AKIE BERMISS: Last week’s big political hubbub was the Obama Tax Cut deal. Apparently, it was the straw the broke the camel’s back… for everyone. People on the Left couldn’t stand that Obama had “caved” on the Estate Tax and tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year. People on the Right were upset because the tax cuts represent a huge deficit expense (it bears mentioning, however, that the Right is often the champion of cutting taxes… so its a big hypocritical craw-sticker there). And the rest of the country was pretty much just confused — and also angry that they are out of work, things don’t seem to be getting better, and nobody in Washington appears to be doing anything about it.
On its face, the tax compromise does seem like more of a blow to Obama than a blow against the Republicans. The Estate tax at 35%, extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans for another two years… its damning stuff, I suppose. But it can really be looked upon as a coup if one is willing to step back for a second. Consider the newly reinvigorated GOP fresh off of at ton of wins in the mid-term election (a some what routine happening that is always crowed about as some sort of revolution by the party in ascendancy): a party that came to the lame-duck session of congress promising to filibuster every single piece of legislation until the tax situation was dealt with. Consider the Democratic Party, newly re-weakened by the mid-terms: a part of politicians who are fair-weather friends even in the fairest of weather. Now things are tough and Dems are starting to hemorrhage from Obama’s agenda and jog either to the right or left in an effort to get away from what they perceive as weakness. Basically, its recipe for stalemate. And stalemate was what you had. I’ll give it to Nancy Pelosi, she managed to keep her troops together and pass the bills that wanted passing. But the bottleneck was in the Senate (where its been for the last two years at least). In the Senate, there was a lot of hemming and hawing, a lot of grandstanding, and a lot of nothing going on.
In steps President Obama, taking it upon himself to meet with the Republican leadership and iron out a deal that, while not pleasing everybody, will keep America above water for the next two years at least. Of course, the concessions led to all kinds of anger and distress. Step back, though, and you can see that without somebody stepping in to do the pragmatic thing and: compromise. And that now infamous press conference where Obama expresses frustration for what his press secretary once called the “professional Left” is probably all some liberals will remember for a couple of months. Probably it’s strange for many of us, after eight years of President Bush, to have an executive who’s short-term priority is governing the populace effectively. Our collective reaction seems to be angry bemusement. Then again, the immediate benefit is undeniable. Whatever you may think about the wealthy few and their tax cuts, we ALL get tax cuts for the next two years. For those of us who are unemployed 13 more months of unemployment benefits is a big deal. The savings many working Americans will get from the payroll tax holiday are not insignificant. So the down side really is just the hundreds of billions of dollars of debt. But a country in recession is like a beggar — in that it can’t be choosy. Now is not the time for standing on principle. Now is the time for governing as effectively as possible.
And that is precisely what you will find if you look at Barack Obama.
So it begs the question — what will this mean for 2012? If Obama has to play super-centrist in order to negotiate with the GOP-dominated legislative body, will he open himself up to challenges from the left during the primaries? I think the answer has to be: no. A big, fat, resolute NO. It would be suicidal for any liberal to try and run against Obama. For those of you who are thinking about challenging Barack Obama in a primary, here are a few things to think about:
1. The Democratic Party may be on the ropes right now, but Barack Obama is NOT. You need look no further than the supposed “caving in” that went down during the tax deal. Democrats and Republicans were all geared up to spend hours going back and forth with pundits trying to gain political ground on each other during the lame-duck session while nothing was done. Before that could happen the President called in the opposition’s leadership and ironed out a deal that would basically cover the next two years. Yes, right up to the election. While Republicans spent much of the weekend trying to spin this (with admitted ease) as a victory for the Right, I think its pretty clear that Obama was making a clear decision to eschew small-time politics and make his mark by DOing something. And that is how — in the long run — you prove to the American people that you’ve still got juice.
2. You may be able to start a grassroots Left-wing groundswell, but how far can you carry it? Think of the constituents who are going to stick with Obama through thick and thin. Most like people getting unemployment benefits, centrists, and the large number of Independents who will, by then, be sick and tired of the Republican party. Are you going to be able to challenge Obama from the left and then make a real bid for the Presidency in 2012?
3. Do you REALLY want to be the de facto leader of the Democratic Party? We’re talking about the most fractured and inconsistent group of politicians in recent American history. Just weeks after Obama took office, a bunch of of Democratic Representatives formed the Blue Dog coalition as a means of maneuvering against the specter of a super-liberal Barack Obama. Is that the kind of party you want to be the contentiously appointed leader of?
4. IF you do challenge Obama and beat him… it’s a fair bet that you’ll lose to whoever the Republican candidate is. Do you want to be the person who lost to Huckabee? Romney? Gingrich? Or — heaven forfend! — Sarah Palin? ’Cause you would be.
There is no way anyone is going to challenge Barack Obama in 2012. Certainly not from the left. I personally think Obama is just about to hit his stride in this first term. Having a clear and present enemy in the newer, stronger, meaner GOP is only going to make him seem more and more reasonable. And probably make him seem like an even better leader. The more compromise he can build where he get pooh-pooh’d by the Left and the Right gives ground on the things he needs, the more he’s going to seem like an effective executive. And that is the key. I don’t think smart liberals are going to keep trying to sidle away from the President. Sometime in the near future they will probably start to realize that he is looking stronger now than he has since early 2009.
Now is the time to be caught governing, people. Not, as Biden put it so crassly (yet perfectly) a few months ago, whining. Whining is what people do when they can’t do anything else.
HOWARD MEGDAL: With the legislative work now complete, let’s see what a post-election Barack Obama managed to do. He agreed to a deal on the Bush Tax Cuts that will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. He signed into law a bill ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And he passed a treat with Russia that will not only reduce nuclear weapons, but will further our relationship with a key country concerning important matters like Iran and China.
What part of this is supposed to be fatal to him with his base?
Yes, the tax cut. Obama has maximized the amount of money he could expect Congress to help him add to the economy between now and 2012, while getting to argue in favor of repeal before a national audience in 2012 that overwhelmingly sees the issue as he does. In the meantime, solid majorities of Democrats- yes, Democrats- support the tax deal he just made.
So that pretend Howard Dean/Russ Feingold candidacy will have some difficulty finding room to run.
We’ve just seen two years with the most productive legislative session since The Great Society. I know you’ve probably heard that, but contextualize it for a moment. That means a better two years than any of the four two-year spans of Bill Clinton (without any of the corrosive Clinton cave-ins; compare temporary Bush tax cut as betrayal to Welfare Reform, for instance), either of the two Jimmy Carter sessions, and obviously, any of the GOP sessions as well.
If Obama hadn’t accomplished so much, the complaints over his compromises might be reasonable. But he consistently made the best deal he could, and got plenty to show for it. Hopefully Democrats can enjoy those victories, since they won’t have many like them with the GOP-controlled House between now and 2013. This will require a different Obama- arguably, precisely the guy who got elected in 2007-2008. That should be the scariest prospect- for Republicans, not Democrats- of all.