Everyone should read David Leonhardt’s piece in the NYT Magazine on Obama’s economic philosophy. It’s fascinating — and reflects just how difficult it is to squeeze Obama into any sort of conceptual box on any issue. The article also reaffirmed some of my original reasons for supporting Obama — i.e., it reminded me why Obama could be a transformational president after all.
Like many others, I initially supported Obama over Clinton because I thought there was a higher potential ceiling. Clinton would win, but she would grind out a 51/49 victory that changed nothing. Obama, by contrast, at least presented the opportunity of breaking through the Red/Blue paradigm.
Well, not many people think that anymore. They just hope Obama will be fortunate enough to grind out a 51/49 win, but have little hope of breaking the current stalemate. Part of people’s frustration is a recognition that the divide may be structural, and thus has little to do with any one candidate. But others are frustrated because Obama doesn’t seem to be trying anymore to make that reality happen. And frankly, that’s where I’ve been lately too.
But maybe we’re wrong. Don’t look now, but Obama is taking concrete, non-dreamy steps to make a real progressive majority a reality. A big part of that is Obama’s enormous emphasis on building party infrastructure and registering voters — go read Goldstein and Klein on that. At the end of the day, this sort of grass-roots grunt work is where elections are won and lasting majorities constructed. In a sense, his speeches are a distraction — drawing the Great Eye away from the real danger, if you will. Let the GOP complain about “celebrities” and focus all their efforts on the daily news cycles of July. I’d rather have someone pounding on doors registering Democrats. And that’s what the campaign has been doing all summer.
Leonhardt’s article gives an additional audacious reason for hope — this time, though, it’s on the tax front, that vale of Democratic sorrow. Obama’s unique fusion of Chicago School marketism and progressive instincts is the most ambitious challenge to the Reagan political paradigm in modern presidential history. And if it works, it could have enormous consequences.
To back up, we are living within the Reagan “no new taxes” paradigm — sort of. People aren’t necessarily opposed to higher taxes on rich people, it’s just that the GOP has been enormously successful at convincing everyone in America that they share the same financial interests with the super-rich. It’s genius. The GOP enacts, say, a dollar of tax cuts. Of that dollar, 95 cents may go to one person, and the remaining nickel is chopped into 100 million little parts. Yet, everyone thinks they got a “tax cut.”
This misunderstanding, then, is the foundation of the Reagan paradigm — correct it, and the GOP would suffer a political bodyblow as the non-rich suddenly disassociate themselves with fiscal policies intended solely for the super-rich. The trick is to make middle class people break the conceptual link in their head.
Enter Obamanomics. Obama’s seemingly mundane tax policy is actually surprisingly combative and innovative on this front. Leonhardt writes:
Dating back to Reagan, Republicans have packaged tax cuts on high earners with more modest middle-class tax cuts and then maneuvered the Democrats into an unwinnable choice: are you for tax cuts or against them? Obama, however, argues that this is the moment when the politics of taxes can be changed.
To do this, he is proposing tax cuts for most families that are significantly larger than those McCain is offering, along with major tax increases for families making more than $250,000 a year. “That’s essentially a major part of our economic plan,” Obama said. “But it’s also a political message.” Economically, he is trying to use the tax code to spread the bounty from the market-based American economy to a far wider group of families. Politically, he is trying to drive a wedge through the great Reagan tax gambit.
McCain and pals will scream bloody murder that Obama will raise taxes. But if Obama can break through and succeed in this ambitious effort, it will forever change the “politics of tax” that have seemed so hopeless for so long.
To conclude, I don’t think that people are necessarily asking too much from Obama. Everyone wants a transformational presidency, and it’s easy to get frustrated when Obama looks like he’s given up on that goal.
But here’s the thing — he hasn’t given up. We’re all looking in the wrong direction (and at the wrong types of evidence) to determine whether he’s trying to create a permanent progressive majority. It won’t come in dominating poll numbers or huge bounces or even demonizing Republicans. It will come in both the gritty work of organizing and the far-sighted goal of undermining conservative ideological hegemony through clever and ambitious policies that break up coalitions.
In short, maybe it’s time to start getting excited again. And with that, I’ll see you in Denver.