What Aspect of Dealing with Bullies Did Obama Fail to Learn as a Child?

The president's job is not to get reelected. It is not to work on his "portrayal." His job is to prevent bad tax policies that threaten our democracy, economy, and society. Barack Obama is failing at his job.
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President Obama has adopted Republican tax policies he knows to be disastrous for the nation. Obama never learned, or forgot, one of the essential lessons of junior high school -- how to deal with bullies. (This is proof positive that he is a native-born American -- he never would have survived Kenyan bullies.) Here is the Washington Post's summary of Obama's explanation of why he had no choice but to capitulate to Republican efforts to reduce taxes for the wealthiest one percent.

Obama said he had little choice but to compromise because he has been unable to persuade Senate Republicans to maintain middle-class tax cuts without also extending the top-tier tax rates for another two years - even though a majority of Americans agree tax cuts on high incomes should end.

Obama summed up his view of why the Republican's position on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans left him helpless to fulfill his promises to prevent the cuts: "I'm not here to play games with the American people or the health of our economy." No, you're there to prevent any leader, foreign or domestic, from harming the American people and our economy. The way that leaders harm us is by "playing games" -- which means that they act strategically to obtain their interests at our expense. The President of the U.S., therefore, has to be expert at recognizing and courageous and tenacious in countering these strategies.

Bullies play a well known game. Their strategy is to intimidate. Sometimes they threaten us directly sometimes they threaten those we care about. By the age of 14 we have all identified who the bullies are, figured out their strategy, and learned that one cannot "persuade" them to act appropriately. The only way to stop a bully is to "play games" -- to act strategically. They must be confronted and this can, we can all attest from personal experience, be painful. Bullies are cowards and most people hate bullies and will form alliances to stop them. Obama, as is his norm, raged at those who would have been his allies against the bullies. Giving in to bullies guarantees that they will act ever more abusively.

Obama thinks he can "persuade" Senate Republicans who are "playing games" about tax cuts. Their strategic (non)negotiating position is that unless they get tax cuts for the top one percent no American will get tax cuts (or any other necessary legislation). They are holding 99% of Americans hostage to benefit the top one percent. Obama thinks that if the Republicans play games he is helpless to resist them no matter how harmful his capitulation will be to the nation.

David Cay Johnston spelled out the winning strategy for the nation in his recent column ("Call Their Bluff, Mr. President"). The Republicans' tax strategy was straight out of Blazing Saddles -- the part where the sheriff is surrounded and responds by taking out his gun, pointing it at his head, and telling the crowd not to move or "I'll shoot." The absurdity of the strategy and the idiocy of the crowd in falling for it is the gag. The Republicans tax strategy involved pointing a triple-barreled gun at their own heads. They were threatening to (1) vote to prevent a tax cut to over 100 million Americans (during a weak recovery from the Great Recession); (2) refuse (two weeks before Christmas) to extend unemployment benefits for millions of long-term unemployed; and, (3) and they were doing all this for the benefit of the wealthiest one percent (which all the polls showed was contrary to the will of Americans). The chances that the Republican Party would pull the trigger on the three-barreled gun they had aimed at their own head was minimal. Indeed, if the Republican leadership did pull the trigger they would be discredited and would have to rush to undo their tax and unemployment policies before the entire Republican Party became anathema to independents and middle and working class Americans. President Clinton, of course, called their bluff on shutting down the government, and turned around his Presidency. Obama, not so much.

White House flacks have had some success in generating columns in the New York Times and the Washington Post claiming that Obama deserves respect for obtaining more stimulus dollars by adopting the Republican proposals. Both of these columns are premised on the false assumption that Obama couldn't call the Republican bluff and produce far more effective stimulus legislation.

But one of the articles the administration flacks influenced reveals something even worse about Obama than his latest Blazing Saddles moment. It turns out that Obama was acting strategically when he capitulated to tax policies that will add greatly to the nation's already record income inequality. Obama's flacks' pitch to the Washington Post is that Obama was playing (political) games his advisors believed would increase his personal chances of reelection.

President Obama's willingness to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts is part of what White House officials say is a deliberate strategy: to demonstrate his ability to compromise with Republicans and portray the president as the last reasonable man in a sharply partisan Washington.

Note to President Obama: you misunderstand your position description. An adult who repeatedly gives in to a bully is a coward, not "reasonable." Do you realize that the Republicans have been calling you a coward with regard to your foreign policies for two years and that they hold you in utter contempt? That is why they believed they could get away with bullying you in Congress despite your large majorities in both Houses. I guarantee that they have view your falling for their Blazing Saddles threat to commit suicide as the ultimate demonstration of that your administration has descended into farce.

Your job is not to get reelected. Your job is not to work on your "portrayal." Your job is to prevent bad tax policies you (correctly) said threatened our democracy, economy, and society. You are failing at your job.

Bill Black is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a white-collar criminologist, a former senior financial regulator and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.

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