Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama's doctrine of pre-emption

Want to see political power wielded the right way? Watch Obama's weekly address:
I realize that passing this budget won’t be easy. Because it represents real and dramatic change, it also represents a threat to the status quo in Washington. I know that the insurance industry won’t like the idea that they’ll have to bid competitively to continue offering Medicare coverage, but that’s how we’ll help preserve and protect Medicare and lower health care costs for American families. I know that banks and big student lenders won’t like the idea that we’re ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that’s how we’ll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable. I know that oil and gas companies won’t like us ending nearly $30 billion in tax breaks, but that’s how we’ll help fund a renewable energy economy that will create new jobs and new industries. In other words, I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this:

So am I.

The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don’t. I work for the American people. I didn’t come here to do the same thing we’ve been doing or to take small steps forward, I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November. That is the change this budget starts to make, and that is the change I’ll be fighting for in the weeks ahead – change that will grow our economy, expand our middle-class, and keep the American Dream alive for all those men and women who have believed in this journey from the day it began.
That's a pre-emptive strike against business interests lining up against key elements in his budget. It's an extension of his campaign message against Rovian political attacks into the policy battles now looming: not this time. We won't get blind-sided, swiftboated, outlobbied, outspent and out-spun. And he's not alone in this. The Times has a story about how the whole liberal policy establishment is primed to pre-empt and counter Harry & Louise-style attacks on the health plan to come and other major policy initiatives to reverse the great risk shift and wealth shift of the past thirty years:
Mr. Podesta’s group [The Center for American Progress]is cooperating with two separate coalitions planning to fight for Mr. Obama’s health care plan with television advertisements, interview appearances on cable news talk shows and e-mail campaigns.

“This is no longer going to be Barack Obama standing by himself getting pilloried by the special interests with no one pushing back — if I can describe what it felt like in the White House in 1993,” Mr. Podesta said Friday.

The defeat of the Clinton health care plan was a hard learning experience for Democrats. They were caught flat-footed by an insurance industry-backed campaign to kill the proposal. It is best remembered for advertisements featuring a yuppie couple, Harry and Louise, worrying about limits on quality health care.

“The battle had been lost by the time the progressive community and its allies began rallying around the Clinton bill,” Mr. Neas said. “Now, people are prepared.”

Obama likes to exhort listeners to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it towards justice. Major progressive forces are gearing up to swing the pendulum back toward can-do government.

UPDATE: Al Giordano points out that the lobbies to whom Obama threw down the gauntlet have as much influence with Democrats as with Republicans -- and of course will be concentrating more on Democrats than on Republicans in this new era. Interesting in this context that Obama, who generally shuns speaking in the first person singular in favor of the nonroyal "we," personalized this challenge. "I know they're gearing up for a fight...So am I." As Giordano puts it: "They've [Congressional Democrats as well as Republicans] all just been put on notice: oppose the reforms he's pushing and be portrayed as siding with those corporate interests against the American people."

One relatively self-contained test of Obama vs. lobbyist influence on Democrats will be over the tax rates for hedge fund private equity managers, whose (formerly....) enormous incomes are taxed as capital gains, at 15%--a lower rate, as Warren Buffet points out, than his secretary pays. When this issue came up last year, Democrats caved quickly to industry pressure. Raising taxes on these management fees is in Obama's budget. We'll see if it happens this time.

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