Thursday, December 09, 2010

Obama's big gamble

Guest post by Nicholas Wilbur 

Nicholas Wilbur is an award-winning reporter and opinion columnist turned political junkie and critic. He is the founder of the blog Muddy Politics and lives in New Mexico.

(Ed. note: This is our second guest post of the week, after this one by Publius of The Fourth Branch, and I'm very happy to welcome Nicholas, a very fine blogger, to The Reaction. He's one of the best writers I've encountered in the blogosphere, and his analyses of the leading political issues of the day are consistently thoughtful and engaging. As he does in this post, he challenges us to think about an issue -- in this case, the tax deal -- from a perspective that may run counter to our own. Indeed, while I don't necessarily agree with his assessment of the deal, I find his take extremely persuasive. Yes, there are many good reasons to like the bill, and, yes, Obama is an astute politician. Anyway, I encourage you to check out his blog. And hopefully we'll have more of his posts here as well. -- MJWS)


Barack Obama campaigned on a message of hope, on the ideal that lawmakers could, if pushed, put aside their partisan politicking and actually work for the people, effectively "changing the way Washington does business."

As a master at spinning poignant prose into inspirational calls to action, he effectively utilized the anti-Republican sentiments of the populace without relying on the character assassinations and demagoguery that have become the norm in political election – that were, in fact, the core of his opponents strategy to dismantle his credibility, his leadership abilities and his eventual ascendance to the White House itself. Rather than riling the masses through fear and anger, Obama campaigned consistently for positive change – change to the Republican Party's economic agenda, its budget priorities and its foreign policy decisions, all of which proved disastrous for the middle class, for average income rates, and for American prosperity itself. He compared the results of these policies with the priorities of his own agenda, and he called on lawmakers of both parties to follow in his footsteps and end the political battles, the bickering, and the back-door deals that have plagued Washington for years.

Since his inauguration, President Obama has sometimes succeeded in passing progressive policies, and he has mostly failed in reaching consensus on how the political game is played. But through it all, there has not been a single instance when the president gave up on his convictions, his ideals, and his promise to govern fairly, from the middle, and from a moderate platform that favors what is right over that which is most popular.

Obama's announcement this week that he has reached a compromise with Republicans on the hotly contested issue of extending tax cuts for the rich proves yet again that the president will not abandon his ideals, even when faced with intense criticism from his supporters and often jeering mockery from his opponents.

It is a gamble that many believe will be crippling for Obama's re-election prospects in 2012.

And the skeptics may be correct.

By negotiating with Republicans on this tax cut issue, Obama has eliminated what has been – in recent elections and throughout history – the most powerful campaign tool in the political playbook: anger.

It's all but cast in stone that Obama's agenda is doomed come January, when Republicans take majority control of the House and are in charge of deciding what bills see the light of day on the House floor. Republicans have promised that few – if any – Democratic proposals will be considered in the House, and it's likely that Obama's agenda will be reduced to nostalgic ponderings of what could have been.

With the expectation of even more political gridlock through the next two years, Obama reached an agreement that would allow him to accomplish as much of his agenda as possible in the last few weeks of the year.

Top Republican lawmakers had promised that if Democrats were to prevent an extension of tax cuts for the rich, they would use the filibuster to quash any attempts to repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, to promptly ratify the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, to extend unemployment benefits to the two million recipients who cannot find work, and to consider the DREAM Act legislation, which would provide illegal immigrant children with a path toward citizenship by serving in the military or attending college.

With a compromise now reached, Obama will be able to check off all or at least most of these legislative priorities from his to-do list. On top of that, in exchange for a two-year extension of tax cuts for the rich, Republicans have agreed to allow continuation of several key tax cuts for the middle class, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

All things considered, it's not an unfair trade-off.

Come 2012, however, it may seem unfair beyond measure.

If this year's midterm election provides any insight into what riles and incenses the masses, the value of instilling fear and anger in the malleable minds of the electorate is priceless. It may not be honest; it may not be honorable; but it is, without question, effective.

Obama could have very easily said no to the Republican Party. He could have held firm against extending tax cuts for the rich by throwing Republican arguments back in their faces: "It's irresponsible to increase federal spending by $700 billion when the deficit continues to swell." "If millions of mostly middle-class federal employees are capable of sacrificing for their country in a time of economic uncertainty, so too can the millionaires sacrifice tax breaks that, the historic record proves, do nothing to help stimulate the economy." "If the GOP demands that unemployment benefits be paid for, then so too should tax cuts for the rich." 

Instead, he chose to say, "I'm not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington."

It would not be a difficult task to demonize the GOP for holding the middle class hostage until millionaires are given a government handout. If the last two elections are any indication of what rallies the masses, it should be clear that anger and frustration inspire voter turnout more than support and gratitude of politicians who are already in office and policies that are already in place. 

People do not march on Washington and protest in the streets when they get what they want. In fact, I cannot think of one single instance in the entire history of the United States when the masses rallied to continue policies that were already enacted as law. The women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, even the emancipation of the country itself all began because the masses wanted freedoms their leaders were denying them, not freedoms they were already awarded. 

By denying the Republican Party an extension of tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for all Americans likely would have expired. Unemployment benefits would have expired. Repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy would have fallen by the wayside. And a slew of middle class benefits would have been taken away from those who needed them most.

Republicans would be to blame, the masses would be incensed, and Obama's second term would be all but guaranteed.

But that doesn’t seem to be how Obama operates.

Maybe he's looking forward to a hard-fought campaign (the assumption there being that the Republican National Committee nominates a presidential candidate who can actually give Obama a run for his money; i.e., not Sarah Palin). Maybe Obama is short-sighted and thinks any immediate benefits for the middle class are worth taking a few hits from the pundits for being a push-over, a panderer, a pansy-in-chief.

Or maybe Obama hasn't abandoned his 2008 campaign goals. Maybe he actually believes that the way Washington works both privately and publicly, particularly during election season, is disgusting and counterintuitive, even counterproductive.

Maybe Obama believes that, come 2012, the American people will look back over his first term and decide that – even without fear and anger as motivations – there's just as much incentive to vote for what is right as there was in 2008 to vote against what was wrong.

Maybe the president's relentless, ambitious, and continuous drive to change the way Washington does business, to rise above the status quo of daily politicking, and to do the right thing over the popular thing is admirable. Maybe that in itself is reason to cast a vote for Obama in 2012.

Maybe it isn't.

Maybe, for Obama, it doesn't matter either way.

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