Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tom Fina's Letter from Washington, December 2014

To Democrats Abroad
31 December 2014
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

The clock has about run out on 2014 and the Obama score for the year is a lot better than any Republican and many Democrats expected.

No issue has been more on the public mind than our economic condition. Now, for the week ending December 28, the Gallup Index of Economic Confidence has hit its highest point since 2008. It measures of public judgment about economic conditions and whether economic conditions are getting better or worse. Public perception is catching up with reality.

That reality is that third quarter GDP grew at an annualized rate of 5%, the highest in 11 years. Unemployment is at its lowest level since Gallup began its tracking in 2008 and the stock market hit its highest levels in history. Wages and hours also rose “a whopping 0.9% in November” according to the NY Times.

These achievements are the fruit of Obama’s reflationary policies in the face of deflationary/austerity measures forced by the Republicans in Congress – read sequestration.

And, at year’s end Gallup found that for the first time since September 2013, Obama’s job approval rating has not been negative. Approval and disapproval are tied at 48%.

The success of Obama’s healthcare reform has also been confirmed by the results of the first month of the 2015 open enrollment (November 15 - February 15). Even before this new sign-up opportunity, total uninsured adults had dropped from 18% in 2010 (before Obamacare) to 13.4%. As of December 30, an additional 2 million new consumers had enrolled in federal and state market places for coverage to begin January 2015. The Kaiser Foundation concludes that the Administration is thus on track to reach its goal of 9.1 million in 2015 – up from 6.7 million in 2014. Millions more are covered with Medicaid and children’s health insurance.

Another success has been the Democratic Senate confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominees because of its change in filibuster rules. There were 88 approved in 2014 compared to 49 in 2012 and 43 in 2013. That makes a total of 303 federal appeals and district judges during his six years in office. When he was elected, 10 of the 13 very important appeals courts had Republican appointed majorities. Now, 9 of the courts have Democratic appointed majorities. Moreover, in its final hours, the Senate confirmed dozens of Obama’s nominees to federal agencies.

There are other achievements that are not to be measured in statistics. Withdrawal of nearly all combat troops from Afghanistan. The executive action to limit deportation of undocumented immigrants, the re-opening of relations with Cuba, the continuing negotiation with Iran looking to eventual normalization of relations, the agreement with China to limit air pollution, new EPA regulations to limit coal burning power plant pollution, (and a raft of other environmental measures too numerous to list here), retaliation on North Korea for its cyber attack on Sony Films together with pressure on Sony not to bow to North Korean censorship and continuing steps to secure expanded trade agreements with Asia and Europe.

The Obama Administration is not responsible for the sharp drop in oil prices, although its encouragement of renewable energy and improved vehicle mileage standards has helped. But that drop greatly enhances the influence of the United States around the world, further stimulates our economy and adds to the powerful pressures on Putin begun with Obama’s sanctions. It may also deflate the Republican/oil industry push back if, as seems likely, Obama vetoes the expected Republican passage of a bill to approve the oil sands XL pipeline.

This closing year also saw the emergence of two powerful social issues: efforts to diminish sexual assault in both the armed forces and on college campuses and efforts to reduce police violence against minorities. These abuses have long been rampant. But, it has only been this year that the public protest against them has generated the political will to confront them.

A succession of widely publicized police killings of African American men in Ferguson, in Cleveland and in New York have triggered nationwide protests that may have reached critical mass. But, the December 20 murder of two police officers in NY by a deranged Afro-American has set off a bitter counter-attack by its police unions. They blame the police deaths on the newly elected liberal mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, for his commitment to end police tactics that have generated long standing minority anger.

The outlook is for a long period of nationwide conflict between political leaders responding to minority anger at police tactics and police unions and their conservative political backers.

Exactly how both of these issues will play out in the Republican controlled 114th Congress is beyond prediction. In general, Republicans are likely to continue to oppose reform of the handling of sexual assault in the armed forces and to back the get tough approach of the police unions.

As for other issues, neither Democratic nor Republican leaders know the effect of the new balance of power. Both the new Senate Majority Leader, McConnell, and the re-elected House Speaker, Boehner, want to demonstrate that a Republican owned Congress can get things done after six years of obstruction.

The adoption of the FY 2015 appropriation may hint at the new reality. A compromise bill was negotiated by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and endorsed by Obama as the best that could be gotten. But, Boehner did not have enough Republican votes to approve it because of conservative anger that it did not punish Obama for his action on immigration. And, Democrats were so furious that the compromise weakened Dodd-Frank that Pelosi and Warren publically broke with the President. In the end, after Obama himself twisted Democratic arms to avoid a government shut-down, enough Democrats voted with Republicans to send the bill to the Senate where it was passed over the objections of Ted Cruz and his Utah ally, Mike Lee. Their opposition did, however, let Senate Democrats confirm all of the President’s judicial and dozens of federal agency nominees.

Will Obama break with Congressional Democrats to get other compromise legislation during the final two years of his term? Republicans will work hard to roll back much of his achievement. There will be a lot of right-wing theater. But, if the Republican Congress, wants to achieve anything, it will need the agreement of the President since Republicans lack a veto proof majority in the Senate.

The most serious threat to Obama’s achievements, however, comes from the Supreme Court. It is the case of King vs Burwell that will be argued on March 4. The plaintiff claims that the federal government may only provide health insurance subsidies to those enrolled in one of the 37 state insurance market places. If that claim is approved by the Court, the Kaiser Family Foundation predicts that by 2016 some 13.5 million Americans insured through the federal market places would lose their insurance subsidies. And, that would be a devastating blow to the goals of health insurance for all Americans.

There are a variety of ways in which healthcare advocates could try to salvage some of the present system. But, none looks very promising. The political backlash from the millions of voters for the first time receiving medical care and suddenly deprived of it, however, would certainly be immense. And, it is worth noting that the largest numbers at risk of losing a precious benefit would be in anti-Obamacare states – Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania. How will that affect voting in the 2016 Presidential election?

A New Year’s prediction: Republicans will claim credit for Obama’s return to prosperity if they don’t kill it with more austerity.

Send comments to demsabrd@gmail.com

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