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United States

The Bad Deal

The debt agreement should finally make clear to Europeans that Barack Obama is not the progressive President they had hoped for. Instead, writes James K. Galbraith, he is a willful player in the Washington politics game.

James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government-Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin. His next book, Inequality and Instability, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Political news travels slowly, and in my casual observation progressive Europeans have held on to the myth of Barack Obama as a good man much longer than most progressive Americans did. How could a young black American from Chicago and Harvard be otherwise?

Over here reality has been evident for a while, thanks to the President's pattern of giving way to banks, lobbies, Republicans and right-wing extremists. Whether your prime interest is housing, health care, peace, justice, jobs or climate change, if you are an activist in America you have known for a long time that this President is not your friend.

Still, even on these shores disillusion often took a mildly forgiving form. The President was a “disappointment.” He was weak. He had “bad negotiating skills.” He had a tendency to “deal with hostage-takers,” to “surrender.” All of this fed the image of a man with a noble spirit, a good heart, the best intentions, but trapped by limited ability and the relentless and reckless determination of his foes.

Obama is no progressive

The debt deal will make things clear. The President is not a progressive – he is not what Americans still call a “liberal.” He is a willful player in an epic drama of faux-politics, an operative for the money power, whose job is to neutralize the left with fear and distraction and then to pivot rightward and deliver a conservative result.

What Barack Obama got from the debt deal was exactly what his sponsors have wanted: a long-term lock-in of domestic spending cuts, and a path toward severe cuts in the core New Deal and Great Society insurance programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And, of course, no tax increases at all.

To see the arc of political strategy, recall that from the beginning Obama handed economic policy to retainers recruited from the stables of Robert Rubin. From the beginning, he touted “fiscal responsibility” and played up the (economically non-existent) “problem” of the budget deficit. From the beginning his team sabotaged economic recovery with optimistic forecasts and inadequate programs – in the clear interest of protecting the banking system from reform.

As the presidency moved along, false claims of economic recovery supported a transition toward obsessive focus on debt and deficits, validated by a federal commission and constantly reinforced by a Washington propaganda chorus funded by Peter G. Peterson, for many decades a billionaire campaigner against Social Security and Medicare.

Debt ceiling a pseudo-crisis

But it wasn't enough. Even with the Republican victory in the 2010 mid-terms there wasn't the political will-power simply to pass the cuts and make them stick. For it wasn't sufficient just to pass them: politicians need cover when they do ugly things.

They need an excuse, something that will offer protection from the anger of the victims, or more precisely from other politicians who might exploit that anger. In the well-practiced manner of organized crime, blood needs to be on everyone's hands. That way, no one can defect; no one can turn states' evidence and safely get away with blaming the others.

The debt-ceiling pseudo-crisis created the necessary panic.
The debt ceiling is a unique American law – no other country has one – a little travesty of democratic bad faith. It was first enacted in 1917, to allow congressmen to hoodwink the rubes back home even as they voted for a large issue of Liberty Bonds to finance the Great War.

It has been a vehicle for posturing ever since – but that it would be raised has never been in doubt. (Even this time the markets never showed the slightest worry.) It became a vehicle for blackmail because it was convenient. It was convenient, because Obama failed to insist it be his price for agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts last December. Whether that omission was accidental or calculated at the time is, for the moment, unknown.

Obama's neglected options

Even as “crisis” loomed, the President had powerful options. The Constitution of the United States flatly forbids default on debt or any other public obligation. The President could have simply asserted his duty and refused to negotiate.

Even more cleverly, he could – under a quirk of existing law – have turned drama to farce by minting a large platinum coin – say for a trillion dollars – and using that to buy back public debt held by the Federal Reserve, so that the debt ceiling would never have been breached. (There would have been an uproar but no other economic effect.)

These options were rejected or not considered at all. From which, one has to conclude that the President really did want a big budget-cutting deal. He just wanted – like any politician – the appearance of being bullied into it.

So now the die is cast. Practically nothing to address any real economic problem can now get done. Actual austerity will come slowly – the cuts are not abrupt and some may yet be blocked – but unless there is a radical change of events or mood it will come. Meanwhile as the economy stalls and despair deepens, the deficits and debt will continue to climb.

Short presidencies

The deficit lobbies are shifting: their next step will be to raise doubts about the plan's credibility and about Congress's will to enforce it. They will then make the self-protective assertion that still stronger steps are needed. European observers of Greek/Irish/ Portuguese/ British/Spanish and Italian politics – not to mention Latvia or Hungary – will find all of this familiar.

For European observers, one key to understanding how such things can happen in America is to remember that our presidencies are short. The professors who joined Obama for his opening act have already gone home. The advisers who remain face dreary futures in think-tanks funded by the likes of Michael Milken, our premier financial ex-felon.

Maybe, if they are especially loyal to their true masters, then like the former budget director Peter Orszag they can go to work for a bank. This surely accounts in part for their present actions.

And the President too is a young man. Unlike say Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter, when his term ends he won't be able simply to go home. He'll need a big house in a gated suburb, with high walls and rich friends. And a good income, too, from book deals and lecture fees. He may be thinking about that now.

The good news is: it won't save him. For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.

Editor: Michael Knigge

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