Sunday, March 1, 2009
The Big Picture: Obama's Budget
This has been a euphoric week to be a liberal. The week demonstrated in the most unmistakable fashion to date the stunning reality of our dominant position in the political landscape. Even more thrilling is the mind-blowing realization that our wildest, boldest dreams of transforming the country suddenly seem realistic. It's all going to come down to whether President Obama is successful in passing his budget. Let's lay out the situation, beginning with explaining why we are so thrilled, even deeply moved, by Obama's proposed budget, then moving to analyzing the challenges and obstacles to its success, and finally to suggesting a basic strategy to guide Obama's efforts.
1. Although the "big picture" implications of this budget are thrilling, the most important reason to be ecstatic about is that, for the first time in decades, the federal government may actually have a budget that delivers for the American people. In both its words and its numbers, the budget's priorities are fundamentally wise and just. It makes the most serious investments we've ever seen in health care, education, and green energy - these are our most important needs, and we are actually doing something about them! We are paying for this by ending the two great abuses of the Reagan-Bush conservative era: incredibly costly and unnecessary wars, and showering trillions of dollars on big business and the super-rich. This budget shows why, despite all the cynical trickery and lies, politics is so important to real people: it will pull millions into the middle class and take dramatic steps to mitigate the middle-class squeeze. It will create an America that will be capable of sustainably providing much greater opportunity, security, and equality for a much higher proportion of our citizens. And don't just take our word for it: the liberals like Paul Krugman who had criticized the stimulus bill as too weak are stunned by this budget's bold progressive priorities. The Congressional Black Caucus has for 25 years been so far to the left of the budget-making process that every year it issues an "alternative budget" - one so different from the actual budget that it almost redefines "alternative" as "opposite." But now, the Caucus says it won't need to propose an alternative budget because, as its Chairwoman Barbara Lee, the most left-wing member (possibly ever) in the U.S. Congress, says, "The President's priorities are our priorities." Wow.
The "big picture" of the budget is equally electrifying. Its priorities demonstrates once and for all the true nature of Barack Obama. It shows that all of his graciousness, his willingness to compromise (or at least mute his differences) on second-tier issues was not evidence that he's a cautious centrist, but rather that he is an unrivaled master at picking his battles. On the most important issue - how the government will collect resources and then allocate them - he is putting it all on the line with a budget that reflects the priorities of Barbara Lee. It shows that he still carries the same driving values he had as a community organizer. 20 years ago he found that as an organizer he couldn't create a society that prioritized ordinary people and the disenfranchised in that role, so he pursued a different path; far from selling out, he has achieved the power to enact that dramatic change. In in his memoir he writes that he felt compelled to leave the corporate law track and become a community organizer because of his passionate outrage at the devastating inequalities between the classes and the races. He also writes that he was about to quit organizing in his first few months, deeply discouraged by the apathy in the community, when he looked outside from a nearly empty meeting at Altgeld housing project and saw these young boys just throwing rocks at a wall. Imagining the bleak future they would face due to the accident of their birth , he had an epiphany: "How can I give up on them?" and he rededicated himself to enacting the kind of change that seemed impossible then, in the depths of the Reagan Era. He spent 20 years climbing to the highest office in the land, and this budget makes it clear that he was not doing it all not only out of personal ambition, but out of a sincere commitment to deliver for the boys in Altgeld.
And if Obama can steer the budget to passage, it will signify one of the most decisive political and ideological shifts in American history. For 30-40 years, the reigning consensus among the American people has been, at its core, in line with Ronald Reagan's opposition to government activism. Government is to be distrusted, mocked, and feared; it is an instrument for liberals to a) take money from hard-working people and give it to people who want something for nothing, and b) impose their coastal secular elite views on regular folks. Government is dumb, it causes more problems than it solves, spending is wasteful and counterproductive, and we're better off if we let the much more effective free market set priorities and allocate resources. I'm not going to count my chickens before they hatch, but it is very meaningful that Obama - who has demonstrated an exceptional ability to know what will prove politically popular and to be extremely conscientious about keeping his brand inside that mainstream - is staking his Presidency on a budget that repudiates those assumptions. In other words a victory on this budget won't just make America significantly better in the short term, it will mark a sharp and decisive turn toward a truly new era in American history. We will be living in a country that is noticeably different, and noticeably better.
2. However, passing this budget will be no easy task. It will be much harder than the stimulus bill for three reasons: a) despite the fringe attacks from Bizarro world, most people saw the stimulus as a desperately needed measure to stave off an economic catastrophe. This budget, in contrast, is a long-term plan to address the underlying causes of our economic problem. It's the difference between performing emergency heart-bypass surgery and convincing the patient that he needs to permanently eat healthier and exercise more. b) On its face, the budget is significantly more ideologically-driven than the stimulus, for the reasons shown above. We can expect it to elicit a far more serious, sustained assault from not only the far right, but also the "reasonable centrists," elite opinion-makers, and, to be fair, doubts from non-ideological people in the broad center who are wary of big government and cautious about big ideological shifts in general. c) The stimulus was at its core an easy bill to pass because, in a material sense, nobody lost. Nobody - more precisely no business interest - had to pay higher taxes or submit to more regulation or, more broadly, lose any power. As Obama has already stated, this budget will cause people and industries to lose money and power - he singled out big polluters, health insurers, and banks giving student loans, and there are many, many more who stand to lose. And because this is such a dramatic shift from the status quo, everyone has to deal with the fear of uncertainty, which will make businesses, lobbyists, politicians, and plenty of ordinary people very anxious about losing their status. This blog will be following all these battles closely in the months to come. Expect to see absolutely relentless resistance, using every method available - from driving a message through advertising and the media to all the insider, under the radar tricks like threatening to withhold campaign contributions and inserting last-minute, behind-closed-doors gutting of the budget's goals. This will be much, much harder than anything Obama has done so far as President; and in his political life at least, the only equivalent challenge was his underdog victory over Hillary Clinton.
3. We will have plenty more to say on Obama's strategy, but for now we'll lay out some basic guidelines, which fit roughly into the purview of his three top lieutenants: the message man David Axelrod, the "chief mechanic" Rahm Emanuel, and the national voter organizer, David Plouffe.
Axelrod needs to ensure that Obama and his team press all the advantages provided by the Three Big Truths and positive polarization. In other words, let Obama drive the message and enjoy all the benefits provided by his broad and deep popularity with the American people, and with his unique gifts as a communicator. Make sure that the budget becomes crystal clear in the public mind as the only solution to solve the urgently pressing economic needs of real people. And, paint any opposition to the stimulus as the predictable reaction of the corrupt old guard and of the ideologically extreme. Rahm Emanuel's unprompted pronouncement that Rush "I hope Obama fails" Limbaugh is the driving force of the opposition is a good sign. Frustrating all his vanquished foes to no end, Barack Obama has proven unbelievably skilled at defining his opponents in the most politically advantageous ways possible. In the past few weeks - most particularly in his weekly address where he declared that he was prepared to fight big corporations to pass his budget - Obama has demonstrated that he will do this more frequently and aggressively. He has no choice.
Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, will need to live up to his reputation as the master at getting his way in Congress. There will be huge egos, ideological demands, tons of money, and all manner of parliamentary tricks standing as an endless series of obstacles to getting this done. The Strike will earn his paycheck keeping an eye on all the back-room tricks and clever manuevers standing in Rahmbo's way.
And finally, Obama needs to implore David Plouffe to become more involved in running a national grassroots campaign that needs to equal, if not surpass, the historic campaign he just managed. Obama won the nomination and then the Presidency because he played outside the normal rules of politics, outside the old methods of Al Gore and John Kerry that Hillary continued to employ. Obama's budget will confront institutional obstacles that will eviscerate his plans, and his Presidency, through the time-honored tactics of obstruction that keep the status quo in place. Only a grassroots campaign of unprecedented breadth and power can put the necessary pressure on Congressmen to overcome all the countervailing pressures. This is the basic rule of thumb: if the budget debate feels like the same old Washington game, Obama will lose. He will only win if it feels completely different, if the nation is gripped with the same urgency and excitement we saw in the final weeks of Obama's Presidential campaign.
The challenges will be enormous, but for once the stars are aligned to give Obama a real chance to fundamentally shift the course of this country so that it will work for ordinary people. We all need to do our part to help him.