BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Nicely in time for the end-of-year job ratings, President Obama has crawled from the political graveyard, where only a month ago wreaths were being heaped around his sepulcher. The official press commentariat now gravely applauds his recent victories in the U.S. Congress: repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” inhibitions on gays in the military; Senate ratification of the new START treaty on nuclear weapons with the Russians; passage of a $4.3 billion bill – previously blocked by Republicans – providing health benefits for emergency rescue workers in the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
Something missing from my list? Yes, indeed: first and absolutely foremost, the successful deal with Republicans on taxes, better described as a $4 trillion gift to America’s rich people, by extending the Bush tax cuts.
You give $4 trillion to the rich, and they express their thanks in measured terms. Their hired opinion-formers laud the spirit of admirable compromise enabling responsible members of Congress to come together in bipartisanship to keep the hog wallow open for business.
True, there are the naysayers, the left-leaning tribunes of the people who say, accurately enough, that the great “compromise” was, in the economist Michael Hudson’s words, “all for the rich … not to promote stability and recovery … creat[ing] new public debt to hand out to its bankers [which] future tax payers will spend generations paying off.”
It was a deal of refined cynicism, containing the poison pill of what has been billed as a generous gesture to working people – a $120 billion reduction in Social Security contributions by labor – reducing the rate of contributions to the Social Security pension fund from 6.2% of wages to 4.2%. But in fact this is a tripwire, setting up an onslaught on Social Security a year down the road as underfunded, going swiftly bankrupt and ready to be auctioned off to Wall Street.
The prime constant factor in American politics across the past six decades has been a counterattack by the rich against the social reforms of the 1930s.
Twenty years ago, the supreme prize of the Social Security trust funds – the government pensions that changed the face of America in the mid-1930s – seemed far beyond Wall Street’s grasp. No Republican president could possibly prevail in such an enterprise. It would have to be an inside job by a Democrat. Clinton tried it, but the Lewinsky sex scandal narrowly aborted his bid.
If Obama can be identified with one historic mission on behalf of capital, it is this – and though success is by no means guaranteed, it is closer than it has ever been.
This brings us to the upcoming 112th Congress, reflecting Republican gains in November, which will spend the evening of Feb. 2 listening to Obama’s “bipartisan” agenda laid out in his State of the Union address.
The Politico website – reflecting the climate of informed political opinion in Washington, DC – recently predicted that in this next address, “the teleprompter in chief is expected to announce cuts in Social Security.” As Robert Kuttner of Politico speculates: the rationale will be “to pre-empt an even more draconian set of budget cuts likely to be proposed by the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, as a condition of extending the debt ceiling. This is expected to hit in April.”
But surely for progressives, infuriated by the tax giveaway to the rich, and whose support Obama will be counting on for re-election in 2012, cuts in Social Security will be the last straw? Don’t bet on it. As political beasts of burden, progressives have backs that can sustain a virtually infinite number of straws.
Against the tax betrayal these middle-class progressives will tout the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Identity politics will trump class politics, as has been the case for middle-class progressives for the past quarter-century.
Nor will they make much of another major failure by Obama: failure to get the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors [DREAM] Act through Congress. This would have enabled millions of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they turned 16 to become conditional permanent residents and then citizens if they graduated from high school, completed military service or college and kept their noses clean.
Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate, though it would have passed if Democrats had shown unity. But the White House was markedly disinclined to expend any political capital on this, just as it has failed to live up to any of its commitments to blacks or to labor, whose money and organizers were the determining factor in getting Obama elected in 2008.
Right now, Obama’s job approval rating is running at about 46%, as against the disapprovers, who are around 48%, having dropped back from an early-autumn high of over 50%. He’s now fairly set upon the right-wing course Clinton embarked on after 1994: wars abroad [Yugoslavia for Clinton, Afghanistan for Obama]; a war-on-terror policy worthy of Bush-Cheney, as exemplified in the abandonment of pledges to shut down Guantanamo and the swift drafting of new and repressive espionage laws in the wake of WikiLeaks.
Clinton, the self-proclaimed “Comeback Kid,” took the same turn with his 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Clinton launched his successful onslaught on welfare in his second term, also the attack on Social Security, which Obama now aims to consummate.
As with Clinton, we have a Republican president and disconsolate liberals, and a press saying that Obama is showing admirable maturity in understanding what bipartisanship really means. The landscape doesn’t change much, as evidenced by the fact that Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and George W’s brother, looks as though he’s ready to make a bid for the Republican nomination.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through www.counterpunch.com.