The big news in that AP interview with President Obama over the weekend comes in this exchange, from the transcript (and let me add parenthetically that transcripts to major interviews like this should be a prerequisite for news organizations, and I’m glad AP supplied one).
Q. But, I mean, I can certainly see Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, saying the same thing—the American people voted, we’re back in power, too. They’re not going to change their position on taxes, on climate change, on immigration. So I mean, if you could—if I could just push a little further on that, how do you see that dynamic changing?
Obama: Well, look, there are some proposals that they put forward that we’re not going to compromise on because I believe it would be bad for the country and bad for middle-class families.
I don’t think it would be a good idea to pursue an approach that voucherizes Medicare and raises taxes on middle-class families to give wealthy individuals a tax break. So if that’s the mandate that Republicans receive, then there’s still going to be some serious arguments here in Washington.
But what I’m offering the American people is a balanced approach that the majority agrees with, including a lot of Republicans. And for me to be able to say to the Republicans, the election is over; you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy—I’m prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress. But we’re going to need compromise on your side as well. And the days of viewing compromise as a dirty word need to be over because the American people are tired of it.
You don’t have to think very hard to connect this to a series of comments and specific actions on the economy, specifically on the budget and on social insurance programs, to know where Obama is headed with this. We know the “range of compromises.” They include increases to the Medicare eligibility age, and changes to the COLA that calculates Social Security benefits (unless Joe Biden was speaking for the Administration when he said there would be no changes to that program).
Obama has ads running touting this “balanced approach.” He speaks about it in press conferences and interviews. He thinks the fact that he doesn’t get enough credit for a willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare in a deal like this represents one of the greatest frustrations of his Presidency.
I don’t know if the President actually believes that Republicans will suddenly come back to the table when the election ends in the spirit of compromise and teamwork, or if it’s just campaign rhetoric. But when you shout from the rooftops about a grand bargain for years – indeed, from the very beginning of your Presidency – I tend to believe your intentions there. In fact, the only hope to stop this kind of program from going through, it seems to me, remains the continued stubbornness of conservatives to resist piddling tax increases in exchange for the constraints on social insurance. And the “great debate” that we’re supposed to be having in this election is really a relatively narrow debate, between radically transforming a set of social programs, and just cutting them. An entire other set of alternatives gets marginalized.
Corey Robin had a great explanation for this on Up with Chris Hayes Sunday. He said that for years, Republicans ran on balancing budgets, and that merely made them the “tax collectors for the welfare state.” Now the parties have flipped. Democrats run on balancing the budget, and in so doing become the austerity promoters for the starve-the-beast state. They run as the “responsible adults” cleaning up the messes of previous years. But this significantly constrains the traditional Democratic platform; in fact, it makes such a platform impossible. And until this reverses, you’re not going to see a lot of advancement of a progressive economic policy.
There actually is such a thing. But this obsession with deficits, and more importantly with acting like the adult in the room, is killing Democratic appeal to voters. The party of “eat your peas” is not an attractive party. It may succeed when the other party is composed of barking maniacs. But it simple won’t succeed on its own terms. What’s more its economics are completely mismatched to the time period, presaging a protracted slowdown.