President Obama must go all in

If the president wants to walk away from the White House with something to show for his time there, he must hold firm to his pledge not to negotiate with Republicans over a continuing resolution or the debt ceiling.

We’ve all heard Obama talk about taking firm positions in the past, but they tend to dissipate quickly into a cloud of “bipartisan compromise.”  Code, of course, for policies that folks in the beltway favor, despite strong evidence that they are loathed by vast majorities of the American public.

In the President’s speech Tuesday, the fault-lines for pre-emptive compromise were transparent to anybody who has been paying attention.  He touted his willingness to cut earned benefits and lower the tax rate for corporations and the wealthy.  These are exactly the kind “bipartisan ideas” that are rejected by large majorities outside Washington, regardless of their political affiliation.   And they take him in exactly the wrong political direction.

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This time around, the president can’t compromise.  If he wants to continue governing, he had better go all in.

Republicans are, in a way, making that easy for him.  After all, even Sen. Ted Cruz’s (Texas) Republican colleagues demanded that he sit down and scolded his reckless behavior.  And former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is spending loads of conservative dark money precisely because he knows that the Tea Party is on the verge of splitting the Republican caucus into two, despite Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) attempts to keep it together.

If the president can hold firm, the shutdown will almost certainly come to an end with the Republicans spitting into two groups: one made up of the more traditional fiscal conservatives, the other composed of populist Tea Partiers. 

But to show Republicans he’s serious this time around, the President should publicly state that he will use the executive power of his office to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, rather than cut a dime from Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, or any other program on which ordinary Americans depend.  And he should do it rather than agree to a short-term fix that will cause this ground hog’s day scenario to occur again.  The time for compromise over the Federal Budget has past.  The president has compromised away too much already.
Moreover, Obama should use this option rather than negotiate over the medical device tax (as Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has suggested he would do) or give the $6 trillion in tax handouts that Republicans are currently demanding.  What our country is facing, after all, is a revenue crisis.  So, it simply doesn’t make sense to cut the corporate tax rate, which is at a 40-year low, despite contrary proposals from both Ryan and the president himself.

No doubt if the president raises the debt ceiling unilaterally, the Republicans will cry foul.  They will bring the matter to the courts or start impeachment proceedings.  Let them try. There are good legal justifications supporting the use of executive power to raise the debt ceiling, despite what you hear from corporate lobbyists who have served in the administration.

If Republicans tried to impeach Obama or challenge him in court, they will surely lose in the court of public opinion.  The public appetite for budget debacles was exhausted long ago.  We recognize what Washington is still ignoring: we’re in the midst of a Great Recession, with workforce participation levels lower than they've been at any point in the last thirty-five years.

So, the president needs to be clear: we don’t need to have our communities further dismantled by “brave” politicians who want to cut food support for the poor and deny healthcare to kids with “pre-existing conditions” in order to give more tax breaks to millionaires and multinational corporations. What we need is a massive jobs program and serious public investment, two things that haven't happened yet, five years after the crash.

Recently, the president has renewed his emphasis on fighting economic inequality and rebuilding the middle class.  This is how he can show that he’s serious.

The president must confront the two-pronged Republican attack and use it to his advantage. On the one hand, he must resist the populist Tea Partiers, who have entirely lost touch with reality. Actually, they provide the president with greater leverage, since they are threatening to split the party in two.  On the other hand, he must avoid letting Speaker Boehner and the corporate elite – represented by the Fix the Debt lobby and the banker barons who visited the White House last Wednesday – use the Tea Partiers to force concessions on Social Security, Medicare, and taxes.

Fortunately, if Obama plays his cards right, the other side will be forced to fold.  There’s simply no reason to make any concessions to Boehner, who doesn’t have the power within his own caucus to deliver anyway.  The only rational way forward is for the president to hold his ground and force the Republican Party to fracture.  It won’t be pretty, but if Obama wants to govern with the time he has left, he needs to act boldly.

Hatch is the executive director of the IIRON Education Fund, a multi-state network of grassroots organizations that trains working people to build public lives.  Swenson serves on the steering committee of The People’s Lobby, a 501c(4) organization of working people dedicated to building and exercising political power for the sake of the common good.