Obama did the right thing

I don’t suppose I should be surprised by the operatic dismay of liberal Democrats at the agreement Obama has reached with congressional Republicans. But is it really good politics for the party to keep telling the electorate that raising taxes on the rich is the one thing, in the end, it stands for? That nothing else comes close in the party’s list of priorities? Because this is the message that comes across.

Obama was right to strike this agreement. The concession on taxes is minimal, because a much larger tax reform is coming soon, one way or another, and that will be the time to press for an appropriately progressive formula for raising significantly more revenue. Meanwhile extending unemployment benefits and delivering some additional short-term stimulus through the payroll tax cut are matters that really cannot wait.

He did the right thing. But he did it in an unconvincing way. It has been obvious for weeks if not months that this was the kind of deal that would eventually be struck. He could have shaped it more to his liking (and mine) if he had taken the initiative in moving the $250,000 threshold for higher income taxes to $1m early on, and then gone out and sold it. (The party line about “millionaires and billionaires” simply does not square with that $250,000: the policy and the marketing were completely out of sync.) He let the debate drag on too long. He refused to get in front of it. He let the outcome be forced upon him. And in his televised statement–although what he said all made sense, to me at least–his tone was timid and defensive, I thought. He looked weary.

To his credit, he defended his position on principle: “I’m not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare in Washington.” Good. He went further than that, in fact, positioning himself between the warring factions, rather than as the head of one of them, saying in effect that he was above all that–a very provoking message to fellow Democrats. That was brave–but is he ready for this fight, and willing to follow through? His tone did not say courage and conviction, but hesitation and retreat. His own party is taking up the theme more enthusiastically than ever: Obama is weak; Obama is a liability. Incredible, when you consider what he got done in his first two years.

The Democratic zeal for self-destruction is a cause of wonder to me. Politico reported that many Democrats are worried that “Obama is being bullied by Republicans and is prepared to sacrifice large principles in exchange for paltry concessions…” Extending unemployment benefits and cutting payroll taxes are paltry concessions?

Mind you, according to one strand of Democratic thinking, cutting payroll taxes is not a Republican concession, paltry or otherwise, but another tactical victory: Republicans want to cut payroll taxes in order to bankrupt Social Security, so this is all part of their master plan, which Obama is now cravenly implementing. (I listened incredulously as Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake explained this on the PBS Newshour last night.) So let’s review: as well as higher taxes on the rich, by this logic, we also need higher payroll taxes on low- and middle-income households, to defend Social Security. And Democrats wonder why voters don’t trust them on taxes. Can’t they at least pretend to be reluctant to put them up?

We will see whether congressional Democrats have the courage of their own convictions, since they can block this way forward if they choose: no payroll tax cut (read: assault on Social Security), no extended unemployment benefits, and all of those loathsome Bush tax cuts reversed in just another few weeks. What’s not to like? I’m sure the country would be deeply impressed.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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