Obama Talked Progressive on Deficits, But Will He Walk Conservative?

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President Obama’s big deficit speech yesterday was received with a mixture of euphoria and relief among the left commentariat. From the hardcore partisans who loved his aggressive critique of Paul Ryan's "throw grandma from the gravy train" plan to the idealists whose thirst for that old-time Obama soaring inspirational rhetoric was finally slaked, the immediate consensus was that the president had given a strong defense of the progressive principles on which he would rely in the coming budget negotiations.

Progressives have yearned for him to use the bully pulpit for this purpose from the beginning, and there is a good case to be made that if he had, conservatives would not have been able to convince the American people that the deficit is the cause of the country’s financial woes, rather than the natural consequence of mitigating them. As it stands, the administration's refusal to confront Wall Street and the president's quixotic personal quest to bridge an unbridgeable partisan divide has left Democrats in the unpalatable position of defending conservative policies even as they have the socialist label hung around their necks. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed and the president is now operating within the opposition's framework rather than his own.

This was a daytime speech on a subject so boring that even the vice-president was seen to "rest his eyes" during its delivery. But if Obama continues to make the case for progressive values in a time of economic hardship during the coming campaign, he will at least have some point of contrast with those Republicans who are intent upon turning the nation into a Randian dystopia.

Now comes the hard part: matching deeds to words. And on that front, the president still has a lot of work to do. After the horrifying backtracks on civil liberties and the coddling of Wall Street, progressives will have to be forgiven if they aren't in a trusting mood. The nature of the opposition and what seems to be a reelection campaign focused on appealing to Independent voters who see compromise as an end in itself raise fears that the president will adopt the framework of his conservative deficit commissioners. The fact that his first meeting after the big speech was a photo op with co-chairs of that commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, is not reassuring, particularly since the so-called Gang of Six, an informal bi-partisan group of senators, have been working for the past few months on what appears to be a proposal based explicitly on the Simpson-Bowles plan.

Progressives are supposed to take heart in the fact that there is one telling distinction between the president's plan and the Gang of Six’s reported thinking: The latter puts Social Security on the table. (Even Paul Ryan leaves that untouched.) And yet, the president's budget director, Jacob Lew, was quoted this morning saying that Obama doesn't rule out raising the retirement age to 70 and that the administration believes "it's important that we deal with Social Security and we deal with it now."

So, at this point the political strategy — if not the policy outcome — seems to be clear. President Obama has staked out the leftward pole of the debate. The Ryan plan is firmly planted on the right. The Simpson Bowles/Gang of Six proposal is the sweet spot for a deal. And that's a prospect that will leave a very sour taste in the mouths of many progressives. The fact that Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit and yet continues to be featured in these already complicated budget talks indicates that it is a bargaining chip that will be used by both sides, much as the public option was used in the health-care debate. The worst-case scenario is that progressives will be strung along, fighting like mad every step of the way to preserve Social Security, even though it has no effect on the deficit. Meanwhile, discretionary spending will be cut with a meat ax, Medicare and Medicaid will be picked at like carrion, and the "revenue increases" will be bled of any meaning by a pack of special-interest lobbyists. (The idea of the Republicans agreeing to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in a presidential election year is so ludicrous that you'd have to be high to think it will happen.)

Despite the rhetoric and the tone, which are welcome and overdue, the fight has really just begun. The president's activist base has learned the hard way that if they don't provide some ballast from the left, this White House will tilt so far right it topples over.

Heather Digby Parton is a Santa Monica, California–based writer who runs the political blog Hullabaloo.