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Obama's Tipping Point

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This summer there's a lot at stake in Washington.  The Congress and the White House are struggling over an agreement to extend the US debt limit before the August 2 nd deadline.  Meanwhile the economy has slowed and we may be sliding back into a recession, so a second stimulus is being debated.  We're heading for a Tipping Point that will determine Obama's political future.

The notion of  "the Tipping Point" was popularized in a bestseller by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell.  He defines the Tipping Point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point," where a previously rare phenomenon becomes commonplace or where a social or political movement takes a new direction.

Recently in American politics we've seen a tipping point almost every year.  In 2008, we saw two: first, Barack Obama snatched the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton the Obama nomination tipping point was probably his Philadelphia speech where he spoke about his pastor Jeremiah Wright and race.  The other tipping point occurred during the second Presidential debate, where John McCain came across as senile, while Obama looked presidential.

In 2009, the tipping point came on February 19 th  when CNBC commentator, Rick Santelli, ranted about the government and threatened a reincarnation of the Boston Tea Party.  Conservatives and Fox News commentators seized on this idea and the Tea Party movement was born, culminating in demonstrations, and Tea Party candidates being featured in the November 2010 mid-term elections, which caused Democrats to lose control of the House of Representatives.

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Since the advent of the Tea Party, there hasn't been another tipping point in US politics but that hiatus will likely end in August.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has warned that the debt limit must be extended by August 2nd or the government will go into default.  Democrats and Republicans agree this is a hard deadline, although some GOP Congressmen minimize the impact.  The two Parties are attempting to negotiate an extension but, as of this writing, are miles apart.  For Republicans, an essential element of any agreement would be reduction in entitlements, such as Medicare.  For Democrats, an essential element would be the elimination of the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

As if this situation was not grim enough, the US economic recovery appears to be slowing and many experts fear we are sliding back into recession.  On June 3 rd the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 54,000 jobs were added in May and unemployment remained unchanged at 9.1 percent.  Consumer confidence has plummeted and approximately half of Americans believe the US is heading towards another Great Depression.  The latest polling shows that Americans are far more concerned about employment and the economy (48 percent) than they are about the budget deficit (10 percent).

The conventional wisdom is that President Obama is in trouble because of unemployment, but the looming August crisis can be his opportunity.  Guardian columnist Alex Slater observed that it's not simply "the economy stupid" but more generally about the direction of the US economy, "about hope."  And hope is Obama's specialty.

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There's every indication that Republicans do not have a clue about job creation and they are likely to refuse to raise the debt limit.  If this happens it will both trigger a new depression and destroy the Republican Party.

Even the GOP comes to its senses and raises the debt limit, they do not have a realistic strategy to reemploy America.  That's a huge opportunity for Obama, a potential Tipping Point.

Malcolm Gladwell writes that a Tipping Point requires three elements: "the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context."  Tipping points require a few  very influential people.  In this case there is no one more influential than Barack Obama, who remains the most popular active US politician. 

Gladwell observes that Tipping Points take advantage of unique windows of opportunity, context. In August we will have the context for a radical transformation of the economy.

Finally, a critical element of Tipping Points is stickiness, the ephemeral quality that "compels the phenomenon to "stick' in the minds of the public and influence their future behavior."  Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had stickiness.

One of Barack Obama's defining political characteristics is his ability to rise to the occasion with a powerful speech.  We saw this when he burst onto the political scene with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. This January Americans were moved by his memorial address in Tucson. Once again, Obama needs to summon his oratorical skills and present his own "new deal."

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 In August, the US will come to a critical political moment.  Whether we use this to go forward with a just economy or continue our descent into plutocracy will depend upon President Obama.  For better or for worse it is his Tipping Point.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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