Winning the Present

How lunatic-fringe do the House Republicans have to be before President Obama starts calling them out? These cuts have nothing to do with reasonable fiscal policy -- they are pure ideological retribution against government.
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How lunatic-fringe do the House Republicans have to be on budget cuts before President Obama starts calling them out on their plans? Evidently, they still have a ways to go, because the administration has been mostly silent on the sheer perversity of the Republican cuts.

The cuts proposed in the House budget would devastate spending on everything from Headstart (157,000 eligible kids denied services) to Pell grants (a 25 percent cut) and dozens of other programs including job training, energy assistance, safe food and clean water.

On paper, the Republicans would cut discretionary spending by "only" 14.3 percent, but since the fiscal year will be more than half over by the time the cuts become official, the actual cuts would be fully one-fourth -- a staggering cut for any program to bear and an insane economic idea during a severe downturn. These cuts have nothing to do with reasonable fiscal policy; they are pure ideological retribution against government.

You would think that at some point, President Obama would be pointing to the recklessness of these proposals in a still soft economy. But instead, the president has doubled down on his bipartisanship.
Last Friday, in Miami, President Obama could found be sharing the spotlight with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, crowing about their shared views on educational reform.

Obama declared in his weekly address:

I'm talking with you from Miami, Florida, where I'm visiting Miami Central High School, a school that's turning itself around on behalf of its kids. And I came here with Jeb Bush, former governor of this state, because he and I share the view that education isn't a partisan issue -- it's an American issue.

In other words, with Republicans slashing everything from Pell Grants to Headstart, there are no partisan differences on education. So why bother to have an election? Why bother to have two parties? Why not just give up and embrace the Republican budget?

What White House political geniuses dreamed up the idea of a joint presidential appearance with Jeb Bush? Evidently the same strategists who still think that voters care about bridging partisan differences more than they care about substantive progress to end the economic slump and to restore economic opportunity.

On Sunday, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley all but invited the Republicans to define the necessary goals of budget cutting:

DAVID GREGORY: The White House says a lot about how it's meeting Republicans halfway... The reality is you are far apart on cutting spending for this particular year. How do you bridge this and avoid a shutdown in two weeks?

WILLIAM DALEY: ...We aren't that far apart. We're at over $50 billion in cuts. The House passed the HR1, which was $100 billion... So we're over halfway there.

Translation: The Republicans have set the goals. The Administration will meet them halfway, and more if necessary. Never mind the content of the budget cuts, or whether deep budget cuts are sensible at all while unemployment is still at 8.9 percent.

Daley added this:

The president's had conversations with Speaker Boehner, Leader Cantor, Congresswoman Pelosi, McConnell and Reid, Senators McConnell and Reid, and his -- he is not going to play the Washington games. We've had enough in the last two years. I think the American people are sick and tired of it. They're tired of the partisanship. And if anyone thinks that, out of this last election, the American people were voting for more partisanship, more saying no, I think they're, they're going to have a rude awakening in the next election.

Translation: The Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm election, but this was not a victory for partisanship or for Republican hardball.

Well, you could have fooled me.

The president was more candid than his new chief of staff, when Obama admitted that the Democrats had taken a shellacking. And that will continue if the Republicans stand for something and Democrats just stand for making nice. The rude awakening in the next election will be that making nice doesn't impress the voters.

On a second crucial front last week -- Wall Street versus Main Street -- the administration was sending mixed signals on its long awaited plan to settle legal claims against banks for fraudulent mortgage practices, in exchange for a $20 billion bank contribution towards mortgage refinancing that would allow more people to keep their homes.

The plan was the result of discussions between the administration and state attorneys general. Banks and other loan servicers seeking to foreclose on homeowners are often finding that they lack the legal right because of their own slipshod documentation and collection practices.

But the Obama administration is divided, with Elizabeth Warren's new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pushing for at least $20 billion in penalties, which would go to fund mortgage refinancings and loan modifications. This plan, which was circulated last Thursday, has the support of many of the attorneys general and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Treasury Department, however, is lukewarm to the plan, and the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, based at the Treasury, has put out leaks disparaging the plan as anti-bank. Industry leaders have been quoted as calling the plan a "shakedown."

In fact, the plan would help financial markets surmount a legal tangle of the banks' own making. Just last week, another of the largest lenders, HSBC, admitted major "deficiencies" in its handling of mortgages, and became the latest bank to suspend foreclosures. To date, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, more than four million homes are in foreclosure, and another 8 million are 90 days or more delinquent and headed for foreclosure. This state of affairs drags down the balance sheets of banks and homeowners alike, and sandbags wider economic recovery. The existing voluntary plan for mortgage refinancings, HAMP, is widely considered a failure.

Here is a case where a strong regulatory presence is necessary both to stem a lingering economic catastrophe and to normalize loan documentation practices. But any regulation worthy of the name is now considered radioactive. With Obama's strategy of extending an olive branch to both the Republicans and to corporate elites, evidently all that executives have to do is to disparage necessary regulatory policies as "anti-business," and many in the administration are inclined to back off.

Daley, formerly a lobbyist for JP Morgan Chase, epitomizes the Administration strategy of not uttering a critical word about the Republicans and getting even cozier with the very banks that caused the financial collapse. This approach does not solve real economic problems. It lets both Republicans and bankers off the hook for practices and policies that are justifiably unpopular, and is the opposite of presidential leadership.

The Administration's new slogan is "Winning the Future." A good place to start would be to win the present.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.

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