So, another year begins, with another chance to get things right. That’s what those New Year’s resolutions are all about after all – going on a diet, and sticking to it this time, or finally exercising, every single day, or learning Portuguese or resolving to be positive at work and never complain, or never seethe in anger because you’re afraid to complain. You will be a better person. This time you’ll get it right – and all of that lasts for a day, at best, because the days and weeks flow by in a steady stream. One is much like the next. No day is the start of a new year, or every day is. Deciding that everything changes, or that everything can change, on the first day in January is a bit silly. One number, designating the year, changes. That could be done in the middle of March each year, if everyone agreed – but everyone agreed on the first day in January, for convenience. It’s no more than that. Everyone just makes too much of what they have decided is a special day – and structures their lives around it – and never keeps those resolutions.
Civic life is structured around that date too – there’s the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, followed by Christmas, with a week off for everyone, followed by the New Year’s Eve party, the hangover, the college bowl games, and then it’s back to work with no real holidays for a long stretch. It feels like a pause and a new start. It’s time to get things right. There isn’t much else to do, anyway, and the new start in Washington every four years is a new presidential term, and every two years, a new Congress – and this year it’s a really new Congress. Both the House and Senate are now held by the Republicans, by a wide margin, and President Obama is still a Democrat, with his popularity rising, and the economy in fine shape, finally, and Vladimir Putin looking foolish, as his economy collapses, and not looking like the guy who outmaneuvered Obama on everything. ISIS has stalled too – they’re not taking over the Middle East now, much less the world – and Ebola is no longer an issue, Benghazi is no longer an issue, if it ever was – and there was no IRS scandal after all. Obamacare is also working just fine. If this new Congress, in this brand new shiny New Year, wants to finally get everything right for a change, it’s hard to image what their New Year’s resolutions could be – but this is the time for those.
They have resolved to get rid of Obamacare, even if they cannot repeal it. Obama would veto any legislation to do that, and they don’t have the votes to override a veto. They’ll slowly dismantle it instead, if they can. They can’t, even if they can do some damage, and they have to be wary that taking health insurance away from ten or twenty million people who finally were able to buy it is a bit risky. Those people vote. They have also resolved to block all of Obama’s executive decisions on how to best inforce our strange immigration laws, but Obama has been careful and is only doing what he is allowed to do, and no more – so they may not be able to keep that resolution either. They have also resolved to block Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba, but presidents can do that sort of thing, as Nixon did with China, and most Americans agree it’s about time for that, even most Republicans. That will go nowhere. Obama finally got things right, before they did. All in all, there’s a problem here. If the New Year is a chance to finally get things right, something has to be terribly wrong. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson lays out the economic problem:
Last week’s announcement that the economy grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter of 2014 – following 4.6 percent second-quarter growth – was the clearest and least debatable indication to date that sustained recovery is no longer a promise, it’s a fact.
Remember how Mitt Romney painted President Barack Obama as an economic naïf, presented himself as the consummate job-creator and promised to reduce unemployment to 6 percent by the end of his first term? Obama beat him by two full years: The jobless rate stands at 5.8 percent, which isn’t quite full employment but represents a stunning turnaround.
Since the day Obama took office, the U.S. economy has created well over 5 million jobs; if you measure from the low point of the recession, as the administration prefers, the number approaches 10 million. It is true that the percentage of Americans participating in the workforce has declined, but this has to do with long-term demographic and social trends beyond any president’s control.
Middle-class incomes have been flat, despite a recent uptick in wages. But gasoline prices have plummeted to an average of $2.29 a gallon nationwide, according to AAA. This translates into more disposable income for consumers; as far as the economy is concerned, it’s as if everyone got a raise.
The stock market, meanwhile, is at an all-time high, with the Dow soaring above 18,000. This is terrific for Wall Street and the One-Percenters, but it also fattens the pension funds and retirement accounts of the middle class.
The only fly in the ointment here is that middle-class incomes have been flat for a decade or more, but the Republican position has always been that the free market rewards those who should be rewarded, the good people, the morally responsible people who take personal responsibility for their lives and make something of themselves, and don’t whine. That means Republicans have to argue that this is as it should be. In short, there’s no problem with wage stagnation. In fact, low wages mean high profit margins, and that’s damned good for business and thus good for America – as long as folks have enough money to buy some stuff. But if they don’t, they can put that stuff on a credit card, and the banks will make good money. It’s all good, except for the suckers who haven’t gotten a raise in six years – but they can start their own multinational corporations if they choose. At least they can start a fantastic new small business, selling something no one ever thought of selling before, and get rich. They didn’t? That’s their fault.
All of this leaves the Republicans with nothing to complain about, and Robinson argues that this also means that Obama cannot be the evil villain they need:
For Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and other potential GOP presidential contenders, the first question is whether to deny the obvious, accept it grudgingly or somehow embrace it.
For years, a central tenet of the Republican argument has been that on economic issues, Obama is either an incompetent or a socialist. It should have been clear from the beginning that he is neither, given the fact that he rescued an economy that was on the brink of tipping into depression – and did it in a way that was friendly to Wall Street’s interests. But the GOP rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story.
The numbers we’re seeing now, however, make these charges of incompetence and/or socialism untenable. Even the Affordable Care Act – which Republicans still claim to want to repeal – turned out not to be the job-killer that critics imagined. All it has done, aside from making it possible for millions of uninsured Americans to get coverage, is help hold down the cost of medical care, which is rising at its slowest rate in decades.
That puts these guys in a bind:
To win in the primaries, where the influence of the far-right activist base is magnified, it may be necessary to continue the give-no-quarter attacks on Obama’s record, regardless of what the facts might say. But in the general election, against a capable Democratic candidate, pretending that up is down won’t cut it.
Likewise, the Republican leadership in the House and now the Senate will confront a stark choice. Do they collaborate with Obama on issues such as tax reform, infrastructure and the minimum wage in an attempt to further boost the recovery? Or do they grumble on the sidelines, giving the impression they are rooting against the country’s success?
They will choose the latter. Their New Year’s resolutions are always the same – this year, finally, they will make everyone understand how awful Obama is, and how awful all Democrats are, except Robinson sees a problem for Democrats too:
The fall in gas prices is partly due to a huge increase in U.S. production of fossil fuels. “Drill, baby, drill” may have been a GOP slogan, but it became reality under the Obama administration. Is the party prepared to celebrate fracking? Will Democratic candidates trumpet the prospect of energy independence?
Likewise, Elizabeth Warren charges that the administration’s coziness with Wall Street helps ensure that the deck remains stacked against the middle class. Warren says she isn’t running for president but wants to influence the debate. She has. Hillary Clinton’s speeches have begun sounding more populist, in spite of her long-standing Wall Street ties.
It comes down to this:
You know the old saying about how there’s no arguing with success? Our politicians are about to prove it wrong.
And as Politico notes, Obama is about to prove them wrong:
President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to roll out an agenda aimed at tackling stagnating wages and helping Americans who feel left out of the economy’s surge, and he’s planning to use the first few weeks of January to travel the country promoting a new economic message. …
Changing Americans’ sense of the economy is Obama’s critical project for the next two years, and he and his aides know it. His own legacy depends on it – neither health care, immigration reform, opening an embassy in Cuba nor anything else is going to add up to much if most people feel like they’re worse off than the day of his inauguration.
Analysts agree that improving Americans’ sense of the economy is the single most important thing Obama can do for Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee: Whether she wins will most likely hinge significantly on whether the “Obama-Clinton economy” is a positive Democratic slogan or a snide Republican talking point.
But for now, the growing pile of economic data that Obama and his aides believe demonstrate his success digging the country out after the financial collapse hasn’t broken through, and they know it. Wages haven’t kept up, prices keep rising, and Obama seems to be presiding over a period in which Americans’ lives are getting more difficult.
This must be addressed, so Obama has plans for the New Year too, his resolution is to do better, although the specifics aren’t in place yet:
“You can’t convince people that their paycheck is going farther than it was – and you shouldn’t try. That would be a big mistake. What you can do is try to affect people’s optimism for the long term,” said a senior Obama adviser. “If we can make people understand that there are reasons for a bright future and the president has a plan to address what ails them, then that will be real progress.”
They’re working on the plan. But this is a tricky business, and Paul Waldman explains one of the ideas floating around:
Lately, Democrats have been searching for new ways to appeal to working class and middle class voters on economic issues. They know their basic economic perspective is popular, but they worry that the few specific policies they advocate, like increasing the minimum wage, don’t touch enough people’s lives. They also worry about being seen as advocates for the poor but not the middle class. So they’re looking for ideas.
But there’s one policy change already in the pipeline that looks as though it could be the next big Democratic economic push. It’s got everything: the potential to affect millions, guaranteed opposition from business groups, and the specter of another executive action from President Obama. That last point means that the change can be made as soon as the administration wants, and that Republicans will be apoplectic when it happens.
It’s about who gets overtime pay, which has all but disappeared from American workers’ paychecks.
That can be fixed:
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers are supposed to be paid overtime (time and a half) if they work more than 40 hours a week. That doesn’t apply to executives and managers, or workers whose salaries exceed a certain threshold. The threshold is what’s at issue; it has only been raised once since 1975. The current threshold is $455 a week or $23,660 a year – under the poverty level for a family of four. If you make more than that, you’re ineligible for overtime pay. Today only around one in ten American workers are eligible for overtime pay, compared to 65 percent of workers who were covered in 1975.
So what some are proposing is to raise the threshold back to something like what it used to be. Raising it to what it was in 1975 – adjusted for inflation – would mean a level of $984 a week, or $51,168 per year, which is close to the median family income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, at that level over six million Americans would become eligible for overtime pay. Raise it a bit higher and you could cover millions more.
And big business and the Republicans would howl. American companies would go broke! Democrats would point out that the economy didn’t collapse in 1975 – that happened on Bush’s watch, in 2008, thirteen years later, when big business and the banks were fat and happy, getting everyone they could into absurd mortgages they couldn’t pay back. Then they bundled them and sold them to each other, pretending they weren’t worthless, until no one could pretend any longer. It seems the low wages that were so good for the economy ruined the economy. A few adjustments to the Fair Labor Standards Act can begin to fix that, so let the howling begin.
It should be an interesting New Year. Everyone wants to finally get things right, and in that vein, Simon Maloy wants Bernie Sanders to run for president:
I like Bernie Sanders. Vermont’s independent senator comes off as affable and engaging, and he has a pleasingly down-to-earth frumpiness that contrasts with the perma-tanned, hair-gelled, forever-TV-ready facades of many of his colleagues. He’s been laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential campaign, though up to this point he’s been deliberately cagey about whether he’d run as an Independent or a Democrat – or if he’ll actually do it.
But he should:
I think the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza got it right when he wrote that Sanders is “the Democratic Party’s Ron Paul: his chance of winning would be infinitesimal, but his presence in the race and his passion about a few key issues would expose vulnerabilities in the front-runner’s record and policies.”
In Sanders’ case, that means a relentless focus on kitchen-table economic issues and income inequality, and it looks like he’s finally ready to step up and get in the other candidates’ faces about their records on economic issues and ties to Wall Street. “The Clinton Administration worked arm in arm with Alan Greenspan – who is, on economic matters, obviously, an extreme right-wing libertarian – on deregulating Wall Street, and that was a total disaster,” Sanders told Lizza.
And that’s a good thing! Hillary Clinton is heavily favored to waltz away with the nomination, and more than a few Democrats are hoping for a quiet, uneventful primary that will allow the nominee to rest easy while the Republicans duke it out amongst themselves. But coronations are dull affairs. Arguments are interesting and help to sharpen policy positions while exposing and ironing out contradictions. Sanders would be a refreshing counter-establishment antidote to the slate of would-be Democratic nominees who stand against him.
Maloy also thinks Sanders won’t run, but he fears another guy will pretend to:
We’re on the cusp of the next presidential election cycle, which means gilded coprolite Donald Trump will do his level damnedest to get people to report that he’s super serious about running for the White House. It’s actually already begun, and it’s only going to get worse once the new season of Trump’s awful television program begins in January. I realize this is very likely going to fall on deaf ears, given that reporters happily play the “Is Trump Going to Run?” game because it drives traffic, but here goes…
Stop. You don’t have to do this. He’s not going to run. He’s never going to run. He revels in the attention and is using you to feed his already bloated, disgusting, combed-over ego. Yes, you’re using him as well – but think about what that says about you! It means you’re no better than this frizz-topped pinch-faced birther clown. You don’t want that. No one wants that. Just ignore him. He won’t go away, but you’ll have done your small part to make politics just a little less insufferable.
Maloy’s plea to all the political reporters in the nation is clear – make a New Year’s resolution to ignore this guy, for the good of us all! Everyone else makes New Year’s resolutions. You can do it. You should.
But no one keeps their resolutions. Mark Twain put it best – “New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions.” And now the year begins.