The Bigger Picture
Published on February 15th 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Before I discuss my impressions regarding President Obama’s most recent 2011 State of the Union address, I think it would be instructive to reflect on the President’s performance during his first 2 years in office. I hope that by doing so my opinions, about both the tone and content of the President’s speech to Congress and America’s citizens; will be placed in their proper context.
It is important to note that when President Obama initially took office on January 20th 2009, America was in the throes of its worst economic crisis since the 1930’s Great Depression. Home prices were plunging and mortgage foreclosures rising in conjunction with deep cuts in consumer and business spending and ballooning unemployment rolls. Furthermore, President Obama had also inherited two foreign wars which the previous President and his Republican colleagues in Congress had chosen to finance with ever increasing amounts of deficit spending.
America was also grappling healthcare costs that were increasing rapidly, leaving some small businesses and middle class Americans unable to continue to fund their private healthcare insurance plans at a time when many Americans were also losing their jobs. Those ever increasing US medical bills were also driving up the costs of providing medical care for retired Americans, but instead of addressing this issue, the supposedly fiscally responsible Republicans simply added more fuel to the exploding federal budget deficit by providing a politically popular Medicare prescription drug benefit to retirees that was financed by still more deficit spending.
So Obama began his Presidency confronting a deepening economic recession with the added burden of a ballooning federal budget deficit that was exacerbated by years of Republican economic mismanagement. But most Congressional Republicans, still smarting from the shellacking they had taken in the 2008 General Election, were in no mood to try to work with President Obama to address America’s economic malaise, preferring instead to oppose whatever legislation President Obama and the Democratic Congress proposed to address the problem.
Fortunately for America and the nation’s economy, a few Congressional Republicans decided to put the needs of their country ahead of their political party’s agenda and decided to support the President’s bank bailout and economic stimulus measures, including an extension of unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who had lost their jobs early on in the recession. Ironically for me as a lifelong Republican, the majority of the Republicans who opposed these economic measures justified their opposition by claiming President Obama’s economic stimulus would worsen America’s gaping federal budget deficit. As such, their opposition was also a very glaring example of ‘the kettle calling the pot black.’
While we will never know if the contentions of these Republicans that Obama’s economic stimulus measures did more harm than good to America’s economy, the vast majority of economists, regardless of their political party affiliations, shudder to think what would have happened in America and in the global economy had Republicans succeeded in blocking President Obama and Congressional Democrats economic stimulus measures. Suffice to say that most economists believe that if they had, America would still be mired in an economic recession.
Aside from his success in avoiding a more serious economic downturn than the one America has already experienced, President Obama’s other most notable accomplishment during his first two years in office was the landmark healthcare legislation he and Congressional Democrats succeeded in passing. While this was the right thing to do for the millions of lower and middle income Americans who couldn’t afford private healthcare insurance, it also probably wasn’t the most politically savvy issue for President Obama to take up while America was still in the throes of a serious economic recession. Many Americans were obviously more concerned about fixing the economy than providing healthcare to those who couldn’t afford it.
On the other hand, throughout its’ political history, the United States Congress has only passed landmark social legislation, such as Social Security, Medicare and the Civil Rights Law, when one political party has a substantial representation advantage over its political opponents. Given the fact that the Democrats in Congress only had this type of political advantage during President Obama’s initial two years as President, it might have taken another generation to muster the political support required to address this problem. I could be wrong, but I believe the President was correct in dealing with the healthcare problem while the window to do so existed.
But the President and some of his Democratic allies in Congress subsequently paid a heavy political price in the 2010 midterm elections for doing the right thing for their country. Democrats not only lost control of the US House of Representatives, but they also lost the numerical advantage they needed in the US Senate to thwart Republican opposition to President Obama’s legislative agenda in the next two years of his first term as President. Be that as it may, the President and his Democratic allies in Congress were still able to use their remaining days in power to pass additional legislation prior to the Republican takeover of the US House in 2011.
However many Democrats in Congress were upset with President Obama over his willingness to compromise with Republicans and agree to a 2 year extension of all of the Bush era tax cuts, including those that applied to the wealthiest Americans. Rather than confronting Republicans over a tax increase for wealthy Americans, President Obama wisely decided to postpone the battle over the tax increase until after the 2012 elections. But by doing so President Obama was able to provide additional stimulus to the American economy and also win enough Republican support to get Senate approval of the nuclear arms reduction START treaty, a 13 month extension of unemployment benefits and the repeal of America’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ban of out of the closet homosexuals serving in the US armed forces.
Hoping to achieve additional compromises in 2011, Obama offered Republicans another olive branch in his State of the Union address. I’ll discuss their response next week.