Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Big Picture: Evaluating the Week

Before we get into evaluating the progress of the Obama agenda this week, I need to lay into our blog's favorite politician, Mark Sanford, one more time. His actions are morally reprehensible, render him unfit to hold public office, and his lies, excuses, and euphemisms have provided us with some deep belly laughs. But what's being forgotten is that, in just the past 6 months, this guy, the governor of a state with the third-highest unemployment rate, where millions of people are suffering in the recession caused by his radical conservative ideology, has fought to deny ANY unemployment benefits to the unlucky millions who lost their jobs thanks to him and his ideology, and he has tried to not accept stimulus money that would have saved the jobs of half a million teachers, intentionally denying the children of his state a chance in life throwing people out of work in the midst of a deep recession, destroying families, even though it wouldn't cost the state a dime, all to further his ambition to be the Republican candidate for President. And, his constant explanation was his overriding moral concern about proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars, always holding himself up as the exemplar of fiscal rectitude and Christian piety. BUT HE JUST SPENT THOUSANDS OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS TO FLY TO AND FROM ARGENTINA TO HAVE THIS AFFAIR! Apparently the state doesn't have enough money to pay its teachers, but it's got plenty to finance Mr. Sanford's sexual escapades! And he is anything but an isolated case: the 2009 Republican Party stands for throwing 95% of the population into misery to finance the debauchery of the elite.

Now that that's off my chest, on to evaluating the week. The Obama agenda had a significantly better week this week than the one before. The biggest accomplishment was the tooth-and-nail passage of the most significant legislation addressing climate change and promoting our transition to green energy in American history. Obama also took to the airwaves to press the case for health care, and as the Strike said, the most consistent fact about Obama's campaigns and administration is that he's always better off when he personally makes his case on television to the American people. Whatever issues I had with some of the content of Obama's statements, his town hall meeting was a success simply because he was on screen for over an hour, benefiting from the broad and deep reservoir of trust in him, creating the impression that he knows what he's talking about, that he's got the right values and priorities, and that he's motivated by what will work, not ideology or special interests. When he makes more of a transition into pressing specific policy outcomes, people will give him the benefit of the doubt, which they would not give to an unpopular President, or to Congress. This should be his decisive advantage in the upcoming struggles with the entrenched interests, and he did a very solid job this week building that advantage. The continued "struggles", to put it kindly, of the Republican Party are an added bonus, discrediting the opposition. Still, I would like to see some third-party liberal groups engage in some borderline unfair attacks by tying these ludicrous and immoral figures to the Republican Party, conservatism, and big business in general. The average voter may find the ads a little over-the-top, but the goal is that whenever he thinks about conservatism or the opposition to Obama's agenda, he can't help but think of Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Rush Limbaugh, etc. etc. As in "Do you trust the party whose top candidates use taxpayer dollars to commit adultery to lecture us that it's the Democrats' plans that are irresponsible?" 

Still, this week was decent but not worth celebrating. The climate change bill, as groundbreaking as it is, is still woefully inadequate, it bent over backwards to accomodate the very entrenched interests that cause the problems, seriously undermining the key element that would make it both politically popular and environmentally effective: actually selling the carbon permits and using the money to reimburse people for higher energy bills. Instead 85% of the permits were just given out to fossil fuels corporations, undermining the whole point of encouraging more environmentally sound policies through the market mechanism, and also taking away most of the money to give tax cuts, which now opens the door to Republican criticism that this is a tax increase. And, even the 15% of permits to be sold is apparently highly unlikely to make it in any Senate bill that passes. AND, it's less than a 50-50 shot that ANY bill will pass the Senate. Unlike health care, the population is actually in tune with this extremely watered-down effort, because combating climate change is very low on people's priority list compared to affordable energy now. There is a great deal of work to be done to create the political consensus that this HAS  to be done. It will be one of the most important challenges of Obama's presidency, and to date he has not done nearly enough to educate or persuade the American people. 

And on health care, while Obama laid some good groundwork this week, the same dilemmas of cost, coverage, and public option are bedeviling Senate Democrats. Obama has to do  A LOT  more work to convince not Republicans, not independents, but Democrats of this essential fact, which has been said as best as it can by Ezra Klein. 

As we speak, the Senate is toiling to cut the health care reform bill from $1.6 trillion to $1 trillion over 10 years. Health economist Uwe Reinhardtputs those numbers into context:

A price tag of $1.6 trillion seems immense if one contemplates the figure in the abstract. It is, however, only about 4 percent of the total cumulative health spending of $40 trillion, the amount government actuaries now project for the decade from 2010 to 2020. That is also less than the 6 to 7 percent that total national health spending has increased each year in the past decade.

And $1.6 trillion is only about 1 percent of the amount of G.D.P. that America can reasonably be expected to produce in the next decade (about $150 trillion to $170 trillion).

That 1 percent would not be lost to G.D.P., of course, because health spending is part of G.D.P. Rather, it would be a diversion of G.D.P. — away from other uses, and toward providing the otherwise uninsured with the peace of mind that comes with health insurance and access to timely health care. It would represent merely a change in the composition of G.D.P.

That last is an important point. The president has declared that health reform will be paid-for. The relevant committee chairmen have agreed. This isn't a question between borrowing $1 trillion or $1.6 trillion. It's a question of spending priorities. The president, for instance, has proposed limiting the itemized deduction rate to 28 percent for taxpayers making more than $250,000 (the rate for most of us is between 10 and 15 percent). This would raise more than $300 billion over 10 years.

But the Senate has been unimpressed by the proposal. A world, however, in which we cut coverage to bring costs under $1 trillion but leave the itemized deduction, is a world in which we have explicitly decided that we would prefer to spend that $300 billion helping wealthy Americans lower their tax bills rather than helping low-income Americans afford health insurance.

Think about that for a second. These are Democrats who are making that choice. Obama didn't do much to change that huge problem this week. Overall, this was a solid, steady week for the Obama agenda, with steps in the right direction, and a stop to the backwards drift of the week before. But it was not everything we need. A B.

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