Too-clever-by-half interpretations of this hold that Obama is playing a cunning long-term game. However, it is never cunning to abandon a core commitment, disillusion one’s most active supporters, and cede an opponent everything he wants from a relative position of strength in the hopes that the opponent will later be easier to outmaneuver after he has become even stronger.The problem is that Obama either had to abandon the core commitment to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, or the core commitment to continue Bush-era tax rates for everyone else. He didn't have the votes to keep both core commitments. End of story.
I can understand an argument that Obama's commitment on tax rates for the middle class was foolish in the first place; an argument that Obama and the Democrats should and could have passed the parts they liked at some point in 2009; or an argument that Obama could have made a better deal now. Not sure I'd agree with any of them, but I think they're all plausible, and hard to prove one way or another. For example, Matt Yglesias believes that Obama would have won the presidency without promising no tax increases for middle-class taxpayers. Probably true, but when he made the commitment he didn't yet know how close the election was going to be, and it was hardly a stretch to believe that the pledge would help him at least on the margins.
The main point, however, is that from where Obama was sitting at the beginning of this week, there was simply no way that he could escape without breaking one campaign pledge or the other. And I really can't see any case that it was the upper-level taxes that were the more central plank of his platform; if anything, I'd argue it was the other way around. Indeed, in his convention speech, he mentioned only cutting taxes for the middle class, and said nothing direct about taxes on the rich:
I will cut taxes - cut taxes - for 95% of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.That's what he ran on, and for better or worse that's what he delivered on in the tax deal -- while, of course, breaking with his plan on upper-income taxes. Again, perhaps it was a bad deal, and perhaps it could have been avoided months ago, but in the here-and-now there was no way Obama could avoid breaking one promise or the other.