Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Obama exiting placatory mode again?

UPDATE: It was probably foolish to write the post below having read just one extended excerpt of what Obama said in today's press conference. The Journal, in a fuller account, says that Obama stated that the debt ceiling negotiations are aiming at a full-Monty $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10-12 years. If Obama is really only demanding $400 billion in tax cuts to get there, that is terrible. How can they do $4 trillion without full-scale tax reform  that raises at least $1 trillion in new revenue over the 10-12 year period?  I had assumed that they were working on a kind of halfway-there deal, for which the proposed $400 billion in tax hikes would be proportionate.
     Ezra Klein thinks that the fact that Obama is picking a fight with Republicans over taxes means that he's given up on negotiations. This is actually a point I've made several times, particularly when Sullivan goes on about Obama "leading" on the deficit: when he starts staking out specifics in public and hammering the GOP, you'll know he's given up. Still, I must say, Obama did not sound today like someone who has given up on negotiations.
    Another idea I've been toying with, though, is that Obama's blowing off Congress regarding his Libyan adventure may have been a warmup for blowing off Congress on the debt ceiling. At TNR, Matthew Zeitlin recently recounted several lawyers' arguments that the executive branch could continue to pay debts, ignoring the debt ceiling.  Also in this category: making recess appointments, even if Congress doesn't recess.
    Guess I don't know what the hell Obama is thinking, or what's going to happen...
    Anyway, for what it's worth, here is this morning's post-haste post:
I go back and forth on the question of whether Obama is unduly "passive," whether he cedes too much ground to the GOP, whether he fails as public advocate for his own policies...or whether it inevitably seems that way when you're presiding over 9% unemployment.

In any case, there have been moments when he's reshaped a debate or bid to decisively close one off -- e.g., his healthcare speech in Sept. '09, and his peroration to the healthcare summit in late Feb. '10.

Today's press conference delivered up what could be another such moment re the debt ceiling:
If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that, ‘The tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done,’ or, ‘We’re so concerned about protecting oil and gas subsidies for oil companies that are making money hand over fist, that’s the reason we’re not going to come to a deal,’” he said. “I don’t think that’s a sustainable position.”
Mr. Obama predicted “we will reach a deal” to raise the debt limit, adding that his “expectation is that they’ll do the responsible thing.”

Added the president: “Look, I think that what we’ve seen in negotiations here in Washington is a lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on cable news, but that, hopefully, leaders at a certain point rise to the occasion and they do the right thing for the American people.”

“And that’s what I expect to happen this time,” he continued. “Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”

“Every single observer who’s not an elected official, who’s not a politician, says we can’t reduce our deficit in the scale and scope that we need to without having a balanced approach that looks at everything,” he said, adding, “You can’t reduce the deficit to the levels that it needs to be reduced without having some revenue in the mix.”

“And the revenue we’re talking about isn’t coming out of the pockets of middle-class families that are struggling, it’s coming out of folks who are doing extraordinarily well and who are enjoying the lowest tax rates since before I was born,” he said.

Now, it could be said that Obama never should have let things get this far, that Dems are struggling to get a relative fig leaf of revenue enhancement when they should be fighting for a 50/50 revenue/spending cut split... But as with Obama's prior two negotiating rounds with Boehner et al, let's wait not only until the deal is done and the top line announced, but until those with real budgetary knowledge have a chance to scratch below that top line, before casting Obama as Mr. Softie.  Both the December tax cut deal and the April 2011 budget deal were better from a Democrat's standpoint than they appeared at first glance.

Assuming that there is a debt ceiling deal, I'm holding three filters to its initial appearance in reserve: 1) as Kevin Drum has suggested, Obama really wants more spending cuts than most Dems do; 2) as with the December tax deal, he may once again put back-door stimulus (e.g., extended payroll tax cut) above long-term tax hikes; and 3) we cannot really judge his tax reform strategy/goals until the endgame of the Bush tax cuts play out. Which means, not until he's re-elected -- or not.

Update 6/30: it's become part of the lore of the Obama presidency that a huge majority of Americans do not know that the stimulus passed in February 2009 cut their taxes. In light of that messaging failure, this part of an addendum about growing the economy that Obama tacked on to a nonresponse to a question about gay marriage  is worth noting [just found the full press conference transcript today]:
..if there are steps that in the short term may reduce the amount of cash in the treasury but in the long term mean that we’re growing at 3.5 percent instead of 2.5 percent, then those ideas are worth exploring.  

Obviously that was what we did in December during the lame duck session, when Democrats and Republicans came together and we said, you know what, a payroll tax cut makes sense in order to boost the economy; unemployment insurance makes sense in order to boost the economy.  All that stuff puts money in people’s pockets at a time when they’re still struggling to dig themselves out of this recession.  And so the American people have an extra thousand dollars, on average, in their pockets because of the tax cuts that we initiated.  And that has helped cushion some of the tough stuff that happened in the first six months of this year, including the effects on oil prices as a consequence of what happened in the Middle East as well as what happened in Japan.

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