all time low of 14% according to the latest CNN/ORC poll. But the US government is still "by the people."  Voters put Obama in office in 2008 (particularly those supporting him against Hillary in the primary) and elected many Tea Partiers in 2010.  So at least Americans are fully responsible for the state of their national economy and polity, unlike people living in countries with repressive regimes.
  • As a corollary to the above the US won't get political accountability if the voters remain befuddled about who's responsible for their plight.  Despite the Tea Party and Republicans plunging the nation into a contrived debt crisis an ABC poll today shows Americans lashing out at both parties.  68% and 67% of them disapprove of Republicans and Democrats respectively.  Paul Krugman partly ascribes this to the media, deriding its false sense of balance in his July 28 NYTimes column for tending to blame both sides equally no matter who's actually at fault.  Still, there's enough information out there for Americans to judge their leaders and vote in their own best interest, but many don't. Take the Tea Party that vehemently opposes tax increases even for households making over $250,000 a year.  It should logically attract only the 2% of Americans who are above this threshold, yet over 20% belong to this group.
  • Obama's actions may have weakened Democrats and given away too much of the store for average Americans, but they haven't affected his own re-election chances.  To Democrats and a majority of independents he'll likely be the lesser of two evils when faced with a Republican nominee elected by an increasingly radicalized GOP.  There's also no viable Democratic primary challenger or a third candidate (like NY mayor Michael Bloomberg) on the horizon yet.  So to the GOP rhetoric about making Obama a one term President and the above ABC poll showing him at par nationally and behind Mitt Romney in the key state of Pennsylvania, time will tell. But I'd place my odds on seeing him in office, with or without a spine, till 2016.