After his re-election, President George W. Bush famously declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” and proceeded with his ultimately failed attempt to privatize Social Security. At the beginning of his second term, President Barack Obama has seemingly declared that he has no political capital, and therefore intends to cut Social Security, a troubling indication of his future intentions.
Just a few months ago, many commentators expressed hope that a new era of assertiveness and feisty liberalism had begun in the White House. To say the least, I was skeptical. Throughout the many legislative battles and crises of the past four years, the President has earned a reputation as a weak negotiator, even a bit of a pushover. A complete turnaround, in my view, would be nothing short of miraculous. More importantly, the hurdles to progress remain largely the same in Congress, with Republicans still in control of the House and capable of blocking anything in the nominally Democratic Senate.
My cynicism was confirmed last week, when the details of Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 were reported. The budget, which included cuts to Social Security through the use of the chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), immediately attracted outrage from progressive groups, who objected most vocally to the change in calculating cost of living adjustments. A chained CPI uses a slower measure of inflation, which means that the actual rise in prices may be different than the measure used to award benefits. While this proposed change may sound somewhat innocuous and technical, it represents a sizable benefit cut for those relying on social security. It also represents a return to Obama’s first-term tactic of “pre-compromising”: aligning with centrist or outright conservative policies in the hope that Republicans will sign on to modestly liberal provisions, in this case a tax increase on the wealthy.
The reaction from Speaker of the House John Boehner just about sums up the effectiveness of this strategy.
“If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” Boehner said upon news of the budget’s release.
Of course, Boehner is rather willfully turning the tables on the President; a more accurate statement would be that Republicans are holding revenue increases hostage for more cuts in social programs. The Republican dismissal of Obama’s proposal shows the GOP’s continued commitment to move any policy the President puts forward even further to the right, a lesson he has failed to heed.
Serendipitously, another one of the Obama administration’s failed overtures to conservatives met a spectacular demise on Friday. A federal judge struck down the age limit on getting emergency contraceptives over the counter, which had been kept at 17 by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in December of 2011. In a move never before taken in the history of the department, Sebelius directly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, which had declared the pill safe to be sold to girls of all ages without a prescription. Sebelius’ action, supported by Obama, disturbingly harkened back to the Bush administration’s notorious disregard for science. The decision seemed transparently motivated by pandering to social conservatives less than a year before the presidential election. Of course, it’s doubtful that this pivot to the right did anything to help with re-election, especially considering that women concerned about their reproductive rights were a crucial part of Obama’s winning coalition.
I would hope that this court ruling serves as a wake-up call to President Obama, reminding him that the concessions he makes to Republicans have consequences. The lingering effects of his many first-term compromises remain to be dealt with, most pressingly with regard to the sequester, which kicked in last month. This policy of massive austerity, agreed to during the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, will devastate public services, along with the economy as a whole. As he goes forward in the second half of his presidency, perhaps Obama will finally come to the realization that letting Republicans have their way leaves him to pick up the pieces of bad policy and bad politics. Or perhaps Obama will continue his failed strategy and leave the more arduous task to his successor.