Obama’s Steady Road to Austerity

Barack Obama’s second swearing-in as president will not produce anything approaching the awesome pilgrimage – the “Great Black Hajj” – that swarmed around him on January 20, 2009. Most African Americans experienced the last inauguration as a new beginning, a collective grabbing of the gold ring, a fantasia on the National Mall.

Few caught the meaning of his coded messages of impending austerity – a careful telegraphing of his intentions to gut Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed," the new president told the tearfully joyous throng, only a handful of whom understood that the “narrow interests” he referred to was them, and that Obama had already made the “unpleasant decision” to launch an all-out assault on the social safety net.

Not that his plans were a secret. In the preceding weeks, Obama had informed the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post that “entitlement reform” – the Republican code word for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – was high on his agenda. But, Black folks were so transfixed by the miracle of the First Black President, most failed to comprehend simple English.

Four years later, it is impossible not to hear the tolling of the bell. As early as mid-February, the pending debt ceiling impasse will provide another opportunity to take the axe to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Only fools believe that Obama will resist the impulse, since to do so would be to repudiate his entire first term in office. With methodical calculation, Obama laid the groundwork for a grand austerity bargain, beginning with his handpicked Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission.

The “fiscal cliff” was a trap set jointly by Obama and the GOP in the summer of 2011, after their deal for $4 trillion in cuts foundered on the issue of modest tax increases on the rich. With this month’s agreement to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent for 98 percent of the public, Obama and the Republicans’ positions are closer than ever. All that is required for Obama to achieve his true legacy – to drive a stake in the heart of what’s left of social welfare in the U.S. – is to marginalize hard core Tea Party budget purists and, much more importantly, bludgeon the “left” wing of the Democrats into line, which has always been Obama’s job in the corporate political division of labor.

The odds are that Obama and his Republican tag-teammates will triumph. In many ways, they already have. By embracing the notion that the deficit is the nation’s number one problem, Obama has firmly embedded the logic of austerity – which is the logic of Wall Street – into Democratic Party politics.

No wonder the Democratic Leadership Council folded in 2011. Having served as the party’s corporate center of gravity since its founding by Bill Clinton, Al Gore and other white, largely southern Democrats in the Eighties to blunt Black and union influence, the DLC’s mission has been completed by a Black Democrat (who first came to my attention when I found his name on the DLC’s membership list in the summer of 2003).

The imminent consummation of Obama’s grand bargain was on display for all to see in last year’s first presidential debate. As Maya Rockeymoore, the brilliant young Black political scientist who heads up Global Policy Solutions points out in this week’s edition of Black Agenda Radio, “I think the president did not make a Freudian slip when he said that he and Mitt Romney actually agree on Social Security.” The notion that Obama would turn “left” in his second term is nonsense, said Rockeymoore, an expert on entitlements. “The reality is, the first term Obama is the second term Obama. That is his disposition, that is his ideology, that is where he’s at. He’s a centrist to his heart.”

Actually, he's a center-right Democrat who has positioned himself at the pivot of Wall Street’s political project. Even the New York Times’ David Sanger recognized Obama’s true orientation, back in late November of 2008, as the president-elect was assembling his cabinet. Sanger meant it as a kind of compliment on his choice of advisors, which “suggest[ed] that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.”

At his first inauguration, Obama chastised Americans for “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." He was making the case for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, a choice that 80 percent of Americans, and virtually the totality of the Black American polity, reject. But, for Obama, then and now, the popular will is nothing but “worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." Wall Street’s choices are all that counts.

So, who won the election? And why should Black folks regard the outcome as some kind of collective victory? What bullet did we dodge?

January 9, 2013

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