If the disaster of the so-called “stimulus” bill just passed by the Senate doesn’t convince President Obama and his advisers that the strategy of “bipartisanship” that he has been espousing is a political suicide, nothing will.
The Republican Party, with the willing help of conservative Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Democratic turncoats like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), has forced Obama to agree to a joke of a stimulus package that is nearly half composed of tax breaks which will do nothing to bolster the economy (since most of the money will end up either paying down credit card debt or buying Chinese and Sri Lankan imports) and that is stripped of $40 billion to help struggling state and local governments.
Fresh from its rout in November, the GOP is, in fact, openly trying to sabotage Obama’s economic stimulus plan, because the last thing Republicans want to see is an economy on the upturn in 2010 or 2012.
Meanwhile, Obama, who had the chance to add 2-4 Democratic senators to the Senate by naming Republicans to his cabinet or to other key administration positions, and having Democratic governors replace them with progressive Democrats, has wasted several opportunities. When he did name a Republican senator from a state with a Democratic governor–Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, named to be Commerce Dept. Secretary–he instead cut a pathetic deal to have the state’s Democratic governor name another Republican Senator to replace Judd. Almost as bad, in New York, when he named Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, he allowed New York’s Democratic governor, David Patterson, to name a conservative Democrat to replace her.
What is this guy trying to do? Obama is from Chicago, a town where politics is a blood sport, and where as a young politician, he played that game with brass knuckles himself. Now he’s trying to be everybody’s best friend?
The result is he’s being steamrollered.
So what should he do? Tell conservative Democrats in Congress that if they want any of their pet bills or projects passed in the next four years, they will pass a stimulus bill as he wants it written, with limited tax breaks and with all the money he proposed for states and localities. Republicans, meanwhile, should be told bluntly that if they vote against the measure once it is reconciled in a House-Senate conference, they get shorted on stimulus money in their districts. Let them explain it to their constituents.
That’s how Republicans have played for the past eight years, and how they’ve turned Congressional Democrats into a quivering mass of gelatinous goop.
Obama won a landslide electoral victory and a big popular vote majority. It wasn’t his promise to be bi-partisan that gave him that win. It was his promise to be a real leader.
Leaders have to be respected, and they get respect from the opposition not by being courteous and by bending over, but by carrying a big stick and using it occasionally. Those who fail to use that stick end up getting whacked by one themselves, which is what happened to Obama’s two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The other thing Obama is going to have to recognize, and recognize fast, is that his strength lies his progressive base. He has been dissing that base since the minute he won the election. Progressives have cut him a lot of slack–far more than he deserves–as he appointed (mostly white male) Clinton hack after Clinton hack to his cabinet, held over key (all white male) Bush appointees like Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and Gen. David Petraeus as head of Central Command (CentCom), and backpedaled on key campaign promises like ending the war in Iraq and winning passage of the Employee Free Choice labor rights restoration bill.
With this odious betrayal of his base, he is losing support from the very people who can sustain his presidency through four tough years of struggle. Without them, he is doomed to a one-term failure of a presidency.
Obama now faces three key tests. If he fails on any of them, I would argue that his presidency is finished before it starts.
* The first is the stimulus bill. If it passes largely in the Senate version, it will be a waste of $820 billion, because so much of the money will be blown on tax breaks and so little on real stimulus spending that it won’t do anything to break the fall of the collapsing economy. Obama needs to get Democrats to report out of conference a bill that is close to what the House passed last week, and then he needs to use his “bully pulpit” and his power to punish those who vote against the measure to win passage in both houses. If conservative Democrats are worried about the costs, he should revoke Bush’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the rich immediately (he should do that anyhow and call it a retroactive and long-overdue Bush war tax).
* The second test is ending the Iraq War. The latest reports are that Obama is being sucker-punched by the war’s leading generals, primarily Gen. Petraeus and Iraq theater commander Gen. Ray Odierno, into considering a longer pullout than 16 months, with both a 19-month and a 23-month pullout being proposed for his consideration. Given that there are also credible reports that these generals and lower-ranking supporters are actively lobbying against a pullout–an act of insubordination against a commander in chief that borders on treason during wartime–Obama should fire these guys immediately and order a prompt pullout. Even 16 months is far too long to maintain the occupation. I’d suggest three months to get everyone home.
* Finally, Obama should recognize that the Afghanistan War is an unwinnable disaster that long ago morphed from a police action attempting to capture and destroy Al Qaeda’s organization in that country into a war against the country’s indigenous political/military force, the Taliban, which was never a threat to the US, and which cannot be defeated, no matter how many resources the US throws into the fight. He should call a halt to this fiasco before he owns it, order UN-sponsored regional peace talks among the conflicting parties within and around Afghanistan, and pull all US forces out of that nation as fast as the planes can carry them.
At that point, Obama will have won the passionate support of his base, and the grudging respect of conservatives in Congress. The remaining years of his presidency will inevitably be full of conflict, but he will be fighting his political battles from a position of strength. This will allow him to campaign forcefully for progressive House and Senate candidates in the 2010 off-year congressional elections, when he could win more seats and stronger control in the Senate.
Meanwhile, he should replace Gates at Defense, ideally with some liberal Republican senator from a Democratic state (I’d suggest one of the two women, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who represent the state of Maine–a woman Secretary of Defense would be a great move), so that another Democrat could be appointed to the Senate. He could do the same thing with the Department of Health (another good place for a woman senator from Maine!). That would give the Democrats 61 seats in the Senate, assuming Al Franken finally gets named the winner in Minnesota.
The key thing is, no more nice guy. Obama needs to return to his roots and start acting like the Chicago pol that he began as. It’s what his base wants, it’s what the broad mass of the electorate wanted when they voted for him, and it’s what the country needs.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book is “The Case for Impeachment,” co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.
He can be reached at: dlindorff AT yahoo DOT com