Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why there must be rich poker players in Chicago

In this political poker game, Barack Obama always folds
by Ian Williams
Saturday, December 18th, 2010

In the United States Senate last week, its sole avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, who I have occasionally interviewed for Tribune, showed that there is still reason to believe in evolution on Capitol Hill. There are still some vertebrates there. On Friday December 10, for eight hours, he actually did what the Republicans have threatened to do since Barack Obama was elected President. He filibustered.

His eight-hour oration was no time-consuming recital of the phone book but, rather, a concentrated point-by-point rundown of all the crimes committed by the wealthy against the American people, culminating in the current trade-off, sponsored by Obama, of the extension of unemployment benefits for millions thrown out of work by the crisis in exchange for continuing tax cuts to the billionaires who caused the crisis in the first place.

Essentially, Obama had inherited a previous compromise, whereby the Democrats agreed to George W Bush’s deficit-building package of tax cuts which were heavily loaded towards the rich. They expire at the end of this year, and Obama and the Democrats wanted to keep the cuts for the more modestly paid, but abolish them for the rich.

In the meantime, the emergency two-year extension of unemployment benefits for the millions made jobless by the plutocrat-induced crisis was also expiring. Obama’s administration has been wrestling with conservatives to extend that limit. However, in the full spirit of Christian Conservative charity, Republicans were happy to see the benefits expire just before Christmas and for everyone, no matter how poor, to pay more taxes if there aren’t breaks for billionaires.

Obama negotiated more out of them than many expected, but that is because expectations have been diminishing. The estate tax was retained – for 3,500 of the richest halfwits who can’t afford estate-planning attorneys, and the unemployment benefit was retained for 13 months – but the tax cuts stay for two years. Just in time for the next presidential election.

If the economy improves because of the rescue package Obama forced past the Republicans, they will take the credit. If it falters, they will blame “his” deficit spending, not their tax cuts.

I used to berate Bill Clinton for his signature “triangulation”, in which he rode to victory by stealing conservative policies while persuading his base he was really on their side.

Obama has it all base over apex. He is alienating his base while folding to Republican demands and actually leading his party to massive electoral defeat. Whether on the Middle East, healthcare or now tax cuts and unemployment, he starts the bidding low and then goes lower.

The whole American system is designed to make fudging, lobbying, backroom dealing and sordid compromise almost inevitable. It is a bit like American football, with lots of huddling and heaving and running around to gain a few yards.

Before going any further, let’s put on the record that I am happy it is Barack Obama and not Sarah Palin or John McCain in the White House, even though I never thought he was the paragon of progressiveness some of his more naive protagonists presumed he was.

Obama does have to appear as reasonable as possible for the sake of the millions of voters disenchanted with the bitter partisanship in Washington. But if he showed a fraction of the toughness to the Republicans that he has to his liberal backers, he would be much more successful.

The President is reputedly a keen poker player. His performance in Washington has led many to suppose that he made a lot of money for his fellow players back in Chicago. He has yet to call someone’s bluff. He always pushes the pot across to his opponents when they hang tough.

In the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to keep stealing land and houses in the occupied territories, and the American President offers billions of dollars and flights of free fighter aircraft, and the veto equivalent of a get-out-jail-free card in the United Nations in return for a temporary suspension of settlement building. It was a bit like bribing a rapist to take a breather.

In the Senate, the Republicans have threatened filibuster after filibuster to thwart the view of the majority. But they have not had to act on their threats once. On this occasion, they would have had to have stood there, in the run-up to Christmas, holding millions of unemployed to ransom so that the billionaires who trashed their jobs could keep tax breaks that were a major reason the deficit was running so high. Sanders filibustered. Obama folded.

Obama’s basic problem is his assumption of good will on the part of his opponents for which there is little or no evidence. Conservatives everywhere believe in sacrifice for the greater good – as long as it is poor and working people on the altar.

The Republicans’ main aim is control of the White House in two years’ time. And if they have to trash the economy even more to get it, they will. Their supporters contrived the biggest ever post-war recession – and made more money than ever before. Vultures thrive on casualties.

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