Responding to President Obama on the Art of Compromise

Obama's "compromise" principle follows a consistent pattern. His opening bid is to move more than halfway in the direction of Republican principles.
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(Note: In the following piece, I am expressing only my own opinion as one person who writes regularly for the Huffington Post. Each Huffington Post writer is free to post his or her own views with no central editorial control and I do not purport to represent any official view of the Huffington Post, which, to the best of my knowledge, does not exist.)

In one of the Obama administration's periodic slaps at his liberal base (e.g. Robert Gibb's attack on the "professional left," Rahm Emanuel calling liberal Democrats who criticized Blue Dogs "f*cking stupid") last weekend Obama's reelection campaign released a video of Obama speaking to a bipartisan group of college students about the principle of political compromise and claimed that if the Huffington Post had been around when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, its headline would have read "Lincoln sells out slaves."

The timing of the video release was a bit curious -- it was recorded at a private meeting in March, but the Obama campaign released it as Obama was proposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security in the hopes of compromising on a "grand bargain" to reduce the deficit, as though such a "grand bargain" was somehow equivalent to Lincoln's actions in the middle of a Civil War in which over 600,000 Americans died.

Moreover, for this Huffington Post writer, Obama over-simplified both the history and the contemporary politics in an attempt to elevate "compromise" from a political means to a political end and to justify a strategy of preemptive unilateral compromise against a Republican Party that has no interest in compromise.

First the history: Despite popular myth, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 did not proclaim the freedom of all of the slaves but only slaves in the states of the Confederacy who were at war with the Union and not those in border states that remained part of the Union. Slavery was only abolished everywhere in the United States by ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, shortly after Lincoln's death.

But abolition was not, as Obama would have it, the act of a single man, Abraham Lincoln. It was the product of a great mass movement for abolition fought over many decades by courageous Americans, many of whom had no compunctions about criticizing Lincoln when they thought he was wrong. (Remember that Lincoln did not run for president in 1860 as an opponent of slavery). As prominent Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison once said,

Little boldness is needed to assail the opinions and practices of notoriously wicked men; but to rebuke great and good men for their conduct, and to impeach their discernment, is the highest effort of moral courage.

While abolitionists did not, as Obama implied that the Huffington Post would do, denounce the Emancipation Proclamation as a sell-out, they did point out that despite its symbolic value, it did not actually free any slaves -- it only applied to slaves in the Confederate states over which Lincoln, as President of the Union, had no power. Abolitionists continued to press for a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery throughout the United States.

In fact, the conflict with Lincoln led to a split in his Republican Party before the 1864 elections with a faction of abolitionist Republicans nominating their own third-party presidential candidate, abolitionist Gen. John C. Fremont -- who had been the first Republican Party candidate for president in 1856 -- on a platform that called for constitutional amendments outlawing slavery and protecting the civil rights of former slaves. In response, Lincoln's Republican Party adopted a platform also supporting a constitutional amendment to end slavery. Fremont eventually withdrew from the race out of fear that his candidacy could throw the election to the Democrats who advocated a separate peace with the Confederacy under which slavery would continue. But pressure from Lincoln's left led directly to his going beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and supporting the complete abolition of slavery.

Enough on correcting Obama's history. Let's discuss the present. When discussing "compromise," Obama confuses means and ends. He elevates compromise to the level of a principle, rather than as a sometimes necessary tool in moving towards achieving principles. In fact, it's sometimes hard to determine if Obama has any particular principles at all, other than "compromise" and "bipartisanship" as an end in itself.

As a progressive, here are some principles that I believe in:

  1. We must reverse the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in America over the past 30 years, which has created a new Gilded Age in which virtually all the benefits of increased economic productivity go to the top 1% while the income of the remainder of the population stagnates.

  • The wealthy must pay their fair share of taxes and corporations must be blocked from exploiting loopholes to move their taxable income to offshore tax havens.
  • We must strengthen the social safety net of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as join the rest of the democratic capitalist world in making health care a right and not a privilege.
  • We must cut the military budget which has doubled over the past decade, equals the military budget of all of the other countries in the world, and is bankrupting the country, rather than making it safer.
  • We must end needless foreign wars like those in Afghanistan which are costing the nation blood and treasure and not adding to our security.
  • Does Obama agree with these principles? If not, what are the principles that Obama believes in? Beyond "compromise," it's often hard to tell.

    This Huffington Post writer -- while often critical of Obama's compromises -- does not unilaterally reject political compromise. (In fact, in my day job, I negotiate deals for a living and fully appreciate that compromise is often part of getting a deal closed.) In judging Obama's compromises, I ask two questions: (1) Does the compromise get us closer to implementing vital principles, even if we don't achieve those principles in a single step? (2) If so, is this the best deal that's possible or has Obama compromised more than necessary, or even given in not just on details but on principles?

    Based on these criteria, I have often found Obama wanting. Obama's "compromise" principle follows a consistent pattern. His opening bid is to move more than halfway in the direction of Republican principles. When Republicans refuse to consider Obama's compromise proposals and take the economy hostage, Obama unilaterally offers up further compromises without getting anything back in return, which only encourages further Republican intransigence.

    •When Obama first appointed his economic team, he did not appoint "a team of rivals" but a "team of Rubins," drawing all of his principal economic advisors from Wall Street's allies like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orzag and Rahm Emanuel, rather than including some advisors with progressive views similar to those of Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, or James Galbraith.

    •Although Obama was advised that in order to bring unemployment under control, a stimulus package in the order of $1.2 trillion was needed, Obama's opening bid was on the order of $700 billion dollars. He then negotiated a package that was made up nearly half of unstimulative tax cuts. Rather than reducing the unemployment rate below 8% as Obama administration officials promised, unemployment is now 9.2% as the stimulus is coming to an end. This alone could lead to Obama's defeat in 2012.

    •Rather than proposing Medicare For All, and then perhaps compromising on a health care reform package with a strong public option, Obama began with a health care plan modeled on Republican proposals originally set out by Bob Dole and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, then made backroom deals to give away the public option and to ban Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices.

    •A few weeks before the BP oil spill, Obama proposed expanding offshore drilling in the hopes of gaining Republican support for the previously Republican idea of cap and trade. He gained no Republican support and a few weeks later, BP began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, with no Republican support for the Republican-originated cap and trade concept, it died a quiet death in the Senate.

    •Rather than demanding that the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire at the end of 2010, Obama began his negotiations with Republicans by offering to extend the Bush tax cuts on everyone. Instead, he could have demanded the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire, and if Republicans failed to vote for this and allowed all the tax cuts to expire, gone to the American people and forced the Republicans to renew only the middle class tax cuts in the lame duck session.

    •Obama's negotiations on the debt ceiling with Republican hostage-takers who threaten to blow up the economy if they don't get their way has been the most egregious of all. He offered up a plan made up of 75% spending cuts to 25% "revenue increases" (God forbid, not tax increases). When Republicans remained intransigent, he offered a plan with less than 10% revenue increases. Now he seems prepared to back a plan with all cuts and no guaranteed revenue increases, while cutting social security and Medicare. Moreover, he has adopted Republican talking points that reducing the deficit -- not growing jobs -- is the key to improving the economy.

    One even begins to wonder if Obama doesn't view these points as "compromises" but actually has come to believe they represent the best policy. Has Obama now become captive to the conservative Washington consensus that the key to fixing the economy is austerity?

    Obama's compromises fail the test. They don't move closer to implementing the Democratic principles that he should stand for. And they give away far too much, and fall far short of being the best compromises possible.

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