President Barack Obama won a tactical victory on New Year’s weekend by forcing Republicans to raise taxes on the top 1 percent, but he has far bigger challenges to address—and so do progressives. The economy is still at risk of several more years of hidden depression, with a high level of unemployment and no wage growth. The initial budget deal, thanks to Obama’s post-election toughness on tax increases on the rich and pressure by unions and progressive organizations not to cut Social Security and Medicare, was better than it might have been. But still to come are debates over budget cuts, with Republicans having the leverage of an automatic $120 billion “sequester” for this fiscal year now postponed to early March, if Congress fails to legislate its own additional deficit reduction.
Germany, the powerhouse of Europe, experienced negative growth in the last three months of 2012, down from a positive growth rate of 3 percent in 2011. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who more than any other leader inflicted austerity on the rest of Europe, is finding that what goes around, comes around.
It’s terrific news that the neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and Elliott Abrams, who have been peddling the slander that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite, got no traction with leading pro-Israel senators. The announcement by New York senator Chuck Schumer and California senator Barbara Boxer that they will support Hagel signals that the mainstream Jewish community wasn’t buying it, and even that the Israel lobby is split.
Three very good signs in the past few days suggest that President Obama has been reading Robert Caro’s latest volume on Lyndon Johnson.
The president is handling the debt-ceiling fight very shrewdly, and making the Republicans look both reckless and childish for playing cute with the risk of another financial meltdown. Some of us have been waiting four years for Obama to sound like this:
The more information we learn about the mortgage settlement that was announced Monday—official documents are yet to be made public—the more of a smarmy backroom deal it turns out to be.
The deal lets ten major banks and other “loan servicers” off the hook for a corrupted and illegal process of millions of foreclosures, with a paltry one-time settlement of $8.5 billion. The economic damage inflicted on homeowners, and by extension on the economy, was many times that.
To no one’s great surprise, President Obama has appointed his chief of staff, Jack Lew, to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Mainly, the choice signals that there will be no change either in the Obama-Geithner approach to reforming Wall Street (not very much), or on fiscal politics, where deficit reduction is a paramount goal despite a faltering recovery.
Last February, the big banks agreed to a major “settlement” to protect themselves from litigation by state attorneys general stemming from fraudulent documentation of mortgages. Though some, such as New York’s crusading attorney general Eric Schneiderman, believed that the government had leverage to get a lot more, the settlement required the banks to pony up some $25 billion to settle outstanding charges.
The banks, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to reform fraudulent practices, such as “robo-signing” and proceeding with foreclosures on one track while supposedly helping borrowers to adjust terms on another. The settlement reserved the government’s right to continue criminal prosecutions.
The budget deal that just averted the supposed fiscal cliff was only a warm up. The next fiscal cliff is the $110 billion in automatic budget cuts (sequesters) that last week’s budget deal deferred only until March. But, as long as we are using topographic metaphors, this is less a cliff than a bluff.
On the Sunday talk shows, Republican leaders were full of bravado and swagger. Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona, on CBS “Face the Nation” said it was about time “for another government shutdown.”
The fiscal deal that raised taxes on the top one percent was a victory only for what it did not do. It did not cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or other public spending. Unfortunately, it merely put off the next round of jousting over fiscal issues to a time when Republicans will have more leverage.
Beyond yesterday’s narrow escape from the dreaded fiscal cliff are … more cliffs. President Obama and Congress averted one fiscal calamity of tax-hikes-for-all only to face even steeper cliffs—the sequester, the debt ceiling, the Social Security shortfall, ad infinitum. It is a fiscal Wizard of Oz, an extended odyssey with perils on every side.
The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation.
In the aftermath of the massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook elementary school, right-wing defenders of unregulated guns have gravitated to a common alibi: The problem isn’t guns; it’s mental illness. If only society kept better track of crazy people and kept weapons out of their hands, we could prevent more episodes of armed mayhem.
Yesterday, I posted a piece that questioned the political and policy wisdom of President Obama’s latest offer for a budget deal. My qualms were vindicated when Speaker Boehner, rather than taking the widely leaked “progress” as a new common ground, went back to his starting point and offered his own “Plan B”. This left President Obama in just the position that he vowed that he’d be in again—“negotiating against himself.”
He’s back. Larry Summers is running hard to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve when Bernanke’s term expires in early 2014. This is not a great idea, for three main reasons. The first is Summers’ famous temperament. The problem is not just that he’s less than sensitive to women. It’s that he’s a bully in general, cocksure of himself, using others as foils and prevailing by controlling the agenda.
Once again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor.
Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect as well as a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe. He co-founded the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and serves on its executive committee.