By Matthew Rothschild on January 14, 2013

At his press conference today, Pres. Obama threw down the gauntlet.

He told the Republicans that he would not give in to their extortion on the national debt.

"Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly, and pay America's bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis," he said. "But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial wellbeing of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip. And they better choose quickly, because time is running short."

A little later on, he reiterated that Republicans can't put a gun to Americans' heads and "simply dictate 100 percent of what they want all the time, or otherwise threaten that we destroy the American economy."

That's the "Give 'Em Hell, Barack" that a lot of progressives have been hoping for.

But two things Obama said made me worry.

First, he kept emphasizing, foolishly, the need to cut the deficit. "One component to growing our economy and broadening opportunity for the middle class is shrinking our deficits in a balanced and responsible way," he said. But the economy is still too weak to be obsessing over the deficit; further reductions will actually lessen opportunity for the middle class and the poor.

And as Robert Reich has pointed out, "Federal deficits are dropping as a percent of the total economy. For the fiscal year ending in September 2009, the deficit was 10.1 percent of the gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in America. In 2010, it was 9 percent. In 2011, 8.7 percent. In the 2012 fiscal year, it was down to 7 percent."

The hyping of the deficit and the debt is a conservative, corporate trope. It's an attempt to slash and shrink government so it can't serve as a check on corporate power or a buffer against the cruelties of the market or of fate. Obama sometimes appears to recognize this; at other times, as he did at his press conference, he tends to buy the hype.

Second, I still worry that Obama is ready to make some awful bargain with John Boehner. The President said he was "open to some addition cuts," and specified: "I've said I'm open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to protect them from future generations." If one of those "modest adjustments" is raising the eligibility age, it will be a raw deal for people in their low 60s who've been just hanging on to their jobs by their fingernails in hopes they can last until they qualify for Medicare.

What we saw in Obama's press conference was the appearance of a new, tougher Obama alongside the old I'm willing to compromise on just about anything Obama.

The future of our social programs depends, in part, on who looks better in the Presidential mirror.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons Is Not Enough."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

On November 20 every year for the last fifteen years, transgender people gather for vigil ceremonies to acknowledge...

Yesterday the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would approve construction on the Keystone XL pipeline.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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