Monday, December 06, 2010

POLITICS: Tax Dodger—How Obama's Political Ineptitude is Costing American Families

At some point, you have to take a stand. Draw the proverbial line in the sand. The person you are dictates that you must, unwaveringly, stake out certain territory on which you simply will not compromise. Your belief system demands that you cannot budge on this issue or idea because, if you do, you will not be able to look yourself in the mirror or look at your friends or your children and feel even remotely good about yourself.

Regrettably, I’m coming to the realization—like many Americans—that President Obama isn’t capable of such a principled stand. Nor does he possess the political savvy and skill to be an effective leader. Not a great leader, mind you—just a bare minimum leader who describes a destination and fights unwaveringly to get there.

As the saying goes, this dog don’t hunt. This dog doesn’t want to wade into the cold water and get wet and dirty and go for the kill. And unfortunately for many Americans who voted for Obama, myself included, it appears we have a dog that prefers to stay safe and dry and cozy near the fire of corporate and Republican policy. Oh sure—this dog has a lovely bark, an inspiring bark even, but as too many citizens who responded to that alluring yap are beginning to realize, that’s all it is: a lovely bark. No bite. And apparently not much in the way of a spine, either.

What the vast majority of Americans need right now is a dog that hunts, that fights, that gets its ears chewed and its face scraped and its nose slashed but will not give up on them no matter what. We need a leader—an actual leader that stakes out a claim, draws a line in the sand, and says “Here’s the line that I will not cross—what else do you have for me?” With the economy still sputtering, a job market on life-support, and a housing environment unseen in this country since the depression, we need a leader who will battle and brawl to change the corporatist ideology that has ruled our policies for the past 30 years and has created the economic mess we’re in, that has pushed the devastating canards of international trade, a deregulated financial industry, and the borderline retarded concept that the government should do many things for the people but the people should not have to pay for any of it.

We need a President who uses the bully pulpit his office affords to put political pressure on elected officials who support the very policies that have crippled this country, to rally the American citizenry because it sees their leader scrapping and battling everyday for the policies that benefit the people and not the corporate interests that have so infected our way of life. It doesn’t matter if he wins every battle—so long as the family of four in Topeka witnesses their President doing everything he can to help them, to address their needs and concerns, to change the way our country has been rigged against that family’s best interests, the President will gain the dedication and respect and even activism of millions of similar families across America who are fighting to stay afloat.

But we don’t have that President. We have President Obama. He fought through the primary against Hillary Clinton. He fought against John McCain to win the general election. Obama just won’t fight FOR you or me.

How is it that after the worst financial collapse our country has seen in 70 years, after all we’ve learned about the risky and shady and illegal dealings of the banks and financial industry, after all the cries from politicians and citizens alike to reform the system—and all the temperate speeches Obama gave about how Americans need to be protected from this catastrophe ever happening again—that 2010 finds the very people whose actions created the financial meltdown of 2008 are making MORE money than they ever did before? That’s President Obama’s leadership—tepid new financial regulations that don’t substantively change the way Wall Street and the banking industry works and doesn’t actually prevent too big too fail institutions from failing and being bailed out—again—by you and me.

Obama’s leadership also brought us Health Care reform—where the insurance companies get millions of guaranteed clients and billions in guaranteed income and the American people get a few very modest, albeit important, concessions from the insurance industry. We get to pay MORE money to the very people who have been exacting exorbitant premiums from us for less coverage—by law.

It seems to be Obama’s way: make a heartfelt speech about protecting the average American, and then negotiate away any meaningful change to the system in order to say he’s accomplished something and not upset the corporate interests pulling the strings.

Obama is a corporatist who is great with the lip service to the American people but is too afraid to risk personal defeat or a well-earned nosebleed to actually lay himself and his ideas on the line for the very people who put him into office. It’s fear over hope. Capitulation over change.

So are we surprised that Obama is about to fold like a shirt—again—to the demands of the minority party over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts?

Designed to expire at the end of 2010—designed that way because the Republicans couldn’t pass the tax cuts by a simple Senate vote, so they did it by reconciliation—the Bush tax cuts are partly responsible for the horrible deficit currently saddling our country. In 2008, candidate Obama, like the VAST majority of the American people, felt that the Bush tax cuts that benefitted primarily the top 3% of income earners in this country should be allowed to expire. Even a year ago, President Obama said that the tax cuts that benefitted the wealthiest Americans should be allowed to expire (and no, that group doesn’t include you, and most likely never will be, so don’t get your panties in a bunch). Over a decade, those new tax revenues could bring in 700 billion to a trillion dollars. Quite a dent in the deficit everyone’s so worried about.

But now the political heat is on, and Obama (and his team) are AGAIN revealed as lacking leadership and even the most basic political skills. This is exactly when we need the President to step up and say here’s where I draw a line in the sand: I won’t accept ANY extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 3% millionaires and billionaires. Period. The tax cuts have damaged our economy over the past 9 years, they haven’t created any jobs, and we need to start paying down our deficit with that additional tax revenue. That’s where Obama needed to start the negotiations—behind his line in the sand. From there, the Republicans (and some misguided Democrats) would have to negotiate. If the GOP countered with its usual answer—“No”—then the President would take every opportunity he could in the media to put the pressure on the GOP by pointing out facts like:

• the GOP won’t extend expiring unemployment benefits for working families
(a few billion dollars cost) but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of
the country (hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

• the GOP won’t vote to close tax loopholes that allow companies to move their
jobs over seas and off-shore (more tax revenues to offset the deficit, possibly
more U.S. jobs), but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of the country
(hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

• the GOP won’t vote to pay for the medical expenses incurred by first responders
at Ground Zero on 9/11 (seven billion dollars—for the heroes the GOP praised
years ago), but they insist on preserving tax breaks for 3% of the country
(hundreds of billions added to the deficit)

There are many other examples Obama could use to make the case to the American people that the GOP is not really concerned with the average worker and that most Republicans are beholden to corporate special interests (as are some Democrats). Make it really simple: Republicans are looking out for Wall Street and the Democrats are trying to help Main Street.

With Obama’s speaking abilities, he should be able to clearly explain why it is important for the Bush tax cuts for the American millionaires and billionaires need to expire and return to the still modest Clinton-era tax rates. Just look at the math: in eight years of lower taxes for the top 3%—the “job creators” claim the GOP—only 3 million net jobs were created. That’s barely over 300,000 jobs created per year for eight years. When that same 3% of Americans paid slightly higher taxes in the 1990s, a little over 3 MILLION jobs were created each year. Which tax rate has been best for you?

Obama could easily be winning this fight and forcing the GOP to change its position. Hell, the American people believe what candidate Obama ran on regarding the Bush tax cuts—recent polling shows that a clear majority of Americans want to the tax cuts for the upper 3% of Americans to expire. Not even a majority of Republicans believe the rates should be extended!

So why has Obama essentially given in to the GOP desire to extend the tax cuts? Why hasn’t he been using his bully pulpit to cudgel the GOP at every possible opportunity? Why, when the majority of the American people and his own party want to let these tax rates expire, is Obama unable to stiffen his backbone and draw that proverbial line in the sand?

I think it’s because he can’t. Because he doesn’t have the will or he’s too prideful to fight such a bare-knuckle battle. And this is connected to he and his team’s lack of political skill. When the majority of the people who put you in office back a policy you ran on—like the public option for health care, like reform of the financial system, and exactly like the expiration of the ill-conceived Bush tax cuts—you have to be a near political incompetent to lose the argument and negotiate away your principles. But that seems to be Obama’s unique ability: to lose the battle before he even begins to fight it.

So if Obama agrees to extend the Bush tax cuts temporarily, say for two years as has been reported, what are the political results of such a poor decision? Obama further alienates the people who voted for him, the very people who have been slowly realizing this dog don’t hunt and will have little to no incentive to support him as passionately as they did two years ago. But more importantly—and this is where Obama’s lack of political savvy is most evident—it means that this very same tax rate issue will be front and center in 2012 when he’s trying to get reelected. Handing the GOP—again—an issue that they can browbeat Obama and the Democrats with for an entire election cycle.

Even if nothing is done about the Bush tax rates expiring before the end of the year, Obama has a better chance of standing on principle and winning the tax battle. Remember when Newt Gingrich and the GOP shut down the government in the 1995? Clinton let them do it—he was making a principled stand—and it only took a few weeks before the American realized what the GOP was doing and turned severely on Gingrich and company. And guess what happened to Clinton’s approval ratings? They soared. And Clinton won the fight.

Obama may be an obviously intelligent person, but he’s not the brightest political bulb in the box. What did he say throughout the campaign about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result being the definition of insanity? He should heed his own words. Obama continues to reach out to the GOP expecting a different response and all he ever gets is a repeated haymaker to the chin. We don’t need a Jesus wannabe as President turning his other cheek. We need Jack Johnson to start landing some haymakers of his own against the GOP and for the American worker.

But if Obama lacks the strength of character to fight, to get sullied in the battle of American politics, then we need to start looking for someone who will. Our country simply can’t afford another two years of Republican policies endorsed by an admittedly moderate Democratic President. Obama’s decision on the Bush tax rates will say a lot about who he is willing to fight for. If he agrees to an extension of the tax rates, as the GOP wants him to do, then we know which Street Obama is most committed to. And few of us live in that neighborhood.

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