The Reluctant Partisan

President Obama may regard himself as a uniter, but if he can't strike a grand bargain on the debt ceiling he may decide to prompt a showdown over taxes


Barack Obama took office vowing to usher in a post-partisan era that would drain the toxic anger of the Bush years and focus the country on practical, long-overdue reforms. Like Bush, he was no doubt sincere in wanting to unite the country. Unlike Bush, he has governed in a manner largely consistent with that ideal. A lot of good it's done him: Washington is more poisonous than ever. And as Congress courts disaster by threatening to default on the national debt, Obama must marvel at his plight. Practically a caricature of Spock-like rationality and sober caution, he's presiding over a capital that has become completely unhinged.

Nothing illustrates this better than his struggle to raise the debt ceiling. By a quirk of history, the United States is the rare country that first passes a budget and then allots the funds for it. Obama never imagined Republicans would withhold that money to exact concessions. Asked about the possibility at a news conference last December, he dismissed the very premise.
He soon learned better. Republicans cannily grasped that most Americans don't understand the concept of the debt limit, much less its importance. But raising it sure sounds objectionable, especially at a time of big deficits. In May, a Gallup poll found that, by almost a 3-to-1 margin, Americans didn't want to.

So Obama set himself to the task of changing public opinion. Partly, he did this by speaking out about the urgency of the issue and flaunting his willingness to cut entitlements like Medicare and Social Security as part of a deal. His officials emphasized the horrors of default. And he cast himself in the role he loves best, that of the responsible parent admonishing his colleagues for their childish ways.

In all this, Obama succeeded. He's brought public opinion around to his side, not only on the question of whether to raise the debt ceiling but also on how to do so. A majority of Americans now say Congress should raise the ceiling. Two-thirds agree with Obama that any deal should balance spending cuts with tax increases. Only 21 percent favor the Republicans' plan of cuts alone. Americans have chosen the stern parent over the squabbling kids: Obama's approval rating, while only around 50 percent, towers over that of his opponents. A CBS poll found that 71 percent disapprove of how Republicans have conducted the negotiations, while an ABC/Washington Post poll revealed that even Republicans disapprove of how their leaders have negotiated. Small wonder that dissatisfaction with government is at a 19-year high.

By almost every measure, then, Obama has prevailed -- except on the one that counts. He's almost certain to lose the fight in Congress. He'll get the debt limit raised -- maybe before a default, maybe after -- but only in exchange for a package that will probably consist entirely of cuts totaling at least $1.5 trillion and force his party into a series of politically uncomfortable votes. Meanwhile, taxes remain at historically low levels and entitlements keep on growing. It's enough to turn anyone into a raving partisan.

The irony is that, however reluctantly, Obama may decide he has no choice but to force a showdown. He'll have few options left to address the deficit. Having sacrificed the cuts that might have been included in a ''grand bargain'' to slash debt and reform the tax code, his main point of leverage will be the expiring Bush tax cuts next year.

Obama would prefer that the quarreling parties come together, Democrats lured by the prospect of more revenue and Republicans by the lower marginal rates that would result from eliminating loopholes. But the chances of such a post-partisan scenario coming to pass seem vanishingly slim. Republicans have steadfastly refused to compromise on taxes, and each time they've won. Why yield now?

What's likelier is that taxes will dominate the presidential campaign. If Obama wins, he'll suddenly be the one positioned to demand concessions or let the Bush cuts expire.

This would prompt an epic showdown, further inflaming partisanship and ruining what remains of Obama's image of himself as beyond ideology. But if he has the nerve to see it through, this showdown could restore the revenue necessary for government to function, shore up the country's fiscal health, and prove that major reform is still possible. What seems impossible is that this might be achieved amicably and without drama.