I ended my last post by exhorting President Obama to recognize the futility of seeking compromise with those whose explicit, implacable objective is to bring about his failure. To reverse the downward trajectory of his presidency, I urged the President to shed his conciliatory mien, draw clear policy lines in the sand, and fight any efforts to encroach those lines–even if fighting resulted in losing a few rounds.
“If your agenda remains fair and just,” I wrote, “and if you show the public you’re willing to go down fighting rather than compromise your principles, you may find, by round six or seven, that the public has moved to your corner–and with the public in your corner, you can’t lose.”
Oh, well–so much for that.
With a year-end battle looming over the fate of the Bush tax cuts, our President had an early opportunity to adopt a more pugnacious leadership style. He chose, instead, a somewhat different tack: Complete and unequivocal surrender (read about it here).
The tax cut issue had been bubbling for quite a while. Without congressional action, the cuts would expire automatically on December 31, resulting in a tax increase for most Americans. The President’s preference, stated many times over the past several months, was to extend the tax cuts for 98% of American households, but allow the cuts to expire, as scheduled, for the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers. In the President’s view, the middle class was hurting, and should not be further burdened by a tax hike in the midst of our current economic calamity. But with the national debt and budget deficit at unsustainable levels, the President rightly argued that the top 2% of taxpayers–those who benefitted so handsomely and so disproportionately from the boom that preceded our current bust–could well afford, and should be required, to help stanch the budgetary bleeding by returning (as the Bush tax cuts actually contemplated) to the marginally higher Clinton-era tax levels.
Republicans, of course, persistently rejected the President’s approach, insisting, instead, that any deal to extend tax cuts for the middle class must also extend cuts for the wealthy. In a specious conflation designed to increase anxiety among a recession-weary public, Republican leaders sought to preserve and enhance the wealth of their moneyed base by insisting that a failure to extend tax cuts for the wealthy would inhibit small businesses from hiring new employees–a discredited, nonsensical argument, designed, at its most primitive level, to suggest an implicit threat that if the wealthiest 2% of Americans lost their tax cuts, no unemployed American would ever again find work.
Initially, the President seemed resolute, maintaining (correctly) that the Republican stance amounted to holding middle-class tax relief hostage to a gratuitous, deficit-increasing bonus for the wealthy, and suggesting (implicitly, if not explicitly) that he would not cower in the face of such a cynical ploy. But after suffering what he termed “a shellacking” at the voting booth last week, the President chose to cower. Rather than standing toe-to-toe with the Republicans–rather than feeling emboldened and buffeted by the principled correctness of his stand, ready to take the heat if the GOP actually followed through on its rapacious threat to punish the middle class unless the wealthy, too, got a pass–the President instead folded like a bridge chair, apparently concluding not that he needs to lead more forcefully, but that he needs, instead, to double down on his placating tendencies by conceding to those whose aim is to see him fail.
I was hoping the election results would inspire the President to fight harder. Apparently, he doesn’t even want to enter the ring.