All things in moderation

Despite promising to advance a progressive agenda, Obama is moving too close to center on key issues in his second term.

By Luke Brinker

A mere three months ago, President Barack Obama seemed to confirm Republicans’ worst fears about what a second Obama term would bring. Reelected by a healthy margin, Obama took to the Capitol steps at his January inaugural to proclaim his support for a bold progressive agenda. The president articulated positions on climate change, same-sex marriage, gun control, the social safety net, and international diplomacy that cheered his liberal fans. Regrouping Republicans retrenched for a long, hard, four-year slough.

In the months since Obama’s second inauguration, however, we’ve seen little evidence of the progressive fighter who promised to reinvigorate the center-left agenda that propelled him to power in 2008. Instead, Obama continues to govern as a moderate milquetoast. He occasionally prevents the most putrid factions from advancing their interests, but he has yet to challenge the establishmentarian centrist orthodoxy that grips Washington. What’s more, he may actually subscribe to it.

Many observers—your faithful correspondent included—noted the reemergence of climate change in Obama’s inaugural remarks. After largely deferring the issue in the face of political obstacles in 2009, Obama signaled in January that the environmental and moral challenges posed by global warming were simply too grave to continue ignoring. Since then, however, he’s thumbed his nose at the environmental community on one of the most pressing environmental questions on the agenda: whether to construct the Keystone XL pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil through the United States. Even as a recent spill of 5,000 barrels from an Arkansas pipeline underscored the dangers of pipeline spills, Obama told fundraisers in California that he’s leaning toward approving the Keystone project. Obama acknowledged environmentalists’ concerns about the impact developing tar sands oil would have on the climate, but he couched his likely decision in economic terms. “You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern,” he said, purportedly speaking on behalf of ordinary Americans.  “And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by,” Obama concluded. You see, in tough economic times, worrying about the survival of the planet is the dilettantish preserve of left-wing students and trust-fund babies. Real, salt-of-the-Earth Americans don’t waste their time worrying about rising sea levels, polluted air, and contaminated water supplies.

Obama’s insinuation—that economically struggling Americans are too myopic to care about the environment, and that they don’t have as much of a stake in planetary health—is far more offensive than the controversy ginned up over his 2008 remarks about rural Americans clinging to guns and religion. At any rate, Obama told the California donors that the political ramifications of not approving the project would likely be grave for Democrats. Electing anti-environment Republicans is hardly a worthy price, he suggested. To which anyone with half a brain would respond: What’s the point in holding political power if you aren’t willing to use it? And, ye of Hope and Change, if you’re afraid of the GOP demagoguery on Keystone, why not use the bully pulpit to educate the public about what a disaster tar sands oil and the pipeline itself will prove to be in environmental terms?

Even more mystifying than Obama’s apparent willingness to sign off on Keystone was his recent budget, which called for cuts in Social Security benefits. Obama’s proposed changes don’t make sense, on the political or the economic level. Politically, budget cuts are quite the audacious move to make after excoriating Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as welfare state slashers who would jeopardize Grandma’s social insurance benefits. Moreover, the economic justification for moving to “chained Consumer Price Index (CPI),” a method of calculating Social Security benefits, is fundamentally flawed. Supporters of chained CPI note that it tracks the actual changes in consumer prices much more accurately than the present method for calculating Social Security benefits. What chained CPI doesn’t account for, though, is the fact that seniors spend a disproportionate share of their income on medicine and health care—two areas where price rises far outpace other goods in the Consumer Price Index. Why Obama wishes to move to a system that’s less generous to seniors and opposed by the vast majority of his progressive base is obvious: He now gets to play the “reasonable adult” who’s willing to put “everything on the table.” Thomas Friedman and David Brooks will laud him as a great centrist compromiser, and even if Republicans don’t come to the negotiating table, at least Obama can say he was willing to be “responsible” by “reining in entitlements.”

In light of Obama’s proposed cuts to a massively popular social program, perhaps it isn’t surprising that his second-term administration continues to flout popular opinion on the idiotic drug war. A majority of Americans now supports the legalization of marijuana, a Pew Research Center poll recently found. The Obama administration’s response? “The Justice Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske declared.

Got that, Americans? In these austere times, everything—including Social Security—must be on the table. But the $15 billion spent each year waging the four decade-old War on Drugs? Non-negotiable.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program