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Monday, November 26, 2012

Notes from the bully pulpit: no one hears you when unemployment is at 10%

As Obama gears up for the fiscal cliff end game, David Corn is out with a timely reminder that the deal Obama struck in December 2010, trading extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy for a payroll tax cut, unemployment benefit extension and other stimulus, was far from the cave-in that liberal allies portrayed it as. Rather, it was a successful a bid to win "something bigger and better: more stimulus to aid the ailing economy."

This was actually obvious at the time, for those with eyes to see. According to Mark Zandi, the Democratic proposals that became part of the deal yielded $336 billion worth of stimulus from 2010-2012.  Even Paul Krugman admitted at the time that the provisions Obama fought for were likely to provide significant help to the economy. In concert with the payroll tax cut and and unemployment benefits extension Obama bludgeoned the GOP into accepting in early 2012, those stimulative measures probably secured his reelection.

While debunking the tax-deal-as-cave-in myth, Corn does subscribe to another narrative that does have some truth to it over the long haul but in my view is also exaggerated:  that Obama was ineffective at communicating his policy.  Here's Corn's read:

This [deal] was not full capitulation. It was a strategic retreat to accomplish a bigger mission. Obama, however, never told this story. Throughout that lame duck session, few in the media and few in Democratic congressional circles had realized what Obama was trying to pull off. When the deal was done, many of Obama's own political allies did not immediately recognize what he had won. To many on the outside, it did seem as if he had folded. As with the stimulus, the health care bill, and the middle-class tax cuts he had passed in his first year, Obama had neglected to convince the public of the value of his victory.
Of Obama's December 7, 2010 press conference announcing and defending the deal, Corn complains that Obama did not directly rebut Chuck Todd's characterization of the extension of all the Bush tax cuts as "capitulation."

Maybe not.  But at the time, I argued that this press conference was the best performance of Obama's presidency. Looking back at it, I still think he gave a masterful presentation of the short-term benefits, his long-term goals, and the dynamics of compromise and change. 

Regarding Corn's assertion that Obama never got across the "story" that the deal was "a strategic retreat to accomplish a bigger mission," look at Obama's opening statement at that press conference and see whether that charge holds water.
Good afternoon, everybody. Before I answer a few questions, I just wanted to say a few words about the agreement we’ve reached on tax cuts.

My number one priority is to do what’s right for the American people, for jobs, and for economic growth. I’m focused on making sure that tens of millions of hardworking Americans are not seeing their paychecks shrink on January 1st just because the folks here in Washington are busy trying to score political points.

And because of this agreement, middle-class Americans won’t see their taxes go up on January 1st, which is what I promised -- a promise I made during the campaign, a promise I made as President.

Because of this agreement, 2 million Americans who lost their jobs and are looking for work will be able to pay their rent and put food on their table. And in exchange for a temporary extension of the high-income tax breaks -- not a permanent but a temporary extension -- a policy that I opposed but that Republicans are unwilling to budge on, this agreement preserves additional tax cuts for the middle class that I fought for and that Republicans opposed two years ago.

I’ll cite three of them. Number one, if you are a parent trying to raise your child or pay college tuition, you will continue to see tax breaks next year. Second, if you’re a small business looking to invest and grow, you’ll have a tax cut next year. Third, as a result of this agreement, we will cut payroll taxes in 2011, which will add about $1,000 to the take-home pay of a typical family.

So this isn’t an abstract debate. This is real money for real people that will make a real difference in the lives of the folks who sent us here. It will make a real difference in the pace of job creation and economic growth. In other words, it’s a good deal for the American people.

Now, I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans, even if it had meant an end to unemployment insurance for those who are desperately looking for work.

And I understand the desire for a fight. I’m sympathetic to that. I’m as opposed to the high-end tax cuts today as I’ve been for years. In the long run, we simply can’t afford them. And when they expire in two years, I will fight to end them, just as I suspect the Republican Party may fight to end the middle-class tax cuts that I’ve championed and that they’ve opposed.

So we’re going to keep on having this debate. We’re going to keep on having this battle. But in the meantime I’m not here to play games with the American people or the health of our economy. My job is to do whatever I can to get this economy moving. My job is to do whatever I can to spur job creation. My job is to look out for middle-class families who are struggling right now to get by and Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own.

A long political fight that carried over into next year might have been good politics, but it would be a bad deal for the economy and it would be a bad deal for the American people. And my responsibility as President is to do what’s right for the American people. That’s a responsibility I intend to uphold as long as I am in this office.
 Sounds to me like a depiction of  "a strategic retreat to accomplish a bigger mission."

As for the deeper import of that deal, Obama's drawing of the long-term battle lines, his statement of future intent for the moment we're now in, and his long-term priorities -- again, I think Obama's articulation of all of the above at that press conference was as good as any he's ever made. Please have a look.

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