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Happy 50th Birthday, Mr. President?

Obama has been a big disappointment to me. The only problem is that any likely Republican candidate in the 2012 election will be much worse.

Today, Aug. 4, is Barack Obama's fiftieth birthday. It is probably not a very happy one, because, as Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman said, Obama has just come from a strip poker game in which he started wearing only half his clothes. The congressman was, of course, referring to Obama’s leadership in the debt ceiling settlement where he abandoned his primary position that revenues had to be raised from the wealthy and subsidies ceased to oil and gas companies. Even before that, he was in deep doo doo with the American people, although whether that was due to some fault of his own is open to question.

There can be no doubt Obama is a brilliant, contemplative, articulate man who has an intense concentration on doing his very best for the American people as he sees it. He became president despite, not because of, the color of his skin. He is devoted to social justice. (To be clear, I use “social justice” in the Webster’s Dictionary sense: “An interactive process whereby members of a community are concerned for the equality and rights of all.”)  

Much as the umpire usually tosses out of the game the second guy to throw a punch, so it is that Americans usually blame the sitting president for the troubles created by his predecessor. Accordingly he has been vilified, criticized and, indeed, crucified relentlessly by people ignorant of their own best interests and misled by a group of fiscal radicals--the Tea Party--who have seized control of the Republican Party. In addition, he was subject to only thinly veiled racism from practically the first day of his presidency by all that birther nonsense and questions about whether he was a secret Muslim. Can you think of another president who was asked to present his birth certificate or whose religious preference was questioned?

To stay with my analogy, the first guy to throw the punch that caused the present financial disaster was George W. Bush. At the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, there was no national budget deficit whatsoever and the nation was prosperous. It should be remembered that the Republicans raged at Clinton for increasing taxes on the wealthy in almost the exact terms that they did lately. They claimed, falsely, that such a tax would result in a great depression. That was nonsense then and it is nonsense now. The fact is that as of 2009, 25 percent of U.S. families owned 87 percent percent of the nation’s total wealth, and the top 1 percent owned something more than 50 percent of the total wealth. There are more billionaires in our country today than at any time before.

By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency he had doubled the national debt. There were three principal causes: Bush had led the United States into a horrific and an entirely unnecessary war in Iraq, one that had been conjured up by the Bush administration out of whole cloth. It left the nation devastated both in terms of money and lives lost. (Not incidentally, Bush bungled the Afghan war.) The Bush tax cuts on the wealthy resulted in the loss of more than a trillion dollars in revenue. And finally, during Bush’s presidency, Wall Street oversight by the government all but ceased. The result was unbelievable outright fraud by presumably respected financial institutions. Securities were created based on extremely doubtful home mortgages and were expected to fail by the very Wall Street firms that sold them. The Obama presidential inheritance was a country on the verge of bankruptcy, with a huge housing crisis and rising unemployment. 

It is true that unemployment has increased under Obama, but the avalanche was created by Bush and merely continued downhill despite Bush’s and subsequently Obama’s best efforts to stem it. These efforts, TARP and the bailouts of banks have been misrepresented as wasteful government spending. In fact, they were at the time reasonable efforts to halt the downtown by pumping money into the economy. This is in accord with widely held economic theory. The terrible thing about the recent debt ceiling bill is that it actually withdraws money from the economy, creates more unemployment and makes the cost of government borrowing much more expensive.

Finally, in his first two years Obama was able to push through the congress a universal health care bill. Before the bill, the U.S. was practically the only industrialized country in the world that did not provide such protection for its citizens. The Republicans, of course, demonized the bill as “Obamacare.” No doubt there were flaws in the bill, but many of them including the elimination of the single payer provision in favor of aiding insurance companies, were inserted by Republicans who seemingly now criticize the very provisions they inserted.

My liberal friend, Walt Brasch, who is an excellent columnist, wrote this recently: “Although the mean-spirited and uncompromising vindictiveness of the ultra-right has blocked much progress, it is the President’s own actions in labor, environment, and wildlife that have deteriorated into compromise and retreat. His inability to defend the principles he believes and campaigned for threatens any chance he will be remembered as a great president.”

Although I too am a liberal, and until the resolution of the debt ceiling crisis I thought Walt was wrong. Although I too regret that Obama thus far has been unable to defend all the promises he campaigned for, “the mean-spirited and uncompromising vindictiveness of the ultra-right” has made it necessary for Obama to make compromises. A president is not a dictator. Much of what he can do is determined by what the Congress will support. It does no good for liberals like Walt and me to debate, in effect, how many angels there are on the head of a pin while the country is drowning in a tea party sea of nonsense.

However, I think Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling crisis was simply terrible. Early on he said he would accept no bill that did not raise additional revenues. He even quoted Ronald Reagan who, faced with a debt ceiling vote, said, “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment? And I think I know your answer.” When Obama referred to the Reagan quote--and even now--polls showed that most of the country agrees with him. Somehow, though, he allowed the tea party extremists to bluff him out of that position. In my view he should have stayed with his hand and let the Tea Party and its friends bear the blame for a default if one occurred. I also think that the Fourteenth Amendment, which legitimates the public debt of the United States, gives the president the high card in the debate.

Obama has been a big disappointment to me. The only problem is that any likely Republican candidate in the 2012 election will be much worse. It is like the choice between an efficient and very evil devil and a god who was here but left early. I suspect that the majority of the electorate will choose the god.

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