Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obama to cash in his "compromiser" chips?

Back in August, in response to Drew Westen's denunciation of Obama as a spineless rollover to the Republicans, I wrote:
in a fearsomely stressed and politically polarized country, Obama's relentless refusal to demonize an extremist opposition may yet win the day by means of contrast. Perhaps it will prove in the long run to be the political equivalent of the nonviolence of Martin Luther King...

Let's not forget that many African Americans at times regarded King as an appeasing sellout, much as many progressives now see Obama as one.    The Panthers and the Nation of Islam were more satisfying to many. King called out his adversaries, but he never shrank from engaging with them. Neither has Obama -- though the results have not always been what his base could have wished.

Now, after two and a half months of relentlessly calling out the GOP for refusing to stimulate the economy or raise taxes on the wealthiest, the moment may have arrived  when he cashes in his "nonviolent" chips. His poll numbers are spiking -- by a widening margin, Americans trust him more than the GOP to protect the interests of the middle class. Having blessed a Senate compromise over the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefit extension -- the fiscal heart of his September stimulus package -- he is refusing to negotiate further as Boehner once more reneges and lets the House extremists scotch the placeholder deal.  Now, having convinced Americans over the course of a year of bloody partisan conflict that he is the one willing -- too willing -- to compromise, he is poised to in his civil way to KO the House holdouts over their rejection of a deal that Boehner blessed and the Senate approved 89-10. He made his first strike today:

The issue right now is this:  The clock is ticking; time is running out.  And if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill, or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days.  I saw today that one of the House Republicans referred to what they’re doing as, “high-stakes poker.”  He’s right about the stakes, but this is not poker, this is not a game -- this shouldn’t be politics as usual.  Right now, the recovery is fragile, but it is moving in the right direction.  Our failure to do this could have effects not just on families but on the economy as a whole.  It’s not a game for the average family, who doesn’t have an extra 1,000 bucks to lose.  It’s not a game for somebody who’s out there looking for work right now, and might lose his house if unemployment insurance doesn’t come through.  It’s not a game for the millions of Americans who will take a hit when the entire economy grows more slowly because these proposals aren’t extended (my emphasis).

In this he should hit the trifecta -- for protecting middle class interests, for sweet reasonableness, and for a principled stand against an overreaching adversary. Playing the only adult room works when you've already compromised, when you refuse to compromise further, when you're seeking measures with broad-based popular support, and when tens of millions face immediate pain if you're thwarted.

After the debt ceiling debacle, Obama's support cratered -- not because people did not support his deficit deal negotiating stance, but because he was perceived to have caved -- he looked weak and ineffectual.  I wrote then that he needed to stage a fight with Republicans and win it. He should be on the brink of that now -- and at almost exactly the stage of his presidency that Clinton had reached in Jan. 1996 when he won the government shutdown showdown with the Gingrich Congress.

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