Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Has Obama finally gotten the message?

Specifically, that the Republicans are a party of extremism and have no interest in compromise even for the sake of America's basic financial health (as when they held the country hostage over the debt ceiling increase)?

Maybe. Here's Ezra Klein (in a must-read post):

The choice, it turned out, wasn’t between winning by making tough choices and hard compromises and winning by running as a populist. It was between losing because he was unable to get Washington to make tough choices and hard compromises and trying something else. So now the White House is trying something else.

The new theory goes something like this: The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it's more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise that takes some of the Democrats' most potent attacks off the table.

But the second-best outcome isn't necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It's looking like the strongest leader in the room. That's why Obama, somewhat unusually for him, attached a veto threat to his deficit plan: If the supercommittee sends him a package that cuts benefits for Medicare beneficiaries but leaves the rich untouched, he says he'll kick the plan back to Congress. Rather than emphasizing his willingness to meet Boehner's bottom lines, which was the communications strategy during the debt ceiling showdown, he’s emphasizing his unwillingness to bend on his bottom lines.

That isn't how the White House would prefer to govern. It's not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let's admit it, politics-as-usual. It's the triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. But it's also the only option they have left.

The problem all along with "change we can believe in" has been that change is difficult, if not next to impossible, in Washington, or at least in a Washington in which relentlessly partisan Republicans have the filibuster in the Senate, a majority in the House (since last year), and for the most part a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court.

Perhaps to his credit (or perhaps not, given his general disregard for progressive policies since he took office), Obama tried to change the way things are done by seeking a middle way, compromise, by being, as we have so often heard, the adult in the room. But, really, where has that gotten him? The GOP is still the party of extremism and obstructionism and he has lost many on the left and center-left who supported him enthusiastically in '08 -- though also, it should be added, because he has embraced pro-Wall Street economic policies, with many of the Clinton-era figures who were part of the problem serving in his administration, along with much of the Bush-Cheney national security state, while steadfastly refusing to use the bully pulpit to advance anything resembling a genuine progressive agenda. Simply put, it's time to change course.

Now, of course, this is being driven to a great extent by 2012, not just by the realization that the GOP won't play nice. Obama is already in campaign mode, and drawing clear lines between himself and the other side makes for good campaigning, particularly when he has the public on his side (for example, on sensible tax increases on corporations and the wealthy). He needs to win independents, but he also needs to firm up a base that is nothing if not disgruntled. This is a good way to do it.

Not that he won't continue to be criticized from the left (rightly / understandably so). Already there are attacks on his proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. But, overall, I see this working. Just consider these headlines after his remarks on deficit reduction yesterday:

Obama seems to have gotten the message and that message is now resonating in the media, as well as with Democrats. Because while cuts to key entitlement programs are hardly desirable (even if what he's proposing isn't terribly severe), the president is finally challenging Republicans on taxes, backing them into a corner of their own ideological extremism, threatening to veto anything that gets passed without those sensible tax increases on those who can afford to pay more or that takes Medicare benefits away from seniors). There's an awful lot to like in that.

Basically, it's about time.

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