Liberals are elated that President Obama is finally primed for a fight. Conservatives are happy to take up the chant of “class warfare.” I’m thoroughly depressed.
First, although the president’s plan does little to change the already low odds of success for the new congressional supercommittee, it underscores the near-impossibility of dealing seriously with the debt before the election.
Second and more broadly, it signals the failure of the central promise of the Obama presidency: that the forces of reason, pragmatism and persuasion can combine to thwart the ordinary laws of political physics.
From the moment of his emergence at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama evoked the common concerns of purple America to rebut the notion that political self-preservation always trumps national interest. He contended that the country was capable of rising above politics as a zero-sum game. In office, however, Obama’s “yes we can” inevitably became “not so fast.” His pledge to end the partisan bickering and gamesmanship in Washington resulted in even more of the same. And his dead-on-arrival debt plan represents the most vivid manifestation of that predictable reality.
The plan features tax increases for the wealthy that the president knows are a nonstarter with Republicans. It retreats from entitlement reforms that he was previously willing to accept, notwithstanding unhappiness among his base. It cuts more than the supercommittee is required to achieve but not nearly enough to get the long-term debt under control.
You could look at all this and accuse Obama of campaigning instead of governing, of once again engaging in the can-kicking he had sworn to stop. I don’t think that’s fair. As the president discovered, it’s impossible to dance with people determined to stomp on your toes. Had Republicans demonstrated some willingness to deviate from their no-new-taxes orthodoxy, some recognition of the basic budgetary arithmetic that requires a balance of spending cuts and tax increases to get the debt under control, I’d be willing to bash the president for cravenly catering to the base. But Obama’s previous overtures of reasonableness — raise the Medicare eligibility age, lower Social Security benefits by changing the inflation formula — have yielded nothing but Republican rebuffs. If he is now practicing politics as usual, holding back some of what he might be willing to yield in a negotiation that will probably never come, it’s hard to fault him.
And, yet, how sad a spectacle it was to see the president stooping to the kind of cynical accounting gimmicks he once bragged about eschewing. Back when he delivered his first budget, the president crowed that he was not engaged in the usual “dishonest accounting” — for example, not including the expected cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Less than three years later, he was padding his promised debt reduction by $1 trillion — by including supposed “savings” from war costs that he knows will not be incurred. So much for business as usual. Likewise, the president awarded himself credit for another $866 billion in “savings” for letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire — as he has proposed since the last campaign.
Obama is no rube. His advisers are experienced Washington hands. They did not expect to prance into office and cuddle up with Republican lambs. Rather, the Obama team erred in two ways. It underestimated the ferocity of GOP opposition — health care and the debt ceiling being the two leading examples. And it mistimed its own combination of conciliation and line-drawing.
So where are we now? With Obama seeking barely half the debt reduction of Simpson-Bowles. With a plan that calls for far less in the way of new taxes. And that is going nowhere.
With a president elected on the promise of hope and change — and running for a second term having learned how difficult that is to achieve.