After a couple of days for careful reflection, it's clear: Barack Obama gave an amazing speech. The president of the United States stood in a hall in Jerusalem, and with empathy and with bluntness that has been absent for so long we forgot it could exist, told Israelis: The occupation can't go on. It's destroying your own future. And besides that, Palestinians have "a right to … justice" and "to be a free people in their own land."
Prominent Democrats—including the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—are openly suggesting that Medicare be means-tested and Social Security payments be reduced by applying a lower adjustment for inflation.
This is even before they’ve started budget negotiations with Republicans—who still refuse to raise taxes on the rich, close tax loopholes the rich depend on (such as hedge-fund and private-equity managers’ “carried interest”), increase capital gains taxes on the wealthy, cap their tax deductions, or tax financial transactions.
It’s not the first time Democrats have led with a compromise, but these particular pre-concessions are especially unwise.
It’s near impossible to lower expectations of a visit by the President of the United States, especially to a region as consequential in U.S. policy, and controversial in U.S. politics, as the Middle East. Obama is learning this firsthand as he prepares to land in Israel for the first time in his presidency today.
The trip will include visits to the West Bank and Jordan, but it’s no secret that its primary function is to re-introduce the president to the Israeli people, and attempt to re-boot the relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose resistance to Obama’s peace efforts and differences over the immediacy of the threat posed by Iran led to a frosty relationship during the president’s first term.
“Our biggest problems over the next ten years are not deficits,” the president told House Republicans Wednesday, according to those who attended the meeting. The president needs to deliver the same message to the public, loudly and clearly. The biggest problems we face are unemployment, stagnant wages, slow growth, and widening inequality—not deficits. The major goal must be to get jobs and wages back, not balance the budget. Paul Ryan’s budget plan—essentially, the House Republican plan—is designed to lure the White House and Democrats, and the American public, into a debate over how to balance the federal budget in ten years, not over whether it’s worth doing.
The United States, with more than 40 million foreign-born, a number that includes the estimated 11 million illegal residents, is not just the largest immigration player in the world; it’s larger than the next four largest players combined. Because immigration amounts to social engineering, how well we do it has profound consequences for huge swaths of our society, from education to health care to economic growth to foreign relations. Most important, how a country treats its immigrants is a powerful statement to the world about its values and the principles by which it stands.
Like the roomful of monkeys who eventually write Hamlet if given long enough, or the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, sooner or later an otherwise dubious political figure will find his moral compass pointing true north if he keeps spinning in place. Or maybe it’s Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who stays in one place as the world spins, with north finally swinging into his sights. Whatever the motive, whatever paranoia fuels the worldview that drives him, whatever withering scorn he invited yesterday from fellow Republicans who found themselves in the strange position of defending a Democratic president, Paul’s filibuster of the last 48 hours was an act of patriotism more authentic than we usually see from a right that so ostentatiously professes to love a country it refuses to understand. If nothing else, Paul returned to the tradition of the filibuster some semblance of the heroism that his minority party has left in shambles the last few years with no small assist from Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, the eminent hack who had the opportunity to rescue that tradition a couple of months back and declined. Thus we’re left with Paul as unlikely savior of not merely tradition but the filibuster’s intent, which is to provide a venue for the expression of lonely principles. Sometimes those principles are profound enough that stopping the country in its tracks to ponder them is worth the inconvenience, before such principles are flattened by the steamroller of national consensus.
Like any number of liberals, I have from time to time complained about the difficulty of having substantive arguments about politics when your opponents refuse to acknowledge plain facts about the world. It's hard to have a discussion about what to do about climate change, for instance, if the other person refuses to believe that climate change is occurring. It's hard to discuss how to handle market failures in health insurance when the other person holds that markets are always perfect and government health insurance is always more expensive. As frustrating as those kinds of impasses are, at least you're talking about complex systems that require at least some investment of time to understand.
But there's a rather incredible dance going on right now in the dispute over the budget that takes every stereotype liberals have about know-nothing Republicans and turns it up to 11. To sum it up, Democrats are being forced to negotiate with a group of people who are either so dumb they can't figure out what the White House's negotiating position is (unlikely) or so incredibly irresponsible that they don't care enough to find out, when doing so would literally take them about 30 seconds (probable). It's hard to find words to describe this kind of behavior. The Republican position is that this negotiation is of vital importance to the future of the country, indeed, so important that they may be willing to shut the government down and let the full faith and credit of the United States be destroyed if they don't get what they want; but they also can't be bothered to understand what it is the other side wants. And these people hold our nation's fate in their hands.
If the sequester had come to California 25 years ago, its effect would have been catastrophic. Today, its effects are decidedly less draconian – but since today’s California has a considerably less robust economy than that of the late '80s, the sequester will still cool off the state’s already tepid recovery.
President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Year’s deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases.
President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Years deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases.
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times, and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers.
Along with his many accomplishments as president, Barack Obama has given liberals many reasons to be disappointed. Well it looks like we're going to have to add one to the list:
"I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I'm being reasonable, that most people agree I'm presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mindmeld with these folks and convince them to do what's right. Well, you know, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government."
A betrayal of generations of sci-fi geeks everywhere, who thought Obama was one of them? Or a mere slip of the tongue?
The sequester has failed. I say that because it was intended as a deterrent, not as something that was ever supposed to actually go into effect. So because it has gone into effect, it has failed. What should we do now? The answer is simple—not easy, but simple. We have to end this madness, this string of manufactured crises that hamstring the economy and cause enormous amounts of genuine human suffering. Enough is enough. So Congress has to do three things:
As we approach sequestration today the dominant narrative continues to be that the huge run-up in the deficit since the Great Recession has been our greatest political—perhaps even a moral—failure. But it isn’t a failure. This is exactly how the system was designed to work if the economy ever saw a downturn on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis. The deficit is collapsing through the same planned process. As the economy recovers, it is falling quickly, down to 7 percent in 2012, and an estimated 5.3 percent in 2013.