Tag Archives: New Deal

In the Social Security Debate, Today’s Democrats Are Worse Than Yesterday’s Republicans

Having “retooled’’ his Presidency for a more open accommodation of the center right, Obama will soon be overseeing the battle to launch a dismantling of the Social Security system.

His government has, from the start, been reminiscent of the Clinton years, so it’s safe to say that we can expect more triangulation. Clinton’s adoption of Republican tropes led him to fulfill some of the conservatives’ fondest dreams: His administration countenanced the demise of the banking regulations originally established by the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act, and the destruction of the welfare system established in the 1930s and expanded in the 1960s. Obama will provide much the same function on Social Security. Without entirely destroying the popular program, he will support cuts that go beyond anything that should rightly happen during a Democratic administration.

Of course, the Democrats will say that it isn’t their fault: It all happened because of that horrid Tea Party, dragging conservative Republicans even further to the right. This suggests that Democrats had no choice but to head them off at the rightward pass, as if standing and fighting simply wasn’t an option—and as if they didn’t still hold the Senate and the White House.  

What makes this especially disconcerting, for anyone who has lived long enough to remember earlier political eras, is how favorably the Republicans of the past compare to the Democrats of the present on many points.

Tracking back to the New Deal, one can find Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio—the most prominent conservative Republican of his time, later identified by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage as one of the five most important senators in history–registering his support for Social Security. A champion of private enterprise and enemy of labor unions, Taft bashed Roosevelt’s “socialistic” programs every which way, fighting to reduce runaway government and even opposing entry into World War II. But at the height of the Great Depression, he also supported the new Social Security program, as well as public housing and public education.

Taft embodied the tenets of Main Street middle western life before the Second World War. And he was not unreservedly laissez faire, nor was he anti-government. He believed in the intervention and utility of the federal government where he deemed it necessary, and that included providing an adequate, if not generous, public welfare system.

Taft ran for president three times and never made it. But Eisenhower, the war hero who became a popular Republican president, carried some of these same basic tenets into the postwar era. Eisenhower was not opposed to federal intervention in the economy and, for example, backed the creation of an interstate highway system, which became a vast public works program. And Eisenhower not only supported Social Security, but took steps to enlarge the program. According to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission:

Dwight Eisenhower was the principal force behind the greatest single expansion of Social Security beneficiaries in the history of the program. He led the legislative drive to add over ten million Americans to the system. Here’s how it developed.

When the Social Security Act became law in 1935 its purposes were primarily aimed at factory workers and other employees of business organizations. The legislative process leading to passage of the law was both lengthy and contentious. Large numbers of working American’s were left out of the original Old Age and Survivors Insurance coverage. No major changes in the Social Security law had been made since its initial passage.

During the presidential campaign of 1952, candidate Eisenhower made it clear that he believed the federal government played a rightful role in establishing the Social Security system, but he made no promises concerning its future. However, after the election it became clear that the Republicans would have control, by slim margins, of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This changed the political and legislative landscape considerably.

Previously, expansion of the Social Security system or increasing the level of payments to retired Americans had been given no chance to succeed in the Congress because there were enough conservative Democrats (and the majority of Republicans) who would vote against such bills. With a Republican President it now appeared likely that the majority of congressional Republicans would honor their President and support his initiatives. Among the new legislative possibilities, action on Social Security now seemed possible.

Thirteen days after taking his oath of office, President Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union message to Congress and, when discussing the need for greater effectiveness of government programs, he said, “The provisions of the old-age and survivors insurance law should promptly be extended to cover millions of citizens who have been left out of the social security system.”

The following week, during a White House meeting of the House and Senate Republican leadership, Eisenhower brought up the Social Security expansion proposal and asked America’s most famous living conservative, Senator Robert A. Taft, if he would support the initiative. When he received a positive reply he knew that the possible had just become the probable. Before the end of the month, Eisenhower appointed a presidential commission to study the Social Security system’s deficiencies and submit a detailed report on specific reform measures. In his public statement creating the commission, the President said, “It is a proper function of government to help build a sturdy floor over the pit of personal disaster, and to this objective we are all committed.”

Those opposed to the initiative stressed their belief that retirement income was the responsibility of every individual and the federal government should not be involved. One citizen should not have to pay for the old age necessities of another. President Eisenhower responded to this notion during his press conference on June 17, 1953 with these remarks: “A strict application, let us say, of economic theory, at least as taught by Adam Smith, would be, ‘Let these people take care of themselves; during their active life they are supposed to save enough to take care of themselves.’ In this modern industry, dependent as we are on mass production, and so on, we create conditions where that is no longer possible for everybody. So the active part of the population has to take care of all the population, and if they haven’t been able during the course of their active life to save up enough money, we have these systems.”

You know it’s a measure of how far this country has moved to the right that someone like myself could wax nostalgic for the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft. (Next stop: Remembrances of the Nixon years, when the richest Americans were taxed at a rate of 70 percent.) Yet now we see the historic approach of these two major Republicans figures—the icon of the Senate and the storied war hero—submerged beneath the threat of the Tea Party adherents. And it is all happening under the listless hand of Obama, while the Democratic mainstream sits passively back and watches the demise of the programs that made their party great.

In the end, history most likely will judge that the final blows against the New Deal came not from the Republicans, but from weak or opportunistic Democratic politicians–first Clinton, then Obama.

Roszak’s “Making of an Elder Culture”

Few may remember it, but before the advent of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, the old were widely viewed as a spent force. Nobody talked about happy retirement, in part because, these were people who remembered only too well the Depression. Few looked forward to leisure worlds because the poor house was too recent in so many people’s minds. Before old age entitlements, tending to the old was viewed as the job of the family. If you didn’t have a family, then it was charity–you joined the begging class. And even if you did have a family, you lived knowing that the young and middle aged couldn’t wait to get rid of you.

The same is more or less true today. Some days it seems the entire city of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, is on a mission against the old. Of course, nobody would ever say that. But there is a war against the old going on here in the form of a vigorous, largely uncontested attack on entitlements—a fighting word for conservatives and conservative Democrats who simply can’t stand Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and everything the stood for.

In his book The Making of an Elder Culture, recently published by New Society, Theodore Roszak, the cultural historian who more than three decades ago wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, sets out some of the grim history of old people in American society, and in doing so places elders within our current political world.

The old were in fact the worst victims of industrialism, primarily because they were not deemed worth saving. They belonged to that class of unwelcome dependents called the impotent poor—those who could not provide for themselves…as comfortable as many middle-class elders may be today, they share with all older people a long sad history of bleak mistreatment they would do well to remember. For generations the old have suffered wrongs inflicted on them by harsh public policy and often by their nearest and dearest….in the modern western world where the old have been seen as the claim of the dreary past upon the bustling forces of progress.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, Roszak writes, “aged workers became poor. The workhouse and county home were little better than the concentration camp. They were fed gruel, bedded down on straw or bare wood…they had no place to turn  save for their children…They were pictured as withered, toothless, bent, lean.’’

You must remember that as recently as 40 or 50 years ago, there was no senior lobby. The political pros never talked about a senior vote. Today all that has changed–yet Roszak sees in today’s entitlement wars a serious threat to the well-being of elders.

In the same way that organized labor was once regarded as a potentially tyrannical force able to achieve its own selfish ends, entitlement critics began characterizing seniors as a threat to the democratic process…

Nobody of any political stripe wants to risk the charge of granny-bashing,but the facts are clear. In the United States, gaining even  modest degrees of security in retirement has been a struggle against business leaders, political conservatives, and free market economists for whom money is the measure of all things.

Always remember, Roszak says, “the well-to-do are the first to tell us that there is not enough to go around.”

In his book, Roszak envisions a society in which rather tan cutting social programs for the old, we will extend them to younger people. Noone would resent Medicare, for example, if we had universal health care for Americans of all ages. He sees a future where the old and the young join to create a new world devoted to common humane goals: ending poverty at all ages, assuring education–laying the planks of a new society on the New Deal and LBJ’s social welfare project. Such ideas face an uphill battle in today’s political culture–but are no less inspiring for that fact.

I’ll be writing more about Roszak’s work in future posts.

A Lesson for Obama from FDR: What America Needs Is Jobs–and Leadership

I published this piece yesterday on a site called Reader Supported News. It might provide some food for (wishful) thought as we prepare to listen to Obama’s State of the Union speech.

With the unemployment rate still hovering above 10 percent, the bailed-out financial sector is rewarding itself with bonuses instead of making the kinds of solid investments that might produce jobs. The time clearly is at hand for the Obama administration to push the banks aside, and plunge in to shape the economic recovery on its own terms. That means using federal monies to employ out of work people in rebuilding infrastructure and launching new projects –public employment in the public interest.

The model is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. FDR’s idea – hardly a revolutionary one–was to replace relief with work, employing destitute young people in useful, low-skilled labor that would serve the public good. What makes the program seem even more relevant to the present day is its focus on environmental conservation: planting trees, preventing soil erosion, reducing flood and fire risk, and building infrastructure in National Parks. “I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite practical value,” Roosevelt said in announcing the plan in March of 1933, “not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also a means of creation future national wealth.”

The CCC idea was accompanied by proposals for a Public Works Administration to employ older people in large-scale projects involving a lot of planning and skilled labor. These latter projects would take many months or years, while the Civilian Conservation Corp could be implemented right away. The story of the CCC, writes Jonathan Alter in “The Defining Moment,” an account of FDR’s first 100 days, is “a tale of mobilization so rapid and so competent it almost defies belief for later generations.”

This, despite the fact that the proposal for a Civilian Conservation Corps immediately met with considerable resistance from all sides. The labor unions said Roosevelt’s proposed low wages would turn the nation into a forced labor camp, and amounted to fascism, Hitlerism and Sovietism, all rolled into one. It was attacked from the left by Huey Long, who called it a “sapsucker’s bill,” and from the right by conservative members of Congress who said that the economy would sort itself out in the long run without so much government spending. To one such remark, FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins replied: “People don’t eat in the ‘long run’ Senator They eat every day.”

The Roosevelt administration got the bill creating the CCC through Congress less than a month after his inauguration on March 4, 1933. Members of his own cabinet protested the idea was impossibly ambitious, but the president accepted no excuses–he wanted a quarter of a million young men put to work by summer. He then proceeded to manage the plan himself, delving into bureaucracy that ran the public lands–which then, as now, made a third of the nation–pulling in members of Congress, debating wage levels, making charts, writing up plans. When the mobilization still seemed too slow, he ordered in the army to help. “By April 7,” Alter writes, “only 34 days into the administration, the first corps members were enlisted. By July 1, less than four months after Roosevelt made his outlandish demand, he exceeded the quarter million goal. Nearly 275,000 young men were enrolled in 1,300 camps across the country, supporting their families and undertaking much-needed projects.”

The benefits of the CCC went beyond their impact on the economy or the environment. A friend whose father served in the Corps told me he recalled it, to his dying day, as one of the happiest times of his life. A kid from an immigrant ghetto in upper Manhattan, his idea of wilderness was no doubt limited to Fort Tryon Park–but the CCC sent him to work in Washington state’s glorious Mount Ranier National Park. And instead of the hopelessness that came with unemployment and desperate poverty, he had a place to live, three meals a day, and the pride of sending money home to help his single mother and younger siblings.

In its time, Alter writes, the mobilization of the Civilian Conservation Corps exceeded all prior efforts in the nation’s history–“and it has not been matched since.” Over nine years, more than 3 million men were provided meaningful work. The CCC would inspire numerous other programs–the Job Corps, Peace Corps, Vista, and AmeriCorps. It succeeded in the same spirit of solidarity and national service that would soon help win Second World War.

Roosevelt’s bold experiment in federal job-creation demonstrated that government can work–and more than that. It showed that there are times when leadership must come not from the states or localities or the slow-moving Congress, but directly from the White House. It provides a stark lesson for the Obama government, which remains mired in a swampland of political bickering while it pursues the illusion of bipartisanship, triangulates corporate special interests, and naively supports big banks in some revamped version of trickle-down economics.

The current word on the political street is that the Obama administration is bent on “going populist” in the wake of recent political defeats. And since his opponents long ago branded him a socialist (if not the anti-Christ), it seems he has little to lose. A good beginning would be to tax the $45 billion in bank bonuses at the utmost possible level, using the return to jump-start a federal government sponsored, government-run program like the CCC to employ men–and this time, women as well. Through a federally funded jobs program, they can be put to work to rebuild the nation’s rotting infrastructure; to spark public enterprise in the new energy industries, from autos to solar and wind powered electric utilities; to lay railways that criss-cross the nation and build the engines, coaches, and freight cars that will travel over them; and to construct and the staff community health centers that might fill in for a failed health care reform effort.

Some version of this plan has been proposed many times during the current financial crisis, and always ignored or shoved aside because of opposition from powerful industries and their supporters, who argue that such dramatic federal action would disrupt the free market or override local initiative. Well, the market, such as it is–never really free, and usually greased to serve corporate interests–has not done the job for the millions of Americans who remain unemployed. It’s time for the president to step in and do his.

I encourage you to check out the rest of Reader Supported News, an up-and-coming progressive news site.

Lessons from the 1930s: “Big Business Must Be Controlled If Our Democracy Is to Survive”

The Progressive, which is currently celebrating its 100th year, is running on its web site “a series of excerpts from The Progressive magazine in the 1930s that are especially relevant today.” I think these documents from the Depression era are especially resonant for us members of the Silent Generation, because they speak the language of our childhood. But these days, of course, they also speak the language of the present moment.  

All of the selctions are worth reading, but one of them stands out for the downright eeriness with which it captures our current predicament. It recalls the government bailout of banks and corporations that took place in the early years of the New Deal, and the swiftness with which those corporations and Wall Street executives bit the hand that had fed them.

In 1937, the economy went through a renewed downturn that FDR’s critics have referred to as “the Roosevelt Recession.” Conservatives blamed the slump on the administration’s hostility to big business and its Keynesian economic policies, and argued for rollbacks of government spending and regulation. Some spending cuts were made, to no good effect, and Roosevelt became convinced that the banking industry and other corporate interests were determined to scuttle the New Deal. 

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes led the counterattack. The following piece by Ickes was published on January 8, 1938. Because the excerpt is so long I am not setting it off as a block quote (no one want to read that much italics), but it’s better still to follow this link and read the whole thing, since for reasons of space I had to leave out some choice insults. 

Economic power in this country does not rest in the mass of the people as it must if a democracy is to endure. Wealth is not equitably distributed nor do its owners in the main even manage and control it. On the contrary, wealth has become so great and so concentrated that as a matter of fact, it controls those who possess it.

About one-half of the wealth of this country is in corporate form, and over one-half of it is under the domination of 200 corporations, which in turn are controlled by what [has been] referred to as “America’s 60 Families.”

[Up until the 1929 crash], America’s 60 families had held in their hands…complete dominion over the economic and political life of the country. They had lulled the American people into the conviction that if the people would grant conditions in which these 60 families…[could] do as they pleased, the 60 families would put capital to work; enterprise would boom, wages would rise, stocks would soar and there would be two cars in every garage.

The people gave the 60 families this confidence; gave the 60 families this trust in their benevolent despotism—in short, gave the 60 families then what they ask for today, and what happened? Out of their divinely claimed genius as managers of private enterprise the 60 families promptly led the American people into the worst peacetime catastrophe ever known.

Then the disillusioned people changed the government [electing Roosevelt in 1932].

The new government bailed the 60 families out of the consequences of their own mesmeric miscalculations and their unintelligent leadership of the system of private enterprise of which they had pretended to be master managers. It preserved the corporate structures in which their capital was invested from going through the wringer of bankruptcy and reorganization and stock assessment.

As an inevitable by-product of preserving the capital structure…[it also] preserved the management structure from going through the wringer to squeeze out incompetence and big salaries. Then government sought to modify the way in which the business of the nation was done so that business confidence would be based upon the well-being and purchasing power of 120 million people at the bottom standing on their own feet rather than upon the license of the 60 families at the top and upon their premises, in return for that license, to permit the gravy of their benevolence to trickle down upon the exploited millions at the bottom.

Government did get the economic system back on its feet; did succeed in doing a job where the 60 families had failed.

Government had the system back on its feet so well at the time of the elections of 1936 that, as the president said…the patients—over their panic and raising their salaries—felt strong enough to throw their crutches at the doctor.

And last spring government had the business of the country turning over so well that it thought it could safely heed the pleas of private enterprise to government and abandon the economic initiative.

Pursuant to these pleas government cut down public expenditures…in order to meet the insistence of private enterprise that business confidence would be greater if government would take steps to balance the budget—assuaged the fears of the head of the biggest bank in the United States about runaway inflation—and turned over to the managers of private enterprise the responsibility they had said that they were eager and willing to assume.

And what happened?

Two things. First, the 60 families that were masterminding private enterprise proved to have learned nothing nor forgotten nothing since 1929 about the management of business under modern conditions. They made the same mistakes they had made before 1929. They ran the stock market up and helped it get started down. They did little or nothing to increase the purchasing power of labor to make up for the government withdrawals and then ran prices to the sky so that the consumer refused to spend what they graciously let him earn.

Second, the 60 families, unwilling to learn to do business upon the democratic terms of 1937, began to make demands and threats.

To Franklin D. Roosevelt…[they have made] a threat that they will refuse to do business at all unless the President and the Congress and the people will repeal all that we have gained in the last five years and regrant them the suicidal license they had enjoyed in 1929….

To the 120 million people of the United States they have made the threat that, unless they are free to speculate free of regulations to protect the people’s money; unless they are free to accumulate through legal tricks by means of corporations without paying their share of taxes; unless they are free to dominate the rest of us without restrictions on their financial or economic power; unless they are once more free to do all these things, then the United States is to have its first general sit-down strike—not of labor—not of the American people—but of the 60 families and of the capital created by the whole American people of which the 60 families have obtained control.

If the American people call this bluff, then the America that is to be will be a democratic America, a free America.

If the American people yield to this bluff, then the America that is to be will be a big-business Fascist America—an enslaved America….

Big business must be controlled if our democracy is to survive….The new America must be a land of free business, not of ruthless business—a land of free men, not of economic slaves.

A Tale of Two Democrats

Every once in a while I think about the fact that my life, like the lives of many members of the so-called Silent Generation, began during a depression—and may well end during another.

I can’t say that I remember much about the hardships of the first one. My family, like so many others, was rescued from the threat of poverty by a federal government job, when my father was offered a modest position in the Roosevelt administration. I do remember how my parents felt about FDR—the trust they placed in him. I don’t expect to ever feel that way about any politician in my lifetime.

I know what Obama is up against and want to give him the benefit of every doubt. But as Sam Smith pointed out in a typically eloquent post yesterday, these are very different times, the Democrats are a very different party, and the window for truly bold action may be closing.

In the late summer of 1933, when it appeared that the National Recovery Administration would not be able to provide adequate employment, FDR aide Harry Hopkins began laying the groundwork for a jobs program. Hopkins — who had pledged to himself to put four million people to work within four weeks — fell somewhat short. In the first four weeks only 2.8 million workers were put on the government payroll. Hopkins didn’t reach the four million goal until January.

In other words, Harry Hopkins got the same number of people employed in four weeks as Obama has promised within two years.

It was a different time in other ways. For example, Democrats didn’t apologize for the federal government as June Hopkins explained in Presidential Studies Quarterly:

“One hot summer day in 1935, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins presented his plan for alleviating the effects of the Great Depression to a group of shirt-sleeved Iowa farmers, not noted for their liberal ideals. As Hopkins began to describe how government-sponsored jobs on public projects would provide both wages for the unemployed and a stimulus for foundering businesses, a voice shouted out the question that was on everyone’s mind: ‘Who’s going to pay for all that?’ . . .

“‘You are,’ Hopkins shouted, ‘and who better? Who can better afford to pay for it. Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it.”…

To use the archaic language of the party’s earlier days, we need jobs and business — not stunningly non-specific stimuli and fiscal packages, but things people can see and feel, leading them to invest in America again as well….

FDR got his pressure from the left; Obama gets his from the right thanks to the unwillingness of progressives to push him. FDR could take action without a gang of media manipulators telling him to be careful. There wasn’t an inordinate pyramid of bureaucracy chipping away at every decision before it went into action. Liberals had more passion than status and really cared about those at the bottom of the American heap.

Are we trapped forever in this contemporary paradigm? Or can we face what has happened to us and start to change it? Can liberals once again represent the ordinary American or can such Americans only expect a few nods in their direction? Can we condemn a whole class of citizens because of what we fear some rightwing Republicans will say if we do something real to help them?

This is a time when status, style and semantics won’t save us. Reality has entered the house of America without knocking. It can’t be spun away. And time is running out.

There’s more to the post—read the whole thing here.


[1933 cartoon from the Basil O’Connor Collection at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York; many of these FDR political cartoons have been placed online in a database created by students at Niskayuna High School in upstate New York.]

William Greider on “Looting Social Security”

Veteran progressive journalist and radical geezer Bill Greider has written an essential article in the current issue of The Nation, on the strategic attack now underway against Social Security and Medicare.

Governing elites in Washington and Wall Street have devised a fiendishly clever “grand bargain” they want President Obama to embrace in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” The government, they argue, having spent billions on bailing out the banks, can recover its costs by looting the Social Security system. They are also targeting Medicare and Medicaid. The pitch sounds preposterous to millions of ordinary working people anxious about their economic security and worried about their retirement years. But an impressive armada is lined up to push the idea–Washington’s leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire spending his fortune to save the nation from the elderly.

These players are promoting a tricky way to whack Social Security benefits, but to do it behind closed doors so the public cannot see what’s happening or figure out which politicians to blame. The essential transaction would amount to misappropriating the trillions in Social Security taxes that workers have paid to finance their retirement benefits. This swindle is portrayed as “fiscal reform.” In fact, it’s the political equivalent of bait-and-switch fraud.

I addressed this subject last month in a series of posts on the coming “entitlement wars“–but Greider does a better job than I ever could, laying out the history, the players, and the tactics employed in this long-brewing struggle. He documents how conservatives are working to exploit the recession, along with public fears and misapprehensions, to manufacture intergenerational conflict, and thereby achieve their cherished goal of rolling back the entitlement programs responsible for rescuing millions of elders from desperate poverty. He also explains why this fight “could become a defining test for ‘new politics’ in the Obama era.”

Defending Social Security sounds like yesterday’s issue–the fight people won when they defeated George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize the system in 2005. But the financial establishment has pushed it back on the table, claiming that the current crisis requires “responsible” leaders to take action. Will Obama take the bait? Surely not. The new president has been clear and consistent about Social Security, as a candidate and since his election. The program’s financing is basically sound, he has explained, and can be assured far into the future by making only modest adjustments.

But Obama is also playing footsie with the conservative advocates of “entitlement reform” (their euphemism for cutting benefits). The president wants the corporate establishment’s support on many other important matters, and he recently promised to hold a “fiscal responsibility summit” to examine the long-term costs of entitlements. That forum could set the trap for a “bipartisan compromise” that may become difficult for Obama to resist, given the burgeoning deficit. If he resists, he will be denounced as an old-fashioned free-spending liberal. The advocates are urging both parties to hold hands and take the leap together, authorizing big benefits cuts in a circuitous way that allows them to dodge the public’s blame. In my new book, Come Home, America, I make the point: “When official America talks of ‘bipartisan compromise,’ it usually means the people are about to get screwed.”

The Social Security fight could become a defining test for “new politics” in the Obama era. Will Americans at large step up and make themselves heard, not to attack Obama but to protect his presidency from the political forces aligned with Wall Street interests? This fight can be won if people everywhere raise a mighty din–hands off our Social Security money!–and do it now, before the deal gains momentum. Popular outrage can overwhelm the insiders and put members of Congress on notice: a vote to gut Social Security will kill your career. By organizing and agitating, people blocked Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Imagine if he had succeeded–their retirement money would have disappeared in the collapsing stock market.

Old folks–and anyone who plans on becoming old some day–need to gear up for this one. A good start is to read Greider’s long article in its entirety.

Obama’s Lifeline: For a Change, Government Spending That Actually Helps the People Who Need It Most

Republicans took to the Sunday morning news shows to express their “concern” about parts of the stimulus package presented by the Obama administration last week. House Minority Leader John Boehner declared that he would vote no “if it’s the plan I see today”–a pretty idle threat, since even if he takes his entire party with him, the Democrats still have nearly an 80-vote margin. In the Senate, however, two Republican votes are needed to create a filibuster-proof majority, which might at least slow the package down and could force some compromises.

There’s good reason for the Republican resistance. While it makes numerous concessions to favored conservative approaches–lots of public-private partnerships that will allow the private sector to cash in, tax cuts for businesses and the middle class, and no immediate end to the Bush tax cuts (which will expire on their own in 2010)-the $820 billion stimulus package also includes some dramatic increases in support for the nation’s social welfare programs.

With this package, Obama begins the process of reversing cutbacks initiated by Reagan and carried forward by the two Bushes, with some help from Clinton’s welfare “reform.” There may still be plenty of holes, but with this plan, the new government confirms that has some responsibility for providing a safety net for its poor and disabled, its children and elderly. To see the magnitude of the shift, it is only necessary to glance at the last budget drawn up by President Bush, for fiscal year 2009: In the midst of the growing recession, it had yet more cuts to the social welfare system, reducing already inadequate health and feeding programs for the most vulnerable Americans.

Here are some of Obama’s initiatives–not quite the New Deal, but quite a new deal compared to what we’ve grown used to over the past 30 years:

  • As unemployment grows, more and more people lose their health insurance and turn to Medicaid. State budgets already are in desperate straits, and can’t possibly shoulder this added burden. Obama would pump federal money into state Medicaid budgets as well into the program providing for health insurance for children.
  • In addition, Obama wants to shore up existing health insurance coverage for people losing jobs by extending COBRA and underwriting part of its cost through tax rebates. COBRA is a program that enables people losing their jobs to continue their health insurance if they pay for it. Obama wants the federal government to partially subsidize these payments, and also gives some low-income unemployed people access to Medicaid.
  • The president’s plan proposes to extend unemployment benefits through December 2009 and increase weekly unemployment insurance benefits by $25.
  • The stimulus package would incresasing food stamp benefits for the 30 million people now in the program, and provide support for food banks, school lunch programs, and the WIC program that provides for mothers and infants.
  • Obama’s plan would give 7.5 million blind, disabled, and aged Americans an immediate $450 by increasing-on a temporary basis–Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.