Something momentous is happening in the United States right now and Barack Obama doesn’t get it. In Madison, Wisconsin last week, up to 40,000 public employees, organised by their unions, the Democratic party and the grassroots Organizing for America group that elected the president in 2008, gathered at the state capitol. Teachers left their classrooms, forcing schools to close.
Their objective? To rail against an attempt to balance the budget and curtail union power by newly-elected Governor Scott Walker, a Republican. The Democratic party’s response? Its state senators have fled Wisconsin to Illinois, dodging state troopers as they went, in order to prevent the budget being voted on. Obama branded Walker’s actions as an “assault on unions”.
It was Obama who crowed just after he entered the White House that “elections have consequences”. In Wisconsin last November, the consequences included the governorship, a Senate seat and the state senate and assembly all being lost by the Democrats.
Although you may have read about the Tea Party being a collection of fringe racists and lunatics, their activists in places like Wisconsin were mainly ordinary Americans sick to the back teeth with out-of-control spending.
Walker’s proposals are relatively modest ones for someone facing a $3.6 billion shortfall. He was elected on a platform of balancing the budget and he’s got to find the money to do that from somewhere.
Budget crises are brewing in Ohio, New Jersey and a slew of other states.
The protests in Wisconsin coincided with Obama presenting his new budget in Washington. Despite all his talk of moving to the centre and cutting the national debt, Obama showed he was utterly unserious about dealing with the US government’s catastrophic addiction to spending.
He cast aside the tough measures recommended by the bipartisan Deficit Commission he appointed and failed to tackle what everyone knows is the main financial drain – the big “entitlement” programmes of Social Security, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor).
What Obama proposed would do nothing more than slow down the rate of increase in the national debt. No responsible citizen would run their own household finances this way.
Depressingly, Obama’s calculation seems to be that he can talk a good game on the deficit and spout vacuous slogans like “winning the future”. He’ll leave it to Republicans to propose swingeing cuts in entitlement programmes and then suffer a backlash from frightened voters at the polls in 2012. At least, that’s what happened in 1996. But Obama does not seem to have noticed that 2012 is not 1996.
The fact that a president would use his own campaign foot soldiers to back public employees against their elected state government shows how distorted his priorities have become. Instead of confronting unions, as President Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981 when he fired more than 11,000 of them, Obama is facilitating them.
In the freshman class of House of Representatives, there is a mood of revolution not dissimilar to that inside Governor Walker’s administration (to be clear: the crowds surrounding the state capitol are the forces of reaction).
Saturday’s package of $60 billion budget cuts, passed in the early hours, did not tackle entitlements. It did, however, set the stage for a confrontation with Obama that could well lead to a government shutdown, which last happened in 1995. Scenes like those in Wisconsin could soon be repeated in Washington.
Two figures in American politics right now are talking seriously about dealing with the federal spending crisis. One is Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana who declared recently that the federal government was “morbidly obese” and needed “not just behaviour modification but bariatric surgery”.
It’s possible that this was also a gentle dig at Christie, a self-described “pretty fat” guy, who is the other. Christie spoke in Washington last week about how he was advised not to slash state programmes. “I had everybody telling me, Governor you can’t do it. Your approval ratings will go in the toilet. People love these programmes.” He ignored them and his ratings went up.
Both Daniels and Christie are being urged by conservatives to run for president. Both like plain talk on fiscal matters and favour action over words.
Obama, in the meantime, prefers fine words, careful positioning, fidelity to powerful Democratic interest groups. His failure to grasp what is happening in Wisconsin, underlines that the cult figure of 2008 is being left behind by the new zeitgeist.