Note to Obama: Ditch Simpson-Bowles for FDR

In the aftermath of the spectacular shellacking that Mitt Romney gave the President in the first debate, there was much handwringing in liberal circles.  Critics on the left side of the spectrum couldn’t believe how Mr. Obama let Romney prevaricate so boldly and wildly as he hammered away at the President’s record while simultaneously and stunningly repackaging himself as a centrist unrecognizable to those of us who were paying attention to Mitt’s rightward tilt during the primary season and the obvious implications of his plutocratic agenda.

But hey, it worked!  Now the Rombot is neck and neck with the face of hope in the polls and progressives have been forced to ponder the real possibility of a Romney/Ryan victory, a horror that had seemed to be getting less and less likely until Obama showed up and played the listless corporate Democratic technocrat with low T to Romney’s perky plutocrat on a crazy Viagra binge.  The result: perky plutocracy won and now it’s nervous time even after Joe Biden’s frantic full court press attack on Paul Ryan in the Vice Presidential debate.

While there is certainly much to be worried about, it has less to do with style and more to do with Obama’s core vision.  On this note, the most important and insightful analysis came before the first debate not after it.  Paul Krugman in “The Real Referendum” presciently noted that the President and other prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton have become smitten with referencing their fondness for the timeless wisdom of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Obama has taken to doing so because his team thinks that by proving they are willing to make a “grand bargain” on the budget, they will lure more independents with their reasonable approach and show the Republicans in Congress to be the bunch of lunatic obstructionists that they are.  The problem with this, as Krugman points out, is that it’s bad politics and horrible policy.

If the election is turned into a referendum on the legacy of the New Deal and who will better protect Social Security and Medicare, the Democrats win hands down.  But, if Obama listens to too many “beltway insiders,” he can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by returning to his failed political strategy of 2011 and promising to renew this quest for a “grand bargain” and “officially endorsing Simpson Bowles, the budget proposal issued by the co-chairman of his deficit commission.”

Krugman gives three reasons why this is not wise: 1) jobs, not the debt, are our most pressing problem; 2) we don’t have an “entitlements problem” but rather a “health cost problem” and to cede that point to the right is a losing rather than a winning strategy; and 3) “despite the bizarre reverence it inspires in Beltway insiders — the same people, by the way, who assured us that Paul Ryan was a brave truth-teller — the fact is that Simpson-Bowles is a really bad plan, one that would undermine some key pieces of our safety net. And if a re-elected president were to endorse it, he would be betraying the trust of the voters who returned him to office.”

And if you don’t think Krugman is right, you need only to look to Europe where the embrace of austerity measures has actually harmed the economy and done much to foster social unrest.

Krugman’s spot-on analysis was echoed in a Huffington Post piece by Richard Eskow, “The Real Incumbent in Tonight’s Debate is ‘the Plutocracy,’” that also ran before the debate.  In it Eskow noted that Obama was winning in the pre-debate polls largely because voters trusted him more than Romney to protect Medicare: “Today voters trust Obama more than Romney on Medicare, by decisive margins. They’re not connecting his ‘Simpson Bowles’ rhetoric with the plan of the same name, which is designed to trigger sharp Medicare cuts in future years.”

But perhaps, during a debate where he once again mentioned Simpson-Bowles as a model while decrying the obstructionists in Congress who just wouldn’t let him give them what they wanted, Obama managed to blow it.  What he gave us was an uninspiring technocratic version of austerity lite, and he seemed totally unmanned by the shameless lying and mythmaking of the perky plutocrat who’ll say just about anything to win.

It was a depressing moment that revealed why our politics are presently so demoralizing to so many people.  At base, we have a choice between a neoliberal Democratic economic agenda of austerity lite or a reinvigorated naked social Darwinism on the right.  Of course, if Obama manages to actually blow it, so many other things will be sacrificed that progressives care about from the environment to women’s, immigrants’, and labor rights just to name a few.  And that’s a good enough reason to hope that the President can rally and win the next two debates.

To avoid losing, Obama needs to ditch the Simpson-Bowles narrative and defend the core legacy of his party with some enthusiasm (or at least try to fake it).  He should stand up for not just Medicare, but Social Security, public education, and the positive role that government can play in peoples’ lives.  If not, as Eskow points out, “there are worrisome signs for Democrats. The bipartisan plutocratic agenda is translating into reduced voter enthusiasm that could seriously wound their prospects.”  And, trust me, folks don’t get “fired up and ready to go” for the politics of scarcity.

As I have noted before, despite whatever problems progressives might have with the President, Obama losing means rolling back the twentieth century.  So, please, Mr. President, for the country’s sake, ditch the Simpson-Bowles baloney for your best imitation of FDR in tomorrow’s debate.


Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


  1. avatarbob dorn says

    I agree that if Obama had embraced New Deal ideals and culture the Republicans would have been buried under the weight of their own ghoulish behaviour. The problem now is how to point out the additional damage the GOP is about to do, and that’s tough to do after decades of their selling Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, Agnew and Buchanan, Reagan and Dubya to us. They long ago took over AM radio and basic cable networks so they could peddle this guns, glory and godliness shit and overwhelm common sense. Enough of us have come to think of this charade, first, as politics and, later, as reality, that it isn’t even enough anymore to wear a flag in the lapel to get elected to Congress, you have to Bomb Iran and kill women and children in Afghanistan, or at least advocate it. If Obama had come out firing guns the Tea Partyers would have renewed the racist slurs and the networks would have reported them.
    The point is, no one economic or social program like Simpson Bowles gets to the heart of the problem. The problem is media. The problem is money. The Republicans own both and have fashioned a faux version of the world out that has become a necessity for an anxious, sometimes terrified, nation.

  2. avatar says

    The fact is that Krugman is right: jobs are the most important thing. However, the private economy, the so-called job creators will not be creating the jobs any time soon since they will robotize all jobs that are robotizable and they will outsource all jobs which are outsourcable. The cruel joke is that both parties say the private sector is responsible for creating jobs when the private sector is doing everything it can to minimize the number of jobs. But we have to pretend that it is the private sector’s job to create jobs.

    That leaves government to be job creator of last resort much as FDR did during the Great One. However, neither Obama nor Romney nor any Democrat will advocate that government should make up the difference to get unemployment down to an “acceptable” level. Therefore, we will go along with semi-austerity indefinitely till the whole system collapses. Nearly all the jobs added in recent months have been temporary or part time jobs paying about half of what the jobs that have been lost paid.

    While advocating that government should create jobs is practically considered heresy or treason, the Federal Reserve can create trillions of dollars and add it to the money supply by giving it to the big banks. But they cannot give one dollar of it to create jobs directly or even give it to average citizens for mortgage foreclosure relief. If the Fed gave a trillion dollars for direct job creation such as spending it on infrastructure maintenance and development, the jobs crisis would be over. But they can’t do it. The only way this could be done is if the Fed were under direct government control instead of being privately owned by the big banks themselves. Then the fiat money which the Fed creates could be used directly to create jobs instead of giving it to the big banks for increased speculation. And any money created by the Fed does not add to the deficit.

    How ironic that, even if government created jobs directly, they’d have to borrow the money thereby adding to the deficit, but, if the Fed creates money, it doesn’t add to the deficit, but they can only use it to capitalize the big banks.