Republicans emerged from the debt deal as the apparent victors, achieving bipartisan agreement on massive cuts with zero tax increases. The dominant narrative of liberal commentators echoed Republican chest-pounding, painting Obama and Congressional Democrats as weak negotiators who caved to the Republican right wing. Commentator Paul Krugman’s July 31 column was titled “The President Surrenders.” Matthew Rothschild titled his article “Obama Just Got Run Over,” and Robert Reich lamented, “Ransom Paid.”
However, the narrative of Democratic Party “weakness” is dangerously one-sided because it implies that Obama, left to his own devices, would perhaps chart a course away from austerity.
In fact, Obama came into the White House wanting to enact fiscal austerity, as he himself explained in a 2008 speech: "Our economy is trapped in a vicious cycle: the turmoil on Wall Street means a new round of belt-tightening for families and businesses on Main Street ... we'll have to scour our federal budget, line-by-line, and make meaningful cuts and sacrifices as well." (CounterPunch.org, 8/1/11)
As far back as 2009, David Brooks reported in his column about a conversation he had with senior White House advisers in which they related that Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.” (“When Obamatons Respond,” NY Times, 3/5/09)
Of course, it is true that Obama wanted a mix of massive cuts alongside closing some tax loopholes and reversing some of the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy. While the Tea Party effectively held the whole process hostage with the threat of letting a default happen, preventing any new taxes, Paul Krugman and others repeatedly pointed out: “The Obama Administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options... At the very least, Mr. Obama could have used the possibility of a legal end run to strengthen his bargaining position. Instead, however, he ruled all such options out from the beginning.” (NY Times, 7/31/11)
The creation of the Super Committee is, at base, an attempt by Obama and leaders of both parties to shelter themselves from the mass anger stirred up by the cuts. Bush attempted to gut Social Security in 2005, but popular opposition sank his efforts. Last year, Obama appointed the Deficit Reduction Commission, which recommended deep cuts to “entitlement programs.” While the political climate wasn’t ripe for passing these cuts at the time, the Tea Party brinksmanship over the debt ceiling provided political cover for Obama and Republican leaders to launch their bipartisan attack.
The course of this debt ceiling debate has revealed the corporate character of the Democratic Party and especially the Obama Administration. It was the Obama Administration that offered cuts in Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. His administration originally offered a much larger deficit reduction deal of $4 trillion that included guaranteed cuts in the New Deal programs. Should we have expected anything else from a president elected with more Wall Street campaign cash than any politician in history?
Nor should we forget all the cuts that Democrats have supported at the state level, including cuts in social services, laying off teachers, forcing public sector workers to pay far more into pension and health plans, etc. As with Obama in the debt limit debate, the state-level Democrats have used the incredibly provocative attacks by right-wing governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin as political cover for their own attacks.
In his speech of July 31 announcing the debt deal, Obama said: “Now, is this the deal I would have preferred? No. I believe that we could have made the tough choices required - on entitlement reform and tax reform - right now, rather than through a special congressional committee process.” So is Obama weak or complicit? In reality, he’s both.