Keith Humphreys’ thoughtful post called to mind some thoughts I wanted to jot down after re-reading Drew Westen’s NYT piece on Obama and Jonathan Chait’s blistering response to Westen in the New Republic. Westen is surely a primary target of Keith’s scorn, and I agree with both Chait and Keith that Westen grossly exaggerates what a leader in Obama’s position could have been expected to accomplish.
Yet it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that Westen is onto something. Obama might not have been able to have achieved substantively different outcomes in many of the recent battles. But he does have the rhetorical skill to have forced Republicans to pay a much stiffer political price for their obstructionism. And his supporters can hardly be faulted for being upset that he chose not to.
Last December’s struggle about the Bush tax cuts on high-income households is a case in point. Many on the left have been bitterly critical of the president for capitulating to Republican demands on that issue. But consider the details of the choice the president faced. The status quo, written into the original Bush tax-cut legislation, was that ALL the Bush tax cuts, including those for middle-income families, would automatically expire on December 31, 2010. Then, as now, the economy was in the tank. Letting tax cuts on the wealthy expire wouldn’t have led them to spend less, since most of them weren’t spending nearly all their income to begin with. But letting them expire on middle-income families would have been a devastating blow to a crippled economy.
For many Republicans, letting that happen would have been perfectly acceptable, since it would have increased the party’s chances of recapturing the White House in 2012. So their threat was completely credible when they pledged to vote against the president’s proposal to let only the tax cuts on high-income families expire. And so, in the end, Obama chose to live with all the Bush tax cuts for the time being. A skilled game theorist could probably spin a narrative in which letting all the tax cuts expire would have been best, despite the disastrous short-term consequences for the economy. But Obama’s decision is surely the easier option to defend.
Much has been made of the fact that Obama didn’t demand concessions from Republicans about the looming debt ceiling issue during the December 2010 negotiations. But that misses the point, too. Since Republicans would have been happy to let all the Bush tax cuts expire (or, more precisely, because they knew Obama couldn’t let that happen), Obama simply had no leverage to demand any concessions.
What I cannot understand, however, is why the president and his team failed to capitalize on the political opportunities implicit in these battles. Republicans have been arguing in favor of lower taxes on the rich while simultaneously demanding immediate action to curb deficits. Some of the rhetorical components of this logically preposterous position may once have been popular with confused middle-income voters. But no longer. Overwhelmingly, voters now favor higher taxes on the rich. The president may not have been able to prevent the Republicans from getting their way on the Bush tax cuts, but he could have put their reelection chances in much greater jeopardy had he forcefully attacked them on the merits of these issues.
It’s by no means too late. I hope he finds his voice.