|Piss Christ via en.wikipedia.or|
A source points out that the photographer credited with New York Magazine’s not-terribly-flattering portrait of Karl Rove is one Andres Serrano.
And if that name sounds vaguely familiar to political types, it’s because his most notorious work is “Piss Christ,” which helped trigger a major flap around the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s.
Jonathan Alter wrote a book about Barack Obama’s first year in office called “The Promise.” That’s a great title because it works on so many levels. For example, over the past four years, Obama’s career has been marked by a constant promise: He has continually said he is on the verge of doing something serious abut the national debt.
During the transition, he said the time to act on the debt is now. “What we have done is kicked the can down the road,” he told The Washington Post. “We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further.” He said he would start a budget initiative in February 2009.
After the stimulus package passed, he and his aides said it would soon be time to turn to deficit issues. The same promise was made after health care reform. He made the pledge yet again at a press conference this week. Right now is not the time, the president always says, but tomorrow we will get serious.
But tomorrow never comes.
The biggest tease came last year when the president’s debt commission announced its report. That report produced a series of great conversations. But, yet again, words do not translate into action. The message of the president’s 2012 budget is: Not yet. We’ll get serious tomorrow.
The budget has some fine features. I’ll soon be writing a column about how many of its provisions are better than anything the Republican Party is proposing. But it is laughably inadequate compared with the fiscal problems before us.
In 2012, the only year this budget controls, the president would actually increase the deficit with more spending. Roughly two-thirds of the alleged savings would nominally kick in after 2016. The budget imagines that $328 billion in financing for transportation projects will magically appear. While ignoring tax reform, it lards up the tax code with another layer of special preferences. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculates that $780 billion of the proposed deficit cuts are politically dubious.
The budget gets a lot of little things right, but it squanders the opening created by the debt commission. It fails to touch the big programs or ask for any shared sacrifice from the American people.
Two explanations are commonly offered to explain why the White House decided to kick the can down the road. Some analysts say the Democrats are trying for a repeat of 1995: Do nothing on the deficit; goad the Republicans into announcing entitlement cutbacks and then savage them on the campaign trail for cutting off granny.
I don’t believe this is in the president’s head. It would be morally reprehensible to bankrupt the nation for the sake of a campaign theme. Obama is not that sort of person.
The other explanation is that Obama is following the model of the 1983 Social Security deal. Be patient, the president argued at his press conference this week. If I lead from the front my proposal will get stymied in the partisan circus. Better to lead from the back and have negotiations in private with Republican leaders. Then when the time is ripe, we’ll cut a deal outside the glare of the scream machine.
The president and his aides may really believe in this strategy, but it is wrong. This is not like fixing Social Security in the early 1980s. The current debt problem is of an entirely different scale. It requires a rewrite of the social contract, a new way to think about how the government pays for social insurance.
The president has enormous faith in getting smart people around the table and initiating technocratic reform. But you can’t renegotiate the social contract in private. You have to have public buy-in. You have to spend years out in public educating voters about the size of the problem and what will be required. You have to show voters what a solution looks like.
The New Deal wasn’t passed by a president who led quietly from the back. Neither was the Great Society or the Reagan Revolution. President Obama’s softly, softly approach is a rationalization, not a coherent strategy. It’s the latest version of Obama’s eternal promise: I’ll do it tomorrow.
So the mantle of leadership has passed to Capitol Hill. While Obama asked for patience yet again, Eric Cantor announced that Republicans will put entitlements on the table. It may be politically risky, but it looks more like leadership to me.