Obama held hostage on the budget, displaying Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome describes what happens when someone taken hostage develops positive feelings for his captors. Barack Obama has been held hostage by the Republicans in Congress and in some ways is beginning to emulate them. Cut the deficit, slash fuel assistance for low-income people, shrink community health centers, eliminate community development block grants. This isn’t the Tea Party/GOP phalanx; this is putative Democrat Barack Obama. Who said you couldn’t turn a donkey into an elephant?

As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson notes, those left of center elected Obama to finish the work of Lyndon Johnson but are seeing the rhetorical reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.

I think of myself as an Independent, both in terms of registration and philosophy. And I can appreciate that being centrist is necessary for Obama’s reelection in 2012. Just consider what the alternatives on the far right are. But, on the budget deficit, the President has been more of a mediator than a leader, and the more he caves, the less I know exactly what he stands for.

Everyone knows we have to do something about the federal debt, but should Draconian steps be made just as the economy is struggling to recover? As Paul Krugman pointed out in the NY Times, Obama made major concessions under threat of government shut-down, but this is just the first round. Perhaps Obama thinks that celebrating the largest spending cut in the nation’s history will satisfy the Tea Party, but it won’t. He is, in effect, negotiating against himself, offering conciliation but leaving a woeful compromise as the next starting point for still more drastic cuts. The debt ceiling debate will likely be a repeat performance. It will be raised but with more theater and unbalanced concessions conceded. And then next year’s budget?

I want to know what he’s going to stand firm on and hope to hear that tomorrow night. But, in the end, talk means less than action. Isn’t it time to reduce some defense spending? It can be done while being fully supportive of the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, even those deployed to assist Japan. Should pay-as-you-go apply to our wars? Think of what Iraq costs alone have added to the deficit. In Economics 101, we learned that you can’t have guns and butter without paying for them. If your mantra is fiscal discipline, that restraint should be applied to all areas of the budget.

Medicare is one of the knottiest problems, and something has to be done. But shouldn’t the President push to expand the base level of income on which Social Security taxes are computed? Eliminating the Bush-era tax cut for the wealthiest Americans would go a long way to alleviate the problem. How about the enduring tax subsidies for oil companies and for agribusiness? What elements from Simpson-Bowles should the President embrace? Where’s the honest debate on these issues?

As Russ Douthat writes, Washington needs to enhance working-class opportunity while paring back subsidies to the affluent. Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s budget guru, has put forth a proposal that gets all its savings from cuts, two thirds of them from the least affluent among us. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who has been an admirer of Ryan, now says Ryan’s approach is unworkable.

So far, the Republicans have controlled the debate about the budget. The President will rhetorically win back some yardage in tomorrow night’s speech. But it’s what he will do afterwards that counts.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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