Obama's deal with GOP: compromise, or surrender?

December 07, 2010|By Jules Witcover

The best that can be said about President Barack Obama abandoning his brief fight to kill the tax cut for America's wealthiest taxpayers is that he has settled for one short-term benefit, while still counting on long-term economic recovery.

The bright spot is inclusion of extended federal unemployment payments desperately needed by millions of lower- and middle-class Americans. But it comes at the cost of a deeply disillusioned liberal Democratic base.

Mr. Obama, already cast as unwilling to take on the congressional Republicans who practiced obstruction in his first two White House years, will now face a hammering from that base for ducking a principled battle for expediency's sake.

But to have gone to the mat against the Republicans over the so-called billionaires' tax break — even with the clear justification of achieving an estimated $700 billion in deficit reduction — would only have meant prolonging the partisan impasse of the last two years.

In his press conference Tuesday, Mr. Obama did note that the tax cut extension for the richest Americans was for two years only and that he intended to fight it again when the extension runs out. "We're going to keep on having the debate" against what he called the "Holy Grail" of the Republican Party, and he argued with critics that compromise was imperative in the climate of divided power in Congress.

Undeniably, the blatant GOP strategy of blackmail — holding the middle-class tax cut hostage to salvage the billionaires' boondoggle — worked. And there is no assurance that the Republicans, having now extracted political blood from Mr. Obama, won't continue to seek more with further obstructionism.

The president naively gambled that his early gestures to bring a new climate of bipartisanship or post-partisanship to Washington would bear fruit, or that failure of the Republicans to embrace his outreach would redound to his credit. Neither happened. Now he must hope that greater Republican influence in the House will bring with it greater responsibility and true cooperation.

The patchwork of tax fixes beyond the two-year extension of all the Bush tax cuts is designed to give something to everybody, middle class and business class alike, with a twofold purpose. One is to demonstrate that Mr. Obama has "heard the message" of his midterm election thrashing and is going more than halfway to meet Republican demands. The other is to show he still is determined to keep his economic recovery on track.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a central figure in the tax-cut preservation negotiations, credited "the determined efforts" of Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in striking the deal. He added he was "optimistic that Democrats in Congress will show the same openness to preventing tax hikes the administration has already shown."

But many liberals in the president's party are likely to balk at other aspects of the deal that have been thrown into the pot as Republican sweeteners, underscoring Mr. Obama's weakened congressional flank. His best argument for the compromise was that he had to salvage the middle-class cuts at all costs, but that won't be enough for the doubting Thomases.

Within his party, he can't afford to leave the impression that he is ceding the steering wheel of recovery to an opposition that he has spent the last two years accusing of having driven the economic car into the ditch. He needs to deliver finally on his early notion that working with the Republicans is possible, but only by remaining in the drivers' seat himself.

The other lament from the liberal Democrats is that Mr. Obama should have pushed for an even larger stimulus package in the first place, and that his administration has done a poor job in selling the contribution of the stimulus to whatever recovery has occurred.

In light of the Republicans' success in casting the stimulus as a failure, for Mr. Obama to propose another is not realistic. However, the $600 billion transfusion into the economy engineered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appears to be the functional equivalent of a second stimulus.

If this move is enough to reignite the stalled recovery, Mr. Obama's own political fortunes can rise with it. His public-approval rating, at 47 percent, is still higher than that of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton at their first midterm setbacks, and both of them easily won reelection two years later. With no other hopeful of any stature in sight for 2012, the Democrats need to follow Mr. Obama's lead of licking his wounds and pressing on.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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