A reader writes:
You said that you "don't see this as surrender. I see this as Obama's cold-blooded pragmatism. Why is this still news?"
My biggest problem with Obama not doing more to use the tax-cut debate as an issue against Republicans (and essentially capitulating to all of their demands on this issue) isn't that it's not somehow ideologically pure - that it doesn't, say, line up with what he promised in 2008, or with Democratic principles more generally. My complaint (and Rich's complaint as I understood it) is that Obama's not being as cold-blooded as he could be in this case. What better way to highlight Republican hypocrisy and to gain the high-ground on a whole host of issues than to refuse to extend tax cuts for those making over $250,000?
- After two years of Republicans tut-tutting about deficits, why wouldn't Obama want to spend as much time as possible pointing out how hypocritical Republicans are being on this issue? What better way to put the lie to their political rhetoric from the last two years?
- After two years of Republican carping that the President has failed to do enough on jobs, why wouldn't Obama want to propose that a specified amount of the money saved by raising taxes on those over $250,000 will go toward creating an infrastructure bank and a whole host of tax cuts for small businesses (and then stand by and let the Republicans vote against it)? What better way to create a contrast going forward, ('my priority is creating jobs; their priority is tax-cuts for millionaires) when inevitably the unemployment rate in 2012 will be greater than 8 percent?
By allowing all tax-cuts to continue, Obama is missing both of these opportunities and he's weakening his position going forward (on deficits, on jobs, on his perceived ability to lead). Will there be other possibilities to draw these contrasts in the future? Quite likely. Will they provide Obama with the opportunity to create as clear of a contrast with Republicans? Not likely. A real clear-blooded pragmatist would leap at this opportunity.
If Obama agrees to these tax cuts that will benefit primarily the wealthy, and then shifts focus on our long-term debt reduction (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security), he will lose a lot of support from his base. The long-term debt reduction will mostly mean to the president's base a reduction of the social safety net, at the expense of the middle class to benefit the wealthy. I don't know how he will get re-elected.
Just out of curiosity, have you ever seen anything the president has done as surrender? Because every time something happens, I seem to remember reading "This is just him playing 3D chess in the dark, with Jedi mind tricks and thinking ahead to the next game of backgammon where he will show us his inarguable genius..." And then we get rolled.
I'm on the team, man. I didn't expect super-magical black Jesus to come in and save us from ourselves; I just wanted a functioning president who stood up for what was right every now and then. I'm having a hard time keeping even that little bit of faith now.
One last doozy of a dissent:
Despite everything, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, you continue to defend Barack Obama as some sort of great strategic thinker.
To begin from quoting from your response to David Weigel: "He's saying that he'd prefer to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, but cannot in this political climate at this particular time." So, when he has 70% of Americans behind him, when he has more Democrats in Congress than he is ever likely to have again, he cannot raise taxes on the richest 1% of America? If not now, then pray tell when?
That said, Weigel is wrong when he says that Obama is affirming that tax cuts stimulate the economy. (They don't. In fact, tax hikes in living memory - post-WW2, Reagan's 1982-86 corrections, and the tax hikes under GHW Bush and Clinton - led to long periods of prosperity, while tax cuts under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush led to stagnation at best. But I digress.) What Obama is truly affirming is that not only will he not take a firm stand on anything whatever, no matter how popular, but that he will actively handicap any group of his fellow Democrats or supporters who tries to take such a stand.
To quote from the Frank Rich op-ed which started this discussion:
The cliché criticisms of Obama are (from the left) that he is a naďve centrist, not the audacious liberal that Democrats thought they were getting, and (from the right) that he is a socialist out to impose government on every corner of American life. But the real problem is that he’s so indistinct no one across the entire political spectrum knows who he is. A chief executive who repeatedly presents himself as a conciliator, forever searching for the “good side” of all adversaries and convening summits, in the end comes across as weightless, if not AWOL. A Rorschach test may make for a fine presidential candidate when everyone projects their hopes on the guy. But it doesn’t work in the Oval Office: These days everyone is projecting their fears on Obama instead.
What Obama has exercised for the past two years is ANTI-leadership. When his followers have overwhelmingly supported a particular option, he has compromised it away to conservatives in exchange for nothing. When his followers try to take action on their own, he pulls the rug out from under them. When they try to hold him accountable, he brushes them off as "the professional left." Thanks to this "leadership", liberals have gone from loud and united to discouraged and silent, while Republicans have rallied, united, and energized their own base into the only functional political force in America.
But then you claim, "'Non-argumentative reasonableness' so far has prevented a second great depression, rescued Detroit, bailed out the banks, pitlessly isolated Tehran's regime, exposed Netanyahu, decimated al Qaeda's mid-level leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, withdrawn troops from Iraq on schedule, gotten two Justices on the Supreme Court, cut a point or two off the unemployment rate with the stimulus, seen real wages for those employed grow, presided over a stock market boom and record corporate profits, and maneuvered a GOP still intoxicated with failed ideology to become more and more wedded to white, old evangelicals led by Sarah Palin. And did I mention universal health insurance - the holy grail for Democrats for decades?" Well, let's take these point by point:
* Second Great Depression - still too early to tell if it has been averted or merely postponed. A gridlocked Congress might still bring it about - gridlock thanks to a mid-term election which Obama quite clearly lost for his party.
* Rescued Detroit - he gets credit for this, but how difficult is it to do with a 59-seat majority in the Senate and a massive House majority?
* Bailed out the banks - Leaving aside whether or not it was a good idea the way it was done, this was begun by Dubya, not Obama. No credit where it's not due.
* Isolated Tehran's regime - Which has accomplished what, exactly? Despite the 2009 green rising, the totalitarian regime is stronger than ever and still working towards nuclear weapons capacity, with not a single actual setback.
* Exposed Netanyahu - More like, exposed how Israel exercises veto power over all American foreign policy. Right now Netanyahu looks to the world to be a more powerful man than Obama.
* Decimated al Qaeda's mid-level leadership - Leaving aside the question of whether or not McCain or another Republican would have done the same... has this actually done anything to reduce the threat of terrorism? Based on the TSA grope-scandal, I'd say NOT.
* Withdrawn troops from Iraq on schedule - Bush's schedule, not the one Obama campaigned on, and with 50,000 troops remaining indefinitely. No action, no credit.
* Two Supreme Court justices - Better than the Republicans, but wouldn't any Democrat have done better? And wouldn't any other Democrat have picked people besides Sotomayor and Kagin, both of whom are on record as supporting unlimited executive power? And let's not forget the DOZENS of lower courts still WITHOUT justices because Obama refuses to consider recess appointments to get around Republican obstructionism.
* Cut unemployment - Unemployment today, as I type this, is the same official level to within a percentage point as when Obama took office. And that leaves aside the issue of how little Obama had to do with creating the actual stimulus package- he left that almost entirely to Pelosi and Reid, only acting to mandate tax cuts which have proved ineffective.
* Real wage growth - Bullshit. Wages outside income for the top 2% continue to stagnate or fall.
* Preside over a stock market boom - A boom triggered, in essence, by giving the super-rich huge amounts of bailout money, protecting bank CEOs from the consequences of their actions, and blocking any financial reforms that would actually address the causes of the market crash. In short: recovery for the super-rich, but not for anyone else.
* Palinization of the Republicans - And this is a good thing HOW? Obama has both made the Republicans even more insane and, at the same time, discredited his own party to the point that voters are ready to put the crazy people in power.
* Universal health insurance - Everyone's forced to buy corporate health insurance with no guarantee that it'll actually pay off when it's needed, with no functional brake or restriction on rising insurance premiums, and above all with no curb whatsoever on hospital, pharmaceutical, and healthcare corporations charging all the market will bear for health care. (And when it comes to a person's life, "all the market will bear" equals "every penny you have and then some.") Oh, and not only is there no guarantee that government aid will be enough for the poor to buy insurance, but that aid comes only in tax rebates- so you have to have money to get the aid in the first place.
In all these things, there is little or nothing that any other Democrat, any Democrat at all, could not have done better or more effectively. Several of these things shouldn't have been done at all. In exchange for these "accomplishments," we have protection and endorsement of the prior administration's torture and imprisonment tactics, a totally de-energized liberal base, a united and rabid Republican base, a stagnant economy, and a five-year extension of war in Afghanistan... and, come January 3, divided government and an end to any hope of further advancement of liberal goals.
You praise Obama's "pragmatism", but to the rest of us it seems more like Obama asking the Republicans' permission before doing anything. What should have been a Democratic triumph has turned into a handful of empty victories and a raft of stunning defeats. And the single person most responsible is Barack Obama, for providing the kind of leadership that ends with no followers remaining.