Obama On Tax Cuts: Read My Lips, Or Triangulation?

Political Cartoons by Lisa Benson

This may be the most pivotal moment in Barack Obama’s Presidency.

After passing his stimulus, which produced negligible results, and Obamacare, which is now disliked by 3 out of 5 Americans, it is ironic that his moment comes regarding, of all things, the much despised Bush tax cuts.

The surprise is that Obama would be forced to compromise such as he did, when he had huge majorities to do as he wished for the last two years.  So why did Obama agree to the this largely Republican compromise?  The reason, ultimately, is simple.  First, Obama ultimately realizes (and has in the past clearly stated) that raising taxes in the midst of a recession is a bad idea.  For all his liberal ideology, Obama wants to get re-elected…and that takes primacy over his belief in higher taxes.  So, it was in his self interest, as well as in the country’s interests, to keep tax levels as they are.

In return, Obama needed a carrot to liberals.  That came in lieu of extension of the unemployment benefits.  Sure, it is not much of a carrot, but Obama has little to no leverage with Republicans, especially with the Republican majority taking over the House in early January.

So, Obama made the best deal he could in the very short window available to him. It was not much of a deal, but had a few attributes.  First, it is relatively popular with the public at large. Since Obama has spent much of the last two years going against public opinion, this is a major plus.   Second, even liberal Obama believes that this will likely help, not hurt, the economy…and definitely short term will spur the economy much more than more spending.

But this is where the rubber hits the road.  If Obama becomes as politically adept as Bill Clinton (and there is absolutely no evidence to show that at this point in time), this could be Obama’s beginning of a triangulation strategy:  make Republicans and Democrats look like novices and children, and show himself above the fray, looking out for the best interests of the American people.

That might have begun to work…except for Obama’s sniveling and, ultimately damaging, press conference.  He spent much of it on the defensive, against liberals who should be protecting him.  The press corps was having a field day.  And even worse, when he had the chance to look like ‘the adult in the room’…he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Instead, he accused Republicans of ‘hostage taking’ in discussions over taxes.  He just could not be the bigger man.

The risk, of course, is the ‘Read My Lips’ pledge.  George H. W. Bush was never a true red-blooded conservative.  And when he made his ‘no taxes’ pledge, he was firming up his political base in 1988 from the likes of Pat Robertson.  When Bush ultimately broke his promise because of threats from Congressional Democrats in 1990, the economy dropped further into recession, ultimately leading to the election of Bill Clinton.  Bush never recovered his base.

This could be Obama’s equivalent moment.  Obama, like all Democrats since 2003, have promised to remove the ‘evil’ Bush tax cuts.  For him now to reinstate those tax levels is, to liberals, almost an act of treason.  Remember, liberals are still infected with Bush Derangement Syndrome; nothing Bush did should ever stand.  So after electing the ‘anti-Bush’ in Obama…they get more of the same.  Obama now has virtually the same policy as Bush on Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iran.  He capitulated on Gitmo on terror trials.   And now this.  The anger from the left is palpable.  And thus, liberals may not be willing to blindly support this President anymore, unless he can give them a reason to Hope.

Could this possibly lead to a primary challenge, ala Bush in 1992?  Possible…but unlikely.  Obama was wise to remove the main challenge to his re-election back in 2008, by nominating her to be Secretary of State.  No one else of the stature necessary remains.

Joan Walsh of Salon.com has a piece which is quite emblematic of where progressives stand right now.  This is the most informative part:

Still, the rush to proclaim Obama the one, true progressive in 2008 was foolish, and I’d suggest that those who wound up disappointed in Obama think more about what they can learn from that race, rather than plotting to bring him down in 2012. Switching candidates now would be just another symptom of progressives’ inability to dig in for a long haul of taking our country back from the plutocrats who now run it. It’s tough work. I think, sadly, Obama is probably the most progressive Democrat who could be elected right now.

That is far from a glowing endorsement of the most progressive President in modern history.

This doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t  have opportunities to redeem himself.  He certainly does.  At this point in Reagan’s Presidency, Reagan was all but assured to be a one term President.  Same for Bill Clinton.  Obama could do the same.  But that would take a level of political aptitude that this President is so far lacking.