Monday, December 6, 2010

Compromising too much, too soon

President Obama is making a huge mistake in giving things up before ever sitting down at the conference table. Obama is always "reaching out" in an attempt to compromise with Lucillian Republicans (as in Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon), gets the ball taken away from him, and still continues to reach out to Republicans. Sadly, for this President it is becoming a glaring weakness. In his attempt to look bi-partisan, he concedes to the GOP practically everything important to his left-leaning base just to get something passed.

                                      Oh no, not again!

Part of the contrast Obama sought to draw with Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign was that you would never catch him triangulating against his base for political gain. It was a point of pride for Obama that he would have no so-called Sister Souljah moments, even when he vehemently disagreed with liberals. But Obama has put all of his compromises on the table from the outset. He compromised too early on health care, financial regulation, and climate change.

For two years Obama has championed extending the Bush tax cuts only for individuals who earn (net) less than $200,000 a year and couples that make less than $250,000. In his weekly radio address last week, he said: “For the past decade, they [the middle class] saw their costs rise, their incomes fall, and too many jobs go overseas. They’re the ones bearing the brunt of the recession. They’re the ones having trouble making ends meet. They are the ones who need relief right now.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have been pushing for a permanent extension of the tax cuts for everyone regardless of income. So, lately, since Republicans won the House in the mid-terms, Obama has signaled that he is willing to compromise. Insisting that tax cuts for wealthier Americans should not become permanent because of a $700 billion impact on the deficit over the next decade, he left the door open to a temporary extension for higher income levels – as long as it falls short of costing that $700 billion. This has a lot of Democrats steaming.

Emboldened by their election victories and vowing to continue to block Obama's agenda, all Congressional Republicans signed a letter that said they would block the Democratic agenda for the lame-duck session of Congress, except for the tax cuts and a bill to fund the federal government. They want the federal government funded through next September before they have to deal with the Tea Partiers who want to shut down government over this very spending bill. They have taken a harder line on making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.

Worried about their futures as their power wanes, the Democratic congressional caucuses want to see President Obama fight harder for their causes. They are concerned that he may emulate former President Bill Clinton and cut deals with Republicans too much for their liking. And I think Obama will move to the right – and possibly give away the store to the GOP.

How much of his political capital will President Obama stake to defend the principles he ran on in 2008? If Obama compromises on his once-firm stand on the tax cuts, it will amplify questions that Democrats have been asking for nearly two years – essentially, what does he really stand for when his back is to the wall?

Now that the deficit commission has offered its proposals, the essential decision facing Obama is whether he will side either with centrist reformers from both parties, who would overhaul both cherished entitlements and the tax system, or side with traditional liberals, who prefer to remove the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and raise the wage limit for FICA taxes so that the rich pay a little more.

In other words, the suddenly pressing issue of the debt will force Obama to choose, at last, between the dueling, ill-defined promises of his presidential campaign – between a “post-partisan” vision of government on one hand and a liberal renaissance on the other. The problem with this is that it puts Obama in something of a dilemma. He is not willing to publicly make a break with liberals, so independent and conservative voters tend to see him as a tool of the left. And since he generally will not do exactly what the left wants him to do, he ends up with very little gratitude from his own party.

Obama is in a box – one of his own making – and it is about to become uninhabitable. Obama is going to have to choose what side he is on. My bet is that he will lean toward the Republican agenda (like Clinton), give away the farm by putting his compromises on the table at the outset, and seal his fate as a one term president.