Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Art of the Possible

I don't understand Daniel Larison's complaint about the tax deal:
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.


  1. I don't understand the fervor with which some Democrats are criticizing Obama. Why hadn't they shown this much outrage toward the Republicans up to this point? Surely they must understand Obama wasn't the obstacle here.

  2. I don't agree with Larison's assessment, but I think I understand where he's coming from.

    Obviously, the Senate did not have 60 votes for a hypothetical middle-class-tax-cut-only bill. Surely Larison knows that. What Larison is saying is that Obama's base would rather see him stick to his guns and refuse to compromise, even if it meant no bill would pass and everyone's taxes would go up in 2011. That way, in the eyes of Larison, Obama would have stuck to his "core commitments" - even though he would have no results to show for it.

    Larison and his ilk think that this show of rigid ideological principle would (electorally speaking) outweigh the negative effects of hundreds of millions of people seeing their paychecks shrink. That's the part that, to me, sounds like complete lunacy.

  3. I don't necessarily disagree with your analysis, but I do think that many Obama supporters understood this quotation (and similar ones):

    "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."

    As a dog whistle of sorts - that he was pledging to cut taxes because everyone likes to hear about cutting taxes, but that he was also implicitly pledging to increase taxes on that other 5%. I think for a lot of people, the two commitments were intrinsically tied together, as they are (I believe) in that quote from Obama.

  4. The real problem is there is now a real narrative about Obama to hang stories on: he is a wimp. And angry deems willing to give quotes which crowd the wh message

    Also staged outrage in congress is grounds for killing the estate tax part of the bill. If Obama could negoiate that is...

  5. 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.

    To me, this ignores the fact that where he was sitting at the beginning of the week was in large part due to a lack of leadership from him over the past 6 or even 18 months. To say that he did the best he could given the poor hand he was dealt ignores the fact that he had a terrific hand at the beginning of his administration and either blew it (incompetence) or wasn't particularly interested in playing it well (closet Rockefeller Republican). Either way, I'm not sure why he would expect me to feel grateful or enthusiastic.

  6. Good post and good comments---thanks to all.

    I just want to respond to Anonymous' observation about "a real narrative" that Obama "is a wimp".

    That narrative periodically reappears based largely, as best I can tell, on the fact that Obama's a skinny guy with big ears who tends not to raise his voice.

    It's good to remember that:

    1) when Obama was on the defensive about Rev. Wright, he responded with his "A More Perfect Union" address;

    2) when Obama debated McCain in McCain's preferred "town hall" format, he beat McCain so badly that if it had been a fight, it would have been a TKO;

    3) when Scott Brown got elected and House Republicans invited Obama to their retreat, he took every question they threw at him and exposed their weaknesses;

    4) when congressional Republicans complained that there hadn't been an open enough debate on the Affordable Care Act, Obama invited them to the Blair House and, again, answered all their questions and leaving them defenseless to stop the bill from proceeding.

    There may be a narrative that Obama's a wimp, but he's not. He's steady---which can be an attractive quality in a presidential candidate....

  7. That's the difference between a reality and a narrative. I dont know, maybe Obama has some private ufc trainers. But now you have a framework for stories that he can't negoiate and is too reasonable

    Answering questions, however, is not "strength". It is being articulate

  8. The thing about this so-called "narrative" is how ephemeral it is. If you look back at what pundits were saying about Obama in Aug. 2008 when his poll numbers appeared to be taking a hit from McCain attack ads, or in Feb. 2010 when he was organizing the bipartisan health care summit in the wake of the Scott Brown fiasco, you see a lot of the same stuff that's being said about him now--but in each of those cases, as soon as he triumphed the "wimp" narrative was abandoned and he was once again recast as the shrewd pol who plays the long game.

  9. Another thing I haven't seen too many commentators point out is that this deal has actually revealed a weakness in the Republicans. After previously putting up all this bluster about how they would give Obama nothing, they quickly reversed themselves and gave him quite a lot--all because he waved the upper-income-tax-cuts in front of them. Based on any rational analysis of this Mexican standoff, the Democrats seem to have gained more than they lost, yet they're the ones depicted as weak. Call me a little astounded.

  10. I agree entirely with Andrew above, and the more I look at this, the more I begin to suspect that this supposed "base" who'd have preferred the president stick to his guns (except, as Prof. points out, they weren't his guns) and have an ideological battle about raising taxes on the rich are just those people who haven;t really been hit by this recession: people who still have their good jobs and, when the rubber hits the road, are into politics for the intellectual sustenance. People, in other words, who enjoy a good fight, and can afford the price of admission. BUt that is not who Obama is doing this for: rather, he's doing it for the REAL base: people who are suffering, out of work, in debt, and worse, who EXPECT a president and party they'll support to do whatever they can to help the objective situation they face. And, in addition to the primary benefits of this deal - UI benefits extension; payroll holiday - it is actually the case that, however prudent raising tax rates, even on the rich, might be in the long term, and however satisfying it might be for people in politics for the ideological sport, it's actually the wrong policy at this time from an economic perspective, and I think the real base understands that.

  11. Obama had a terrific hand at the beginning of his administration. Uh-huh.


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