The Presidents Big Chance And His Big Choice

Richard Eskow

This is it. This is the opportunity that Barack Obama has been waiting for. He finally has the chance to push for policies that are popular with Republicans and independents as well as with Democrats. This is his “post-partisan” moment.

But there’s a catch: These policies have been stigmatized among the policy elites. The only people who like them are voters.

So the Big Chance comes with a Big Choice: the President can win the bipartisan support of the electorate. Or he can win the support of insiders from both parties, backed by billionaires and corporate think tanks, who use the “bipartisan” label to push the right-wing ideology of austerity economics.

But he can’t do both. There’s no “third way.” And the choice he makes now may well determine his political future.

The President’s jobs proposal was enthusiastically received by the voters. A Gallup poll taken after his jobs speech showed that 70% of Americans, including more than half of Republicans, supported increasing taxes on corporations by closing some deductions and loopholes, while only 26% disapproved. Two-thirds of voters supported increasing taxes on household earnings over $250,000.

A poll just releaased by Celinda Lake and Associates shows that 58% of Republicans and 73% of independents are against cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, or as part of a “Super Committee” deal, while 82% of independents and 64% of Republicans support lifting the payroll “tax cap” to cover that program’s long-term shortfalls.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Democrats yet. The President’s advisers no doubt understand that the “approval” of these voters isn’t enough. He needs their enthusiasm. How enthusiastic are they about these issues? Virtually all of them – 94% – support lifting the payroll tax cap. 82% of them oppose cuts to benefits.

Voters across the political spectrum also say they’ll punish anybody, including the President, who they believe has defied them on these policies. So why are we still talking about this? Why is the President still saying that he’s open to benefit cuts as part of a “grand bargain”? Here’s what he said in his latest budget speech:

“I will not support — I will not support — any plan that puts all the burden (emphasis ours) for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share. “

The public, including a majority of Republicans, is clear in its opinion: The rest of us have already paid our dues – in lost wages, in unemployment, and often by paying higher taxes than wealthy Americans or big corporations. Offer them a “grand bargain” and they’ll reply, in the words of that old cliche, “I gave at the office.” The public’s mood is clear: We’ve sacrificed enough. It’s time for the wealthiest and most powerful to kick in their fair share to pay for a party they’ve enjoyed at everyone else’s expense.

Why does it take a socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, to introduce a bill whose key features are supported by most Republicans? The Sanders bill would lift the payroll tax cap above $250,000 (supported by 82% of independents and 64% of Republicans) and would protect benefits (supported by 58% of Republicans and 73% of independents).

Maybe Bernie Sanders should run for President in the Republican primaries. Now that would be an interesting race.

The President struck a nerve with his more populist stance, but he continues to undermine it with hedging language. The Republican Party has become increasingly bold in its corporate and rich-person agenda. It’s disregarding the will of its own voters. Will Obama seize this moment, or lose a historic opportunity?

The President may soon face a choice: Pass legislation that defies the bipartisan will of the majority, or pass no legislation at all. If he opts for a “grand bargain” that raises taxes slightly but cuts Medicare or Social Security, the public will remember only that he defied their will by cutting benefits. And he’ll pay the price.

It’s interesting. The progressive movement – which is usually marginalized by Beltway types as a “fringe” element – has become a populist movement fighting for the views of most Republicans. It speaks for the New Silent Majority. How can progressives help the President and other politicians make the right moves? How can they help galvanize an independent political movement that can galvanize politics on behalf of the majority at least as effectively as the Tea Party has for its minority (and genuinely “fringe”) views?

That will be a central topic at this year’s Take Back the American Dream conference, which is taking place in Washington, DC on October 3-5. And it will be a subject of intense discussion afterwards, too.

As for the President, his chance – and his choice – has arrived. He can be truly post-partisan, embracing views held by voters from left to right, or he can represent the well-subsidized views of paid insiders from both parties. But he can’t do both.

What happens next is up to him.

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