I don’t have a whole lot to say at this point about the President’s speech on the economy. The campaign saw fit to not send out prepared remarks, and they haven’t gotten around to filing a transcript just yet – though I’m told it’s coming (UPDATE: here’s the full transcript). So I can go off my notes, which don’t really have a lot. We basically know the types of policies that Obama prefers: a grand bargain to lower the deficit with higher taxes for the very top of the income scale, health care spending constrained through what he insists will be delivery system reform, greater educational opportunity with subsidized college tuition, protection of priorities like education investment and basic research, a national infrastructure bank, yet also lower federal spending overall, approaching the level of the Eisenhower era. He also thinks that “we can’t bring down the debt without a strong and growing economy,” puncturing the illusion of an expansionary contraction.
We know, from Obama, what Romney prefers: voucherized Medicare, block grants for Medicaid, slashed federal spending, more defense spending, and tax cuts $5 trillion below simply extending the Bush tax cuts.
And then, Obama says that the public will have to settle this debate from these two competing visions. “In this democracy, you, the people, have the final say,” he said. Only it never works this way. It never really has worked this way. In this democracy, money and power have traditionally had the final say, regardless of what the people wanted. First of all, in the modern era, as long as you have 41 Senators of the opposite party, a trifle like an election will not guarantee the passage of any one party’s agenda. But going deeper than that, what we’ve seen over the last decade is that some agenda items will pass regardless of public opinion, and some will not. And here, that filibuster threat just melts away. If the government wants to indemnify telecommunications companies who cooperated on spying on US citizens, divided government will not be a barrier. If Wall Street wants to return to the days of penny stocks and gut investor protections, divided government will not be a barrier. If corporate welfare is needed, the 60 vote threshold is not. If politicians want to go to war – or maybe it’s the contractors who start it off – that can happen, with or without Congress at all, apparently.
In fiscal terms, this idea that the people have the final say should be the standard, but it really has not been in recent years. Budget reconciliation was used on the Bush tax cuts, but not on any straight fiscal measures in the Obama Administration (only as a means to finish off the health care law). Moreover, there are plenty of issues outside the purview of Congress, like on housing or regulatory policy against the banks, where the Administration has not used its power.
So when the President says that “this election is about our economic future,” when he says that “this election is your chance to break that stalemate” between two fundamentally different ideas, he makes it sound far more simple than reality. And we can see that reflected in the last four years while he was in office.