After winning re-election by drawing sharp contrasts with Republicans, and staying firm in recent budget fights, President Obama has returned to pushing GOP policies. His budget proposal reducing Social Security cost of living increases (the “chained CPI”) and possible approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline (hinted at last week) repeats his 2009 mistake of turning health care reform over to Republicans. Obama's push for "bipartisanship" in 2009-10 so discouraged Democrats that they stayed home for the midterm elections, enabling Republicans to retake the House and key Governor’s offices. Obama promoted populist policies to twice win the White House, but in the fourth month after both inauguration speeches he has pushed policies opposed by most Democrats. It’s Groundhog Day in Obama Land, and unlike 2009 when they gave him a pass
, activists now must work against the President.
Last week, President Obama switched from the fighting strategy that won him and his party national elections in 2008 and 2012 and returned to pursuing the type of Republican-backed policies that led to the GOP’s sweeping victory in 2010. The President is repeating his own failed script from 2009, once again shifting right just as the GOP is on the ropes and his own base is primed for mobilizing.
In the great 1993 film Groundhog Day
, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who experiences the same “day” time and again and who must figure out how to get the day to go the right way. Activists are now experiencing a repeat of President Obama’s 2009 adoption of GOP policies, and like Murray’s character, now must create a different ending.
Cutting Social Security
Obama’s new budget proposal for a “chained CPI” cost of living reduction for Social Security has prompted most of the progressive concern. The President’s defenders argue that he only put it on the table because he knew Republicans would not accept the trade-offs involved, which also they insisted in 2011 when Obama agreed to the sequester.
But unlike the sequester, the GOP has no leverage requiring Obama to back Social Security cuts. And as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor correctly noted, if Obama believes such cuts are worth proposing than he should accept them unconditionally.
Obama defenders also say that he has always backed Medicare and Social Security “reform,” so progressives should not be surprised. But Obama campaigned in 2008 and 2012 as a great defender of Medicare and Social Security, and offered no commercials or major speeches telling voters that if they elect him he will cut their Social Security payments.
Obama’s potential success at what he and the GOP describe as “entitlement reform” will not get the Democrats a single vote in 2014. But it will encourage many of the Party’s supporters to stay home, believing that both parties are equally unwilling to protect Social Security.
A far more troubling sign that Obama is repeating past mistakes is the increasing likelihood he will back the destructive Keystone XL Pipeline.
Although the young voters who brought Democrats big victories in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home in 2010 prioritize climate change, Obama is set to ensure they don’t go to the polls in 2014 by approving a pipeline that further climate change.
According to the New York Times
, Obama said at a San Francisco fundraiser hosted by Keystone opponent Thomas Steyer last week that “If we’re going to deal with climate change in a serious way, then we’ve got to have folks in Congress, even when it’s not politically convenient, to talk about it and advocate for it.” He emphasized “the best way to assure environmental action is to send more Democrats to Washington, returning the House to Democratic control.”
But if a Democratic President backs Keystone, after previously overruling his own EPA’s tough new smog rules
, how does electing Democrats “assure environmental action”? It looks like quite the opposite.
While those who closely follow politics know that nearly all Republicans are terrible on climate change and most Democrats are strong, the President's approval of Keystone blurs this distinction. It sends the message that neither party is willing to take politically tough stands to save the planet, and that the chief difference between the two major parties is their rhetoric.
We know that young voters turned out in record numbers in 2008 and 2012, and their failure to match this turnout in 2010 badly hurt Democrats. Obama can inspire high youth turnout by rejecting Keystone, whose approval is primarily favored by those who neither support the President nor the Democratic Party.
To paraphrase the President, the best way to ensure Democrats retake the House and keep the Senate in 2014 is for him to reject Keystone. That will show young voters concerned about climate change that Democrats are on their side, and are willing to take tough stands for the environment.
If Obama approves Keystone, he will not merely tarnish or weaken his environmental legacy, he will destroy it. This action, along with his support for Social Security cuts, will demoralize Democrats, re-energize the currently flailing Republicans, and badly hurt Democratic prospects in 2014.
Activists who gave Obama free reign in 2009 must not allow this Groundhog Day scenario to play out in 2013-14. It’s dispiriting that the President is promoting an internal war among Democrats, but he has given his base no choice but to mobilize against him.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century