Friday, August 12, 2011

The August blues

It sure has been a great August so far for a nation's leaders, eh? Think they want to go back to July for a do-over?

We've had the debt ceiling debate, the credit rating drop, the death of 30 soldiers in Afghanistan, and the stock market bounces for starters. For those of you adding up the winners and losers here, a winner is tough to find.

Recapping, President Obama tried his best to be the adult in the room when it came to the debt limit. He even gave in on raising taxes as part of a broader settlement, and essentially got nowhere in the talks. Then again, he walked out of one session saying he was taking the matter to the American people, which didn't exactly look Presidential.

Then earlier this week, he made a speech that tied together, at least within the confines of his remarks, the Afghanistan tragedy and the credit rating cut. Not sure who had that idea, but there was no way to make it look graceful. Bad idea there.

(For the record, Obama's speech came in early afternoon, and the stock market continued its plunge for the rest of that day. The New York Post implied there was a connection in its stories and headlines for Tuesday's paper, which was silly and unfair. Tough to defend that, speaking as a fellow journalist.)

Most people don't realize that a President can't do much about the economy. If Greece and Italy have problems, the Americans don't have much control. But the casualties from the Afghan occupation and reconstruction (it's really that more than a war in most ways) is a reminder that we've been there for 10 years, and little seems to change from the eye of a distant observer.

Still, Congress looks even worse midway through the month. No one could agree on much of anything in the debt talks, even within parties. The tea party folks weren't thrilled with Speaking John Boehmer's efforts at "compromise," which the liberals thought the lack of tax cuts made it a bad deal. Not a grown-up to be found among any of the principals there. Even the idea of holding up the debt ceiling for political reasons seems silly. Didn't the country promise to pay its bills when it launched those programs? Don't we have a proverbial solemn obligation to do so now? No one really understands much of what deal was made, and no one has much faith that the 12-member super-committee can figure something out in the current political climate.

And the members of Congress paid the price in the public opinion polls. While Obama's approval rating is in the 40's, Congress' rating is down to about 14 percent. How would you like to manage a reelection campaign for any of those people? "No thanks, I'm busy in 2012."

A commentator appearing on C-SPAN the other day made a great point about the political situation in Washington these days (wasn't taking notes, sorry). He said all of the liberals are Democrats and all the conservatives are Republicans. There are few people in between any more. In the old days, Southern Democrats were conservative on some issues, while Eastern Republicans were rather moderate. Now there's not much room for negotiations.

That has led to the rise of calling people RINO's (Republicans in name only) who try to figure out ways of settling disputes. If you haven't noticed, when one side controls the House and the other side controls the Senate, there are disputes.

As usual, the American people seem to be way ahead of the politicians on the matter of the debt limit. Polls indicate they want a combination of tax hikes that affect the wealthy a bit more and close loopholes, combined with good-sized cuts in spending. They at least intuitively realize that tax rates are historically low, with few people in the bottom half of income brackets paying anything (would something like a co-payment hurt?) and the upper half seemed to do pretty well under President Clinton with a top tax rate at 39.6 percent instead of the current 35.

And that's what some of the arguments have been about -- 4.6 percent points. We're not talking about 35 versus 82 percent, like it was 50 years ago, or even 50, under President Reagan. You'd think reasonable people could reach a happy medium (I know, I know).

Focusing on the top at the moment, you'd think Obama should be in some trouble when it comes to reelection. Still, no one looks ready to gain the nomination in a right-wing party and then then go to win the Presidency. Are anyone besides donors enthusiastic about Mitt Romney? Would you love to campaign against Rick Perry, who shared a podium last week with a preacher who claimed New Orleans was hit by Katrina because it was a city of sin?

I'm not sure if we're going to come out of this with anger or apathy in 2012. But the political landscape is waiting to be shaken if someone or something can provide the energy.

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