Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thomas Fina's Letter from Washington, 30 January

(Note to readers: DA Switzerland merely passes on the excellent, monthly analysis of the Washington political situation, by the ex-Executive Director of Democrats Abroad, Tom Fina. We hope to post this each month. If we forget, bug us about it! Enjoy.)

To Democrats Abroad
30 January 2014
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Obama twice sought election and twice was elected to solve great problems that he and his electors believed beset the United States. From the outset his energy has gone into trying to solve those problems. In some he has succeeded: averting a depression and rebuilding the economy, enacting a health reform law, ending two wars, avoiding more boots on the ground,  the educational “race to the top”.  His State of the Union message is a new tack  to grapple with our problems with  Executive Orders because of  unrelenting Republican legislative stonewalling.

Just as Democrats in the Senate were forced to change the filibuster rules to get around Republican obstruction, the President has been forced by their obstruction to rely more heavily on Executive Orders. 
My reading is that his State of the Union address had two objectives: First, to tell all those hungering for solutions that he was unrelenting in his determination to use all of his powers to attack those problems. Second, to convince November voters that Democrats were ready to cooperate and compromise to solve our problems but Republicans refused. 

Obama needs to convince voters that he is doing the right thing and that Republicans are doing the wrong thing. Mid-term elections are primarily a referendum on the President.  That is why Democrats are running scared. The present consensus is that Obama’s below 50% approval ratings almost guarantee losses in both the House and Senate come November. A loss of the Democratic Senate majority would make the final two years of Obama’s second term even more sterile than the first.

Many Obama proposals are already in the legislative pipe line even if they are stalled in Congress:  a higher minimum wage,  extending unemployment compensation,  universal pre-school,  investment in infrastructure,
immigration reform, making education more accessible for the poor, slowing climate change. These are the right policies. Republicans dismissed them as old stuff. Where, they scoffed,  was Obama’s leadership?

In terms of domestic policy, Obama has finally forced  a national conversation about the poor. Until very recently, both political parties justified their policies in terms of protecting the middle class. No one was catering to the poor voter. For the simple reason that:  1) they are less likely to vote than those in the middle and upper income brackets and 2) they can’t write big checks nor do they have powerful lobbyists.

In 2008, those earning $15,000 or less were  13% of the population but only 6% of the vote. Those earning $200,000 or more were only 3.8% of the population but they cast just as many votes as the poor!  The poor are trapped. A  child born in the bottom  20% has less than a 5% chance to get to the top. A child born in the top 20% income bracket has 2 out of 3 chances to remain there. Children in Canada, France, Germany have greater hope of rising from their poverty than do ours.

In foreign policy, Obama has greater latitude to act without Congress.    He is giving Secretary Kerry a free hand to wheel and deal on Iran, Israel and Palestine and Syria. He wants no new boots on the ground and a reduction of nuclear weapons. A break-through on any of those lethal issues would be a tremendous gain for the United States. The withdrawal from Iraq and an end to combat in Afghanistan together with the interim nuclear agreement with Iran and the destruction of chemical and biological weapons in Syria are already real achievements.

Obama’s goal has always been a modus vivendi with our friends and foes. That is the goal with Iran (like Nixon’s rapprochement with China), with the Muslim world (his New Beginning speech, Cairo, 2009), with Russia (hitting the “reset button”), China and Cuba. 

Obama’s approach to both foreign countries and the Republican Congress has been the same.  The Republican policy since his election in 2008 has been to destroy him.  He campaigned on the theme that he could bridge the partisan divide in Washington and work for practical solutions to our pressing national problems. He believed that he could transcend ideology and partisanship. He tried. 

He abandoned his opposition to a mandated purchase of healthcare for the uninsured in favor of the Republican model adopted by Romney in Massachusetts. He tried repeatedly with the Speaker of the House to reach a grand bargain on spending and revenue. He nominated very middle of the road judges to the federal courts. He offered concessions, painful to Democrats,  like a chained CPI and Medicare means testing.

No Republican takers. But not for want of Obama’s trying.

Obama’s failure to find a modus vivendi with the Republican congress is certainly one of his greatest disappointments. It is also a blow to the well being of our entire society. 

It is also the fundamental reason that public approval of him and of the Congress is so low. Obama is at 43% (Pew 28 Jan ‘14). Congress is at  9%,  its lowest level in recorded polling. That Democrats have a one point lead over Republicans, 10%,  is not much to write home about.

Will anything good happen in 2014?  

There are convincing signs that the economy is picking up speed. Unemployment continues to decline as does the budget deficit while home prices and the economy continue to grow. Economists see this as a “break-out” year - if new austerity measures are not adopted.  And, if there are no political Acts of God - Hurricane Katrina, a street vendor’s immolation in Tunisia, a traffic jam on the George Washington bridge, a Rolex for Virginia’s ex-governor.

Legislative support for any of Obama’s proposals depends on the outcome of the fierce struggle within the Republican Party between the traditional conservatives (the Establishment wing) and the Tea Party, libertarian radicals. The traditional conservative Republicans  actually believe in governing. The insurgents  prefer to go to the elections unstained by compromise. They hope to purge the Republican Party of pragmatists in favor of the ideologically pure.
In those cases where the traditionalists prevail, it is pretty clear that the President and Democrats would be ready to find common ground. The two year budget deal negotiated by Patty Murray/Paul Ryan and signed by the president could be an ice breaker.

The imminent adoption by both houses of the long fought over five year farm bill would be another a victory for Republican pragmatism and a step forward, even if some food stamps will still be cut for the poor. Another good omen for the country is the apparent decision by the Republican leadership not to create another debt ceiling crisis next month. (In election terms, nothing could be better for the Democrats or worse for the Republicans than a repetition of their October government shutdown.)  Immigration reform could jell but there are powerful forces in the Republican Party, even traditional conservatives, who are dead set against it as distracting from what they believe is their killer issue in November, “Obamacare”. 

The more of our great problems that can be tackled with compromises that move the ball, the greater will be the contribution to the common good and the more attractive each party will appear to our presently sour electorate come election day in November. 

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