My friends at The State were right today to praise the fact that President Obama is working with Republicans on a compromise on taxes and unemployment benefits. But they were equally right to be unenthusiastic about the deal itself.
On the one hand, it’s good that we’re not going to see our economy further crippled by untimely tax increases (even if all they are are restorations to pre-Bush levels). And it’s good that the jobless needing those benefits will have them. (At least, that these things will happen if this deal gets through Congress.) On the other, we’re looking at a deal that embodies some of the worst deficit-ballooning values of both parties: tax cuts for the Republicans, more spending for the Democrats.
It’s tragic, and bodes very ill for our country, that this flawed compromise stirs such anger on both partisan extremes: Some Democrats are beside themselves at this “betrayal” by the president. (Which bemuses me — as y’all know, I have trouble understanding how people get so EMOTIONAL about such a dull, gray topic as taxes, whether it’s the rantings of the Tea Partiers who don’t want to pay them, especially if the dough goes to the “undeserving poor,” or the ravings of the liberal class warriors who don’t want “the undeserving rich” to get any breaks. Why not save that passion for something that really matters?) Meanwhile, people on the right — such as Daniel Henninger in the WSJ today — chide Obama for not going far enough on taxes.
In this particular case, I think the folks on the right have a bit of a point (some of them — I have no patience for DeMint demanding the tax cuts and fighting the spending part), but it doesn’t have to do with taxes — it has to do with the president’s overall approach to leadership, and a flaw I see in it. Henninger complains that these tax cut extensions are unlikely to get businesses to go out and invest and create jobs, since the president threatens to eliminate the cuts a year or two down the line.
That actually makes sense (even if it does occur in a column redolent with offensive right-wing attitudes — he sneers at Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”), and I see in it echoes of the president’s flawed approach in another important arena — Afghanistan.
Here’s the thing: If keeping these tax cuts is the right thing to do to help our economy, then they should be kept in place indefinitely — or “permanently,” as the Republicans say. Of course, there is nothing permanent in government. The next Congress, or the one after that, can raise taxes through the roof if it chooses.
The problem, in other words, isn’t that the cuts won’t be permanent, because nothing is in politics. The problem is that the president is, on the front end, negating whatever beneficial effect might be gained from extending the cuts by coming out and promising that they won’t last.
One of the big reasons why the economy hasn’t improved faster than it has this year is that businesses, small and large, have not known what to expect from the recent election in terms of future tax policy with these tax cuts expiring. People were waiting to see what would happen on taxes before taking investment risks. (Even if the liberal Democrats were to eliminate the cuts, knowing that would be better than the uncertainty.) And even with the election over, the future has remained murky. The best thing about such a deal between the president and the GOP should be that it wipes away those clouds and provides clarity.
But the president negates that by saying yes, we’ll keep the cuts in place, but only for a short time. You may look forward now to a time when there are unspecified increases. And Henninger has a point when he says:
But if an angry, let-me-be-clear Barack Obama just looked into the cameras and said he’s coming to get you in two years, what rational economic choice would you make? Spend the profit or gains 2011 might produce on new workers, or bury any new income in the backyard until the 2012 presidential clouds clear?
Ditto with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What good is it to say we’re going to stay and fight NOW if at the same time you give a future date when you’re going to leave (or, as the president has said, start leaving)? What are they going to do? They’re going to sit tight and wait for you to leave on schedule. (And yes, pragmatic people may take comfort from the fact that the president has allowed himself lots of wiggle-room to stay there — but the harm has been done by the announcement of the intention to leave). Every effort should be taken to make one’s adversaries believe you’re willing to fight them forever (even if you aren’t), if you ever hope to achieve anything by fighting.
The problem in both cases is trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too — making a deal with the Republicans without one’s base getting too mad at you, or maintain our security commitment without (here comes that base thing again) freaking out the anti-war faction too much. What this ignores is that out in the REAL world, as opposed to the one where the parties play partisan tit-for-tat games, real people react in ways that matter to your policy moves: Business people continue to sit rather than creating jobs; the Taliban waits you out while your allies move away from you because they know they have to live there when you’re gone.
What would be great would be if Barack Obama should commit for the duration to something. He should have committed to a single-payer approach to health care from the beginning. Going in with a compromise meant that we got this mish-mash that health care “reform” turned into. He should commit to a plan on the economy, and not undermine it by saying he’s only going to do it for a little while. And most of all, he should commit to Afghanistan, and not try to mollify his base with dangerous deadlines.
What the president does, and even says, matters. He needs to recognize that, pick a direction, and stick with it long enough to have a salutary effect. Whatever their ideology, that’s what leaders do. And we could use some leadership.