Across party lines, there is an almost universal assumption that politicians default to what is easy and in their best interests. Given the state of our politics and the dysfunctions and disappointments of Washington, that is no surprise.
But I think we’re often too quick to dismiss everything politicians do as being driven by, well, politics. Take the last two defining issues of Republican and Democratic presidencies. After 9/11, President Bush deeply believed the “war on terror” was the defining mission of his presidency and he’d pursue it regardless of political cost. The wisdom of the Iraq invasion will be debated through history but it is wrong to say it was launched for political benefit.
The same goes with President Obama and health care. As much as I believe Obamacare is deeply flawed, it would be misplaced to accuse the president of fighting for Obamacare for purely political gain. Yes, he has used it as a political club when possible, but he’s fought for it because he believes in the issue.
The pure politics of unemployment insurance is pretty straightforward: supporting it is “better” politically than opposing. There is not a large or active political force fighting unemployment insurance extension. Unlike, say, the minimum wage, there is not a direct impact on employers.
So why would Republicans oppose it? Start with the fundamental flaws—call it hypocrisy—of the Democratic argument. When it suits his political agenda, the president has argued furiously that the “private economy is doing fine,” as he famously said in the 2012 campaign. The economy is doing so well, in fact, that the centerpiece of the president’s agenda last year was gun control.
But when a booming economy is not the useful reality, the president paints a very different reality. In that America, long-term unemployment is a crisis and full-time jobs at a living wage are so difficult to find that it is morally corrupt not to extend unemployment insurance.
Nowhere in this equation is there any acknowledgement that the economic policies of the administration have contributed to the problem. The president is unwilling to assume responsibility for his failures that have left America with fewer full-time workers today than when he took office.
Instead, like a child going to a mother and father with different stories hoping they won’t talk to one another, the president tries to convince the public that the economy is great due to his leadership but millions are suffering because the economy is terrible and Republicans won’t help.
It’s the same pattern the president takes with the sequester. Obama and his allies tried to terrorize the nation that the world as we know it would end if the sequester was passed. Then they started bragging that the deficit was coming down at a surprising rate, not noting that the sequester was a major factor in the reduction.
A reasonable position is to reconcile the disparate worlds of Barack Obama into one logical policy approach. Republicans have supported unemployment extensions in the past and are likely to support this one if some efforts are made to adjust root problems. We still have a massive deficit problem and the drop in unemployment is largely due to workers exiting the work force. Simply extending “emergency” unemployment benefits without an effort to address these problems is the surest way to guarantee a similar need in three months.
The president is framing unemployment insurance extension as a moral test—but he always does. It’s the standard tactic for this president, and one that has served him well, to paint any opposition to any of his politics as morally deficient.
If you voted for the Iraq War—like Hillary Clinton—you were a warmonger. If you oppose him on gun control, you support the murder of innocent children. If you oppose him his policy of the moment in Syria, you are for endless Mideast wars. If you oppose his policy on gay marriage, the one he ran on in 2008, you are a bigot. It has a repetitive predictability but it has proven extraordinarily useful in its ability to shape arguments and manipulate press coverage.
But the president’s standing is at a record low and, as he learned last year with gun control, the “how dare they” line is wearing thin. The public knows the president was dishonest on Obamacare and once a president has been proven dishonest, his ability to use moral authority is greatly weakened.
Maybe Obama’s weakened position can force him to deal more directly and in good faith and achieve positive results. Ironically, progress on the problems the Republicans are trying to address—long-term unemployment and deficit reduction—would be the best thing that could happen to a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
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