Wednesday, August 10, 2011

For the President it Was Not a Happy Birthday



Although turning 50 is not ordinarily a cheerful event as that landmark makes one AARP-eligible among other reminders that the sunset years are closing in, it is no cause for despair either. Except when President Barack Obama turned 50 on August 4, his melancholy was not tied to the aging process; his presidency has given him the grey hairs we did not see as a robust, youthful candidate merely three years ago.

The actual day was not marked by cake and candles as much as the 500-plus plunge in the Dow. The debacle in the stock market all but wiped out the gains of 2011 at a time when the investing class looked towards their IRAs and 401k’s as a safety net during this stubbornly faltering economy.

The downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by S&P seemed to have piled on with the help of another stock market free-fall the next week. Then there was the tragedy in Afghanistan where thirty U.S. servicemen lost their lives.

These news items plus the fallout from debt ceiling debate put a damper on the mood of Mr. Obama’s supporters. Birthday or not, the country was not celebrating.

The President didn’t help himself politically during the depressing debate and negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling legislation. He abandoned the necessary component that any compromise be “balanced,” and that would include closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans as a revenue enhancer. The Tea Party members of the House were so intransigent on this element of a potential compromise—forcing Speaker John Boehner to follow that hard line lest he perceived as a weak leader—that Mr. Obama simply caved to avoid a devastating default on the government’s obligations.

Worse, he eliminated the 14th Amendment from his arsenal during his negotiations whereby he could have invoked the provision that applies to protecting our credit to avoid default. What President Obama should have done was insist on “the grand bargain” with its sweeping cuts that included entitlement programs and tax increases under the threat of using the 14th Amendment. But he didn’t and went along with a bill that satisfied Speaker Boehner by the tune of 98 percent.

The President went out on a limb to offer entitlement reform—anathema to the liberal wing—in exchange for tax reform. Neither was ultimately part of the final package as the Tea Party-led Republicans would clearly prefer to see us default and set off a chain of economic calamities than to mollify their own misguided economic dogma.

Moreover, the President blew a golden opportunity to go over the heads of Congress and take his message directly to the American people in a nationally televised prime time speech. He addressed the nation alright, but it was simply an explanation of the progression of the negotiations, not a rallying cry to the American people. Yes, he asked viewers to call Congress, which they did, but his speech fell flat and uninspiring—the complete opposite of Ronald Reagan’s addresses to the nation when things got dicey for him.

This lack of leadership and strength on the part of the President demoralized his supporters. In underestimating the influence of this noisy minority called the Tea Party Republicans and relinquishing key bargaining chips, he failed to adhere to the cardinal rule in politics: secure the base before running to the center.

It’s hard enough to win re-election in an environment that is projected to be unfavorable given the economy and joblessness. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush can attest to that. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Mr. Obama to make the sale with his base to maintain the level of enthusiasm needed to win a national contest. This translates into contributions and volunteerism, which could make the difference in swing states.

And for us LGBT folks, keep in mind that President Obama has done more for our community than any other previous president. A record number of openly LGBT appointees, public recognition of gay pride month, a comprehensive hate crime law, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and the refusal to further defend DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—as it winds its way to the Supreme Court have been notable achievements.

With an inclusive Employment Discrimination Act and a Congressional repeal of DOMA (unlikely but who thought DADT would be repealed?) that could be on the horizon, it is in the interest of our community that Barack Obama be re-elected over one of the potential opponents who are basically homophobic. Should he lose, none of these items on the menu will see the light of day.

That brings me to the reason to be hopeful: the opposition. The folderol from the debt agreement seemed to have cast the largest shadow over Congress as the approval level for that branch of government as a result of a recent New York Times poll is the lowest in history. Although the President didn’t emerge as a victor—far from it—he did not incur the wrath of the public as Congress in general and the Republicans and the Tea Party did in particular.

Further, this episode, which will undoubtedly be repeated when the super committee of 12 from Congress is called on to make the tough choices in the Fall or see calamitous across-the-board cuts in spending, will probably result in the return of the centrist moderates to the President’s side, which is crucial towards his re-election bid.

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