Liberals look at Obama and see an incontrovertibly intelligent man. And yet, he seems unable to discern the most basic political realities -- obviously a problem for a politician. Indeed, this latest exercise in Republican hostage-taking was so predictable -- to everyone but the White House, that is -- that reporter Marc Ambinder predicted it last December. At the time, Ambinder asked Obama why he had not included a debt ceiling increase in the agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts, given that the GOP would undoubtedly use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract future cuts. Obama was oblivious.
What is going on here? After all, it's no secret that the Republicans have just two overarching goals: 1) knee-capping Obama's presidency, and 2) keeping taxes on the rich low. The GOP has been quite explicit about both these aims. How could Republican intransigence still be such a shock to Obama after two and a half years of unprecedented obstructionism and extortion? Liberals alternate between hoping that Obama's weak negotiating is either some kind of still obscure rope-a-dope scheme -- "jujitsu" or "11-dimensional chess" -- or that he will finally draw the proverbial line in the sand and stand up to the Republicans.
The truth is more depressing. The only principle Obama is unwilling to compromise on is compromise itself. He values process over policy. This pose as the most reasonable man in the room might not be a problem if the other side was negotiating in good faith. They are not. Rather, their midterm rout has emboldened the GOP to take hostages. They threaten economic ruin unless their policy demands are met. And they keep doing so for a simple reason: it has worked thus far.
This is where rationalization comes in. Taken individually, none of the deals the Republicans have dictated to Obama have been that bad. The Bush tax cuts extension included a dose of stimulus in a payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment insurance. The threat of a government shutdown in April did not lead to draconian spending cuts. Neither did the brouhaha over the debt ceiling: $21 billion in FY2012 cuts will not affect Obama's electoral fate. It could have been much worse (how's that for a re-election slogan?). But that completely misses the point.
The GOP strategy is cuts by a thousand cuts. Each time they take a hostage, the Republicans wrest modest enough concessions that the Democrats give in rather than risk economic calamity over such relatively small stakes. Insofar as chipping away at the deficit has burnished Obama's centrist credentials, there's a defensible argument that he is winning the -- wait for it! -- future by mollifying independents on spending. Messaging trumps policy, too. Again, a rationalization. The reality is that the economy is far, far more important than political framing. James Carville had it right. Even an overgenerous interpretation of these deals as tactical victories for Obama adds up to a strategic defeat. The Republicans have taken stimulus off the table -- and Obama can't even blame them for it, given his cooperation and pro-austerity rhetoric. A belated "pivot" towards jobs, which Obama laughably thinks could pass the House, would hardly make a dent in our jobs crisis even if it somehow did get enough Republican support.
Still, liberals hope. They have already turned their attention to what figures to be the next political brawl: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in late 2012. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait has been pounding the table for Obama to call the GOP's bluff, and veto any bill that keeps the Bush tax cuts for incomes above $250,000. This is politics worthy of the jujitsu moniker. It simultaneously places the blame for a middle class tax hike on the Republicans, while raising the revenue necessary to keep Social Security and Medicare close to their current forms. So, does Chait expect Obama to adopt this strategy?
The problem, though, is that we can't be sure Obama really intends to draw that line. There's a limit to how much faith one can place in a man who has so badly misjudged his political opponents time and time again. The debt ceiling ransom may be a shrewd strategic retreat, or it may be the largest in a series of historic capitulations. We won't know until the fight over the Bush tax cuts has been settled.Unfortunately, we likely already know. Indeed, Obama's abortive attempts at a "grand bargain" during the debt ceiling negotiations included offers of tax reform, i.e. lowering rates and closing loopholes. It's certainly true that this offer was made in the context of larger negotiations, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's recent op-ed still endorsing the idea should erase all doubt about the administration's intentions.
Democrats need to realize Obama cares more about appeasing the Washington Post editorial board than he does his own base. Instead of hoping that he will become the politician they want him to be, they should try to pressure him to do so. It's time to recognize he's not the one we were waiting for.