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Will Obama Sacrifice His Catholic Supporters to Get a Debt Ceiling Deal with the GOP?

a sistine ceiling (photo: archer10)

As Obama signals that he’s open to cuts in Social Security and Medicare in his negotiations with the hostage-takers of the GOP to raise the debt limit, Obama now appears to accept the odd notion that the debt is the biggest threat to the economy, rather than the jobs crisis driven by . . .  well, let’s let Bill McBride of Calculated Risk lay it out:

The main reason employment growth is sluggish is because the U.S. is recovering from a housing and credit bubble, and the subsequent financial crisis. There is still too much excess capacity in most of the economy for a large contribution from new investment (except in equipment and software). We see this excess capacity in housing, and in overall industrial production. There is also excess capacity in office space, retail space, and other categories of commercial real estate. In addition, household debt, as a percent of income, remains very high and household deleveraging is ongoing. That is why so many companies identify their number one problem as “lack of customers”.

Until the excess capacity is absorbed, and household balance sheets are back in order, the recovery will remain sluggish. . . .

But it is very disappointing to hear politicians incorrectly identify the reasons for the sluggish employment growth. From President Obama today: [internal quote omitted here]

I know there are policymakers [like Obama] who think the problem is confidence and deficits. But this is incorrect. Misdiagnosing the causes of weak employment growth will lead to the wrong policies. Oh well … this reminds me of 2005 when I couldn’t get any policymakers to pay attention to the housing bubble. Frustrating.

Click through to read the whole thing, and count Scarecrow among those who share CR’s opinion. Me, too — and I’d say that “frustrating” is an understatement.

But if Obama does make his grand bargain with the GOP, not only will it perpetuate this misdiagnosis and strengthen the wrong policies, it will also endanger his own re-election.

I hope that sentence gets the attention of the WH and Team Obama. They have no fear, apparently, of putting “getting a deal” ahead of “crafting the right policies”. When other people pay the price for such deals, like the health insurance bill’s attack on women seeking to exercise their right to make reproductive choices, Team Obama calls it “shared sacrifice.” But maybe, just maybe, if pursuing these wrong policies endangers their own jobs and not just those of people outside the Beltway, perhaps they will rethink the whole “let’s give in to the hostage takers again” philosophy of governing.

One aspect of the 2012 election calculus that I don’t think Team Obama realizes is that a deal like this will throw away any hope he has of holding onto the Catholic voters that supported him in 2008. Right after the election, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life did a poll that examined how religious affiliation and practice played a role in the choice between McCain and Obama. One very interesting nugget appeared when Pew looked back at the 2000 and 2004 elections and compared Obama’s 2008 ability to reach out to different religious groups with the results of Gore and Kerry. Generally speaking, Obama did better than Gore or Kerry across the board — Obama won the election, after all. But the two groups where Obama showed the most improvement over Kerry were in reaching “unaffiliated” voters (+8%) and Roman Catholics (+7%). The latter came despite significant opposition to his candidacy from more than a few outspoken Catholic bishops, who warned of increased abortions should Obama be elected.

According to Pew, Catholics represented 27% of the voters nationwide. But as this map from shows, that representation is not equally spread around. In states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, Catholics are between 30 and 50% of the population. In Missouri, Ohio, and Florida, they are between 25 and 30%. (The map is a bit out of date, but the general trend is still accurate.)

Let us pause to consider the electoral importance of those seven states . . .

Catholic laypeople, largely speaking, do not follow the bishops in lockstep when it comes to matters of sexuality or in voting. As Pew noted in a later report on the 2008 election, white Catholics who attend mass every week voted more Republican, while Hispanic and minority Catholics, and those who attend mass less regularly voted more for Obama. Just as there are non-trivial numbers of Catholics get abortions, have sex outside of marriage, and get divorced and remarried — just like non-Catholics — there are Catholics who are quite willing to support candidates whom the bishops often reject over abortion. Their approach to their voting choice is that “There’s more to the Catholic faith than the issue of abortion.”

Caring for the poor and needy comes to mind, for example.

Somewhat amazingly, the USCCB is on record against the intransigence of the GOP when it comes to putting the burdens of deficit reduction solely on the backs of the elderly, the poor, and the immigrants. While the bishops will never like Obama’s health care bill and other abortion-related policies, he has them on his side when it came to the budget. (Well, except of NY’s Archbishop Dolan.)

Back on April 13th, two prominent Roman Catholic bishops wrote to every member of Congress regarding the budget discussions [pdf]: Howard Hubbard, Chair, US Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace and Stephen Blaire, Chair, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. From their letter, and the three criteria by which they offer to “guide difficult budgetary decisions,” the priorities they outline on behalf of the USCCB seem wildly different from those espoused by the GOP:

1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.

This language is being used across the country by Catholic bishops, in comments not only on the federal budget but especially on state budgets. For example, in Minnesota, the Catholic bishops joined with their Lutheran counterparts to make a joint statement about the budget insanity:

We expect that, as you seek to balance the budget, you will engage in civil and respectful dialogue rather than partisanship and posturing. We trust that you will seek to govern the people of the state of Minnesota so that all citizens — particularly those who are poor and live on the margins of our communities — have access to housing, education, health care and other human services. We suggest that the most effective means of eliminating poverty resides in policies that lift people out of a safety net to a level of sustainability.

Minnesota has a history of caring for all its citizens, and all of us are heirs of those who shaped that legacy.

Catholics and Lutherans — representing some two million Minnesotans — have partnered in that legacy as the largest providers of health care, human services and non-public education. Being a state that cares for its people has been the hallmark of Minnesota.

And the most telling measure of how well we care for each other is to consider how we treat those who are most vulnerable among us.

These “Minnesota Nice” are the kind of voters (Catholic and otherwise) who got behind Obama in 2008. If he caves to the GOP on the debt ceiling negotiations and sacrifices Social Security and Medicare to protect the tax gimmicks so beloved by the MOTUs and banksters, these voters will not be happy. Nor will their counterparts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Ohio, and Florida.

Let us pause to let the significance of those states sink in once again.

It’s not just Catholics — a wide-ranging coalition of religious groups has come together around these same principles. (Full statement and list of major signatories here – pdf.) These aren’t hippies that Team Obama can punch, hoping to get an electoral bounce from the folks who hate hippies. These are the folks who volunteer in soup kitchens, raise houses with Habitat for Humanity, and do all the grunt work of many charities, large and small.

The spines of Senate Democrats and House Democrats alike have been stiffening since Obama sent his signal on Thursday about being open to cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps this is because the folks who are concerned about “the least of these” have been getting through to their elected members of Congress.

If only we could get through at the White House.

Whether they realize it or not, their job security may depend on whether they hear that message.


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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.