Saturday, May 11, 2013

Presidential Limits

It is difficult to overstate the steaming shit pile that was handed to Barack Obama on his first day of office. Those who choose to ridicule the President for pointing this out have forgotten the "yeah, that's right," chorus line that Republicans sang so heartily when Reagan took office and how he would fix all the terrible things Carter had done. They, and Reagan, knew what they were doing; every positive snippet of news was to accrue to Ronnie; any bad news was obviously the legacy of his Democratic predecessor.

Don't let your brain take the lazy way out on this. Don't say both parties do it and leave it at that. Both parties throw blame at their opponents, to be sure. but it is an insipid and unhelpful observation. Let's not forget that the federal budget deficit, the national debt, and the trade imbalance were all relatively modest when Reagan took office. Our infrastructure at that time was viewed around the world as excellent, and manufacturing played a proportionately far larger role. We had the world's largest current account surplus when Carter left office. When Reagan left, we had the world's largest deficit.

The point here is not to claim that Carter did such a wonderful job. But we must remind ourselves how much this country, and this economy, have changed in recent decades. When President Obama took the oath of office in a ceremony that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up, he faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He also inherited two long and costly wars that served little purpose except to get men killed and enrich defense contractors, as war always does.

But even if you support(ed) the war(s), and choose to not blame Bush (or Cheney), the point remains that the US fought those wars without paying for them. That much is indisputable. Instead, the horrendous costs, separate and addition to the Defense Department's already mammoth budget, were added to our federal debt. That was George Bush's decision, not Obama's.

And need I remind anyone that those wars came after Bush passed his huge tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby giving back the budget surplus carefully built up during the Clinton era when tax rates and economic growth were both higher.

The real point here is the severe constraints Barack Obama faced when he took office, many of which John McCain would have also faced had he won. Taxes, primarily for the rich, had been reduced so much early in Bush's tenure that it has become arithmetically impossible to meet our relatively modest social spending needs, our huge military appetite, our substantial and neglected national infrastructure, and also balance the budget. And this is on top of a massive trade deficit, a declining manufacturing base, and most jarringly, the fallout from Wall Street's casino capitalism.

I have posted before on the overwhelming challenges Obama faced on inauguration day, challenges that would be huge even if Congress decided to, you know, work together and solve some problems. Unfortunately, President Obama has had to face an additional challenge that a President McCain would surely not have--unprecedented obstructionism. Along the way, Americans have come to learn, to their disgust or delight, the surprising flaws of our federal government and how determined ideologues can lay bare the constitutional limitations of the executive branch.

Republicans control only the House; Democrats control the Senate, despite all appearances, and, of course, the White House. And yet Dems in the House are helpless to stop the unending stream of bills that Tea Party reactionaries promote.  Well, you might say, Republicans control the House, so it figures they would dominate legislation. In the Senate, however, Democrats are in a clear majority, but it usually makes little difference because of the Senate's self-imposed 60 vote supermajority "requirement."

Thus, even flaccid and feeble legislation, mere tweaking, has little chance of being enacted. Anything that does pass is so watered down as to be useless. And that is not because most members of Congress, or even all Republicans always want to oppose the President; it is sufficient that only a determined minority, the Tea Partiers of the House and Senate, choose to obstruct, as they so often have. Let me put it this way: the seemingly intractable John Boehner would not be making those asinine, vapid, and breathtakingly stupid comments on economic policy if teabaggers in his party did not have such a tight grip on his nuts.

Historians are at pains to find a period when the flaws of the federal government were so transparent. Parliamentary governments around the world are taken back by the inability of America's two-party presidential system of government to tackle the most basic tasks, such as properly regulated banks, appropriate tax revenues, a modern infrastructure, and demographic well-being, such as on health care, child mortality, and housing. All of these are becoming a national embarrassment, instead of world-leading, as they once were.

We are now seeing with increasing frequency that even legislation large majorities of Americans want, such as background checks on gun purchases, cannot get passed. There are just enough Republican reactionaries in the House, sometimes helped out by pandering Democrats in the Senate (I'm looking at you, Max Baucus), to derail even the most popular legislation. This can happen, mind you, even when a majority of both houses of Congress and the president favor such legislation. This is not majority rule, it is not even checks and balances as the founding fathers envisioned. It is the tyranny of an ideologically-driven minority.

This is new territory for America.

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