A Progressive Response to MoveOn

(The following post was co-written by my friend and colleague Tim Willard of the MD Green Party.)

News that the Obama Administration will enlist its massive campaign “army” of grassroots activists to push his budget through Congress, along with the current public outrage over the AIG bonuses, have raised the stakes in this already high stakes battle, and reactions to President Obama’s program are hitting the extremes. Republicans raise the specter of socialism while Democrats expect a new FDR, rescuing us from all the problems that have festered for the last thirty years.

While few in the public are buying the reactionary hysteria of Republicans, though, too many progressive organizations are uncritically accepting the hype surrounding President Obama’s plans – a recent MoveOn email message, “10 things you should know about Obama’s plan (but probably don’t),” is a typical example.

We give President Obama credit for the scope of his proposals, and acknowledge that many of his policies are dramatically better than President Bush’s. At the same time, his policies are often less ambitious than the rhetoric would suggest, and fall short of what is needed. At other times, his solutions to problems are constrained by corporate interests that will render them ineffective. And while truly prodigious amounts of money are being spent in the effort – money that must be repaid by us and our children, let us not forget – what is often required is not more money, but deeper systemic changes.

Simply being better than Bush is not a sufficient standard to meet the immense challenges we face today. If we are to solve these problems, we need to face them critically. Unlike the Rush Limbaughs of the world, we want President Obama to succeed. But mere cheerleading will not be enough; an honest look at the Obama proposals – and an appropriate response – is required.

Below is a progressive response to the aforementioned MoveOn email message of March 1st, one which we hope will stimulate a more serious discussion.


“10 things you should know about Obama’s plan (but probably don’t)”

1) Makes a $634 billion down payment on fixing health care that will go a long way toward paying for a more efficient, more affordable health care system that covers every single American.

Response – President Obama said during the campaign that health care is a basic right, and yet he plans to leave our national system in the hands of private corporations that limit or deny coverage in order to maximize their profits. More money for health care is good, but it doesn’t address this fundamental problem. It’s also far from clear where all of the $634 billion to be set aside will come from, and at least some of it will come by cutting good programs, such as squeezing $37 billion from home health agencies. Physicians for a National Health Care Program estimate that a single payer health care system would save $350 billion a year on redundant paperwork alone, and it would be a huge boost to businesses struggling with health care costs – but such a system is “not on the table” for discussion.

2) Reduces taxes for 95% of working Americans. And if your family makes less than $250,000, your taxes won’t go up one dime.

Response – This is appropriate given that tax policies heavily favor the wealthy, but it’s difficult to see how we can spend trillions of dollars on programs and initiatives, however desperately needed, without ultimately placing the burden on those same 95%. It will take innovative new ideas to bring the budget back into balance. One of the most urgently needed taxes is on the rampant trade of exotic financial instruments, such as derivatives, that precipitated our current financial collapse. Given that worldwide trade in derivatives approaches a staggering $500 trillion, with much of it centered in the U.S., a tax of less than 1% would generate hundreds of billions of dollars – enough money to pay for President Obama’s plans… or fund the Wall St. bailout that is now being picked up by taxpayers .

3) Invests more than $100 billion in clean energy technology, creating millions of green jobs that can never be outsourced.

Response – Unfortunately President Obama continues to support the myth of “clean coal” as one of those energy technologies to be funded, along with nuclear power. And the stimulus package allocates approximately three times as much for highways as it does for mass transit. Building a green energy economy must be the centerpiece of a new economy.

Even worse, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress seem to have already made up their mind to implement a “cap-and-trade” program to reduce carbon emissions, as opposed to a much more aggressive carbon tax. A cap and trade plan, which failed in Europe, creates a market for carbon pollution – with the potential for all the lobbying, speculation and corruption plaguing our financial markets. Current cap-and-trade programs have resulted in windfalls for the very companies that are the heaviest polluters. Cap-and-trade is not science-based, it is market-based, and if it delays implementation of much stronger reductions, this one decision could overwhelm all attempts to confront the climate crisis of global warming.

4) Brings our troops home from Iraq on a firm timetable, finally bringing the war to a close—and freeing up almost ten billion dollars a month for domestic priorities.

Response – President Obama declared combat operations in Iraq will end in August of 2010, yet some 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq – they will simply be “renamed” or “remissioned.” Pentagon officials concede these “new” missions of support, intelligence and anti-terrorist operations could well involve combat – they are, after all, combat troops, however renamed. President Obama says these troops will be withdrawn by December 31, 2011, a timeline that is twice as long as his promised withdrawal plan of 16 months – and which could easily change over the next three years.

At the same time President Obama withdraws troops from Iraq, he is sending them to Afghanistan – 17,000 so far, with more deployments likely. And President Obama is also asking for an increase in the already astronomical military budget, even larger than the one suggested for 2009 by President Bush.

5) Reverses growing income inequality. The plan lets the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire and focuses on strengthening the middle class.

Response – Income inequality has been growing in the U.S. for the past 30 years. While letting the Bush tax cuts expire is a step in the right direction, much more fundamental changes will be needed to actually reverse growing income inequality, including a re-evaluation of trade policy which has encouraged manufacturers to move overseas to exploit cheap labor and led to a “race to the bottom” for US workers.

6) Closes multi-billion-dollar tax loopholes for big oil companies.

Response – True, but the Obama Administration is also continuing the Bush policy of opening our coastlines to oil and gas drilling, as well as promoting the development of oil shale in Western states, an environmentally dangerous process that consumes huge amounts of water in an already drought-stricken west.

7) Increases grants to help families pay for college—the largest increase ever.

Response – The total cost of tuition and fees for everyone currently enrolled in public colleges and universities is approximately $25 billion a year – what the Pentagon spends in about two weeks. If higher education is truly a priority, why not make college education free?

8) Halves the deficit by 2013. President Obama inherited a legacy of huge deficits and an economy in shambles, but his plan brings the deficit under control as soon as the economy begins to recover.

Response – President Obama’s long-term budget can halve the deficit by 2013 only because he and Congress are dramatically increasing the deficit in 2009 with the stimulus package and increases in budget spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined that the budget deficit could be nearly halved simply by winding down the war in Iraq and allowing some of Bush’s tax cuts to expire. Also, the ability to deliver on this so-called “halving” is based on revenue, spending cuts and tax increases yet to be approved, or in some cases even determined, as well as some very optimistic projections for economic growth in the out years.

9) Dramatically increases funding for the SEC and the CFTC—the agencies that police Wall Street.

Response – And yet, the Obama Administration continues to pour billions of dollars into failing financial institutions, in spite of the fact that no one can say where the first $350 billion in bailout money went to, or what it did. They are also refusing, so far, to reinstitute fundamental regulations – such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which until its repeal in 1999 had for more than 60 years kept the activities of local commercial banks (where your money resides) and Wall St. investment firms safely separated.

10) Tells it straight. For years, budgets have used accounting tricks to hide the real costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, and too many other programs. Obama’s budget gets rid of the smokescreens and lays out what America’s priorities are, what they cost, and how we’re going to pay for them.

Response – Well, sort of. While the Obama budget is more honest than Bush’s, and includes spending (such as the Iraq war) that Bush and Congress kept off-budget, it still relies on “a few well-worn budget tricks,” according to the February 26th Washington Post article “In President’s Budget Plan, Broad Agenda and a Few Gaps.” For instance, about half of the $2 trillion in “savings” President Obama has identified are actually tax increases. Additional savings are counted against unrealistic scenarios, such as money “saved” by not continuing Iraq war spending at $170 billion a year indefinitely. And hundreds of billions of dollars would theoretically come from the cap-and-trade program, which might face significant revisions before being enacted and is, as noted above, terrible policy to begin with.

Postscript – MoveOn and others are now asking for our money so they can fight the battle of this budget against the lobbyists and special interests swooping in to dismantle it. Here’s a better idea – how about if the Obama Administration and Congress enact full public campaign funding for all federal elections? It would cost an infinitesimal fraction of what their current budget plans do, yet would dramatically reduce the power of lobbyists overnight, since politicians would no longer depend on the contributions from the lobbyists’ corporate bosses and networks to bankroll a campaign. Why isn’t MoveOn fighting for that bold policy?

#     #     #

Thanks also to Kevin Zeese, David Gaines and Maria Allwine for their comments and contributions to this piece!

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2 Responses to “A Progressive Response to MoveOn”

  1. trends watch Says:

    trend watch : A Progressive Take on President Obama’s Plans « The Fierce Urgency ……

    […]Given that worldwide trade in derivatives approaches a staggering $500 trillion, with much of it centered in the U.S., a tax of less than 1% would gen[…]…

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