Opinion: Obama Can Call Debt Win a Victory, but It Would've Been a Better Loss

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - 09:50 AM

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House July 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty)

President Obama's 50th birthday is tomorrow and just in time, he got the gift he wanted: A victory in the debt ceiling.

Progressives, myself included, will quickly argue that this deal is not a victory for our country's economy or for the values that the Democratic Party runs on. We are in a revenue crisis, not a budget crisis, but no new revenues ended up part of this deal. Furthermore, while the Left showed itself continually willing to negotiate and the right held its ground, the debate slid away from us toward a compromise well to the right of this country's center.

But the sad reality was that the president wasn't after a victory for progressive values. He was after a victory for himself.

The president's chief priority seems to have become racking up wins for the Administration. These often require moving the goal posts, declaring a touchdown and hustling off the field before anyone can point out there are many yards to go.

After harsh rhetoric against Wall Street "fat cats," he passed a financial reform bill that hasn't changed the dynamics of our financial industry. He points to a more aggressive Afghanistan drawdown that will still leave more troops in the occupation than before the escalation he ordered.

In order to win on unemployment benefits, he extended the Bush tax cuts; in order to avert a government shutdown, he changed his priorities in budget negotiations; and in order to achieve the debt ceiling increase, after repeatedly calling for a mix of cuts and revenue enhancements, he found a healthy compromise in the heart of the Republican caucus.

Yet each of these allows his team to check off one more box in the "win" column.

These victories make me wish that our president wouldn't mind losing now and then. If he can't wrangle the votes to let tax cuts for the wealthiest expire, fine; but it let it be the other guys who defend the fat cats.

If he can't make a deal without cuts to Medicare, then it should be the other guys who claim victory for slashing a hugely popular public program. It's better to lose on the side of certain principles than win somebody else's fight.

Some argue that these are the policies the President always wanted. Others that it's just the imperatives of reelection.

And others still that he really prizes compromise as his chief value (something the public, who blames everyone - including him - for this manufactured crisis, doesn't reward him for). Regardless of the motive, the result is the same: it's becoming increasingly difficult to clearly argue what the President won't negotiate away.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, has embraced its own First Principle - that isn't about market solutions (which cap-and-trade is), fiscal responsibility (taking on debt for expenses Congress already approved) or smaller government (we keep subsidizing big oil and agribusiness).

Their main goal seems to be to prevent the president from achieving a victory. So even when he agrees to the level of cuts they ask, they back away. When he embraces a Republican approach to healthcare or job creation, they change their minds. They don't care about governing as much as they care about seeing the President fail.

And whether they succeeded in this last round is up for debate. The President claims he scored his victory by getting a bill through the House. But Republicans know they've weakened him in the eyes of his own party and the American people - so they can be pleased as well.

We have a president who will keep moving the goalposts; and Republicans who will snatch away the ball each time the White House comes forward to kick. In the end, neither priority is the one Americans voted for.

While this tension will lead to a cycle of clash, crisis and unsatisfying compromise, it won't lead to a healthy choice for the American voter. Because we may pick our sides about which is better at governing, but neither is actually arguing for how America should be governed.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [5]

Dave from Iowa

Sorry, I think we're in a budget crisis. It is split between lower income and higher expenses. The Bush tax cuts, 80% to mid and lower incomes and 20% to higher income, in slow-growth times, have decreased revenue from 18% of GDP to 14% of GDP. The whole thing needs to be rescinded to get back on track.

Medicare/Medicaid and stimulus are the key items out of whack on the expense side. Since Medicare is funded less than 50% by payroll taxes and participant's premiums, medical inflation puts great pressure on income tax to make up the difference. We need to get people a whole lot healthier.

Aug. 03 2011 03:29 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey


Should these words have meaning during a domestic debate?

What I learned from the debt ceiling debacle...That 9/11 is no longer the rallying cry that it used to be. Security, safety and protecting the homeland weren't mentioned once (by either side) during the speeches....It's not what you do but what you appear to do...why else would the GOP be capable of sticking it to the President on overspending when most of the fiscally irresponsible legislation was passed during their watch...Americans are so economically illiterate that they are conned into voting against their interest over and over and over....Not feeling so sanguine about the republic today but no where close to giving up.

Aug. 03 2011 12:54 PM
Iowa George

try August 13th for the date....

Aug. 02 2011 09:20 PM

I knew his administration wouldn't get anything done when Rahm Emmanuel said "We'll compromise on anything except success!" which is really just a sleazy office politics way of saying "We'll cave in on anything as long as we can say it was a win!". First cave in was the weak healthcare bill that did almost nothing but was still a "success" for the president and he can claim he got "historic reform" done despite passing a lame bill that did nothing to solve the healthcare crises in America.

Aug. 02 2011 04:41 PM
Is Obama a closet REPUBLICAN ?

Is Obama a closet REPUBLICAN ?

It is true that most Democrats nowadays are to the right of President Nixon. Many are to the right of Ronald Reagan's policies. But now it seems that President Obama, and the democrats who are supporting this bill are to the right of 1990's Gingrich!

What happened to the Democratic party ?
Who will represent the poor and middle class ?

Perhaps it's just that the Republicans have found the solution to Bill Clinton's triangulation strategy - the answer : each time Pres. Obama tries to run right to triangulate, the Republicans run even more extremely to the right, until the Democrats are chasing them into extremist right wing territory.

But maybe we're just foolish outsiders.

Maybe, despite his flowery words, in his heart Pres. Obama IS A CLOSET REPUBLICAN.

Perhaps this piece of theatre was his way of getting his own party to vote to harm their own base - and to accept extremist Republican arguments without disputing their validity or premises, and without proposing any constructive real Democratic alternatives.

Aug. 02 2011 12:00 PM

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