"Did you see what Paul Kugelman wrote?"
I knew she meant, Paul Krugman op-ed columnist for the New York Times. My 102-and-a-half year old mother is devoted to him but always refers to him that way. I stopped trying to correct her years ago. Her malapropisms can be quite charming. Plus the fact that she always says when I try to correct her about anything, "I'm too old to do any changing. You're still young so you should change. If you want a list I could make it."
"To tell you the truth, I didn't read his column. We've been so busy getting ready to head to Florida, to see you, that I haven't been able to keep up with the paper."
I didn't add that Krugman is not one of my favorites. He's too much of a traditionalist Keynesian for me and I feel he has been hypercritical of the Obama economic team and policies since he was not asked to join them.
"You should. The girls here at Forest Trace have been talking about nothing else over breakfast and just now dinner. For them to concentrate on anything for a whole day is unheard of. In fact, for us to remember from morning to night what day it is unheard of. So stop your packing, turn on your computer, and read it."
"You mean right now? Don't you want us to leave on time so we an get to you on schedule?"
"What's happening with our country right now is more important than anything."
I knew I couldn't convince her there would be time to talk about politics and economics later in the day when we were checked into a motel in Virginia so I booted up my laptop and found the Krugman piece. "I have it, mom. So what's so striking to you and the ladies?"
"I don't have it in front of me. I passed my paper along to Gussie who does the puzzle. Can you believe it, still in ink. She’s remarkable. She fills in all the boxes. With the right answers I am not so sure, but all the boxes at least are filled and this makes her feel good."
While she was talking, I skimmed the Krugman column. "I see what you mean, mom, this time I think he may have it right."
"No ‘mays’ about it. Like I always try to tell you about him. But you are so stubborn. Read me, read me what he says."
"You mean the whole thing? Really, mom, we want to get going."
"You're always rushing even when your country is in terrible trouble."
"OK, I'll read you the whole thing. And then . . ."
"Just the beginning since you're in such a rush. And maybe a little more which in a minute I'll tell you about."
“Here goes. He says . . .”
After the Democratic “shellacking” in the midterm elections, everyone wondered how President Obama would respond. Would he show what he was made of? Would he stand firm for the values he believes in, even in the face of political adversity?
On Monday, we got the answer: he announced a pay freeze for federal workers. This was an announcement that had it all. It was transparently cynical; it was trivial in scale, but misguided in direction; and by making the announcement, Mr. Obama effectively conceded the policy argument to the very people who are seeking — successfully, it seems — to destroy him.
So I guess we are, in fact, seeing what Mr. Obama is made of.
“What’s going on right now?”
“As I said, we’re finishing our packing and . . .”
“Enough about the packing! I mean with Obama. What’s going on with him right now?”
“As I understand it, he’s involved in working out a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two-to-three years.”
“Which is what Krugman is saying about him. How does he put it?” I scrolled down his column.
“He wrote,” I again read to her,
It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right.
“That for me sums it up. I mean, the problem with him.”
“The folding part?”
“Yes, that. Is it necessary at this point for him to be giving away the store? Without putting up a fight?”
Not that I disagreed, but still I asked, “What would you have him do? They have him over a barrel. The Republicans are about to take over the House and in the Senate even now it’s impossible to get the 60 votes needed to get anything done.”
“I’d have him fight. For us. And or what he believes, assuming that’s anything. Which I am beginning to seriously doubt.”
“I can’t disagree with that.”
“Fannie tonight, at dinner, says that all he cares about is getting reelected. That he loves being president, living in the White House, having his own airplanes and that he’ll do anything, compromise about anything, to be able to stay there another six years.”
“I’m not so sure . . .”
“Neither am I. I think it’s worse than that, which is why I’m so upset. That it’s about his character. What Kugelman called ‘what he’s made of.’”
“Again, mom, I think Krugman and you are right. But isn’t it complicated? What would you have him do? I mean if you were Obama.”
“As I said fight. How hard should that be when what he should be fighting for is what the public needs to hear. If I were Obama I’d go on TV and say—‘My fellow Americans . . .’”
I couldn’t restrain myself, “That’s very charming mom. Isn’t that how Ronald Reagan began his speeches? You want him to sound like Reagan? Who helped get us into this economic mess in the first place with his tax cuts and deregulations? But get to the substance. What would you say if you were Obama?”
“If you would be patient for a minute, I’m getting to that—
‘Good evening. I am speaking to you from the Oval Office. [At that I couldn’t help but smile.] Tonight I want to talk with you about something very important—America’s economy and your part of it. Not all of this is going to be easy or pleasant. Though things are looking up we still have a lot of work to do. Especially about the future. Yours, your children’s, your grandchildren’s, and their children after that, when we are all gone.’”
“Do you, mom, always have to talk about ‘when we’re all gone?’”
“At 102 what else do I have to talk about? But, please, let me continue. I’m just getting warmed. ‘Good evening. I’m speaking to you from . . .’”
“Please mom, the substance.”
“All right the substance. But you know people my age repeat themselves. For that matter, I’m noticing you’re getting old enough to do the same thing. But, all right, I’ll get to the substance—
The Republicans want to continue the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Just 3 percent of the population. People making many hundreds of thousands a year. Even millions and for some who make more that a billion dollars a year. I want to make the current tax rates for middle class people—people like you—permanent. You’re already working hard enough and slipping behind the richest Americans and you don’t need to send the government any more money.
‘But the Republicans are holding your tax cuts hostage. They won’t agree to vote for them unless we continue the unfair breaks for the wealthy. They claim that it is these rich people who create jobs, which is not true. Middle class Americans, through small businesses, are the ones who create jobs. Wealthy people create jobs for stock brokers and art dealers, which is fine, but not the millions of new jobs we need to get out of the mess the Republicans in the first place created.’”
“Let me stop you for a moment. I like what you’re saying. I mean would have Obama say, but did you write all this? I guess I want to know how much more are you going to read to me? As you know . . .”
“Just a little more. And no, I did not write this. I’m so worked up about this, especially after talking with the girls all day that this is just coming to me. It must be good, no, if you think I wrote it.” I could hear her chuckling to herself. “Let me finish. I don’t have that much more to say. I mean to have Obama say—‘Good evening . . .’ I know, I know, the substance. I’m just having a little fun with you—
‘And, do you know,’ he should say, ‘the Republicans, who claim they want to cut the deficit, which I welcome, can’t look me or you in the eye and tell me or you how they would pay for these tax cuts. The ones in place the last 10 years have cost us, you, a trillion dollars and no new jobs have been created during that time. The cuts went right to the deficit.
'And you know what else, another thing they are holding hostage, is my wanting to extend unemployment insurance to millions who are right now losing it. They’re losing something paid for already. It was withheld from their paychecks when they were still working. So it’s not an entitlement. It’s something they earned. But still the Republicans won’t pass it unless I fold up and agree to those big tax cuts—hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the wealthiest—and figure out how to pay for the unemployment insurance. They don’t want to see that added to the debt.
‘Can you believe that? I’ll call it what it is—hypocrisy on the Republicans’ part. Add a trillion to the debt for tax breaks for the rich, but let the formerly hardworking middle class sink deeper and deeper into debt and despair.’”
“I like that mom. You’re even alliterating—‘deeper and deeper’ and ‘debt and despair.’”
“Are you mocking me? I’m trying to deal with a serious issue and you’re being your old English-teacher self.”
“Sorry mom. You’re right. I am very impressed thus far by what you would have Obama say. But I’m hoping you’re getting to the end because . . .”
“One more minute. I’ll have him finish now. This would make him a hero to all the old folks. And he needs now all the friends he can find. This one’s for the girls of Forest Trace—
‘I will not giving in to hostage takers. Not overseas and not right here in Congress. So let me tell you what I’m going to do: I’m drawing a line in the sand. I will only agree to tax cuts for hardworking people. Those making less than a quarter of a million dollars a year. All the rest will have to pay more. Their fair share.’”
“Sorry, mom, but what does this have to do with the ladies? How many of them are making more than that?”
“Sadly very few, but give me a minute since again you’re missing my point—how he has to stand up and fight. If you’ll let me, I’ll tell you what he should say—
‘They will fight me like crazy and may even let your tax breaks expire. But they’ll come around when they see how angry Americans will be with them if they don’t agree to put average Americans first. Not last as Republicans did in the recent past. And when they do come around we’ll make your tax cuts retroactive to January 1st 2011. I promise you that.’
“And now for the girls—
‘I also know how hard things have been for seniors. Those living on fixed income whose Social Security hasn’t gone up and if they are fortunate enough to have them, how their CDs and Treasury bonds are paying less than one percent. But they still have to pay regular taxes on any 401(k) money they are required to withdraw. So for struggling seniors [I’m getting good at this alliteration business] for struggling seniors I’m going to fight for a tax holiday on this kind of retirement money until CDs and T-bills are again paying at least 3 percent.’”
And with that she stopped. “So what do you think?”
“I like it mom. Everything you and the girls figured out.”
“And, and I know what you want me to say.”
“So say it.”
“If Obama were to do what you want him to do, and what you’ve written for him, by doing the right thing he’d become popular again, we’d have the president back who we thought we were voting for, and on top of that he’d get reelected and still be able to fly around on that big plane.”
I could sense her smiling as she said, “You had better get back to your packing. I can’t wait to see you and Rona and give you both big hugs.”
Then as she hung up she added, “I hope you didn’t get fat.”