Jonathan Cohn

Feeling Obama's Pain

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Temporary extension of tax cuts that benefit only a very small, very rich portion of the public is a terrible idea. It steers tax relief to the people who least need it and it stimulates the economy in a notoriously inefficient way. Liberals have every right to be angry about the deal.

But does that mean Obama was wrong to make it? David Corn, who doesn't like the deal any more than I do, makes the case that Obama really faced no choice:

In meeting after meeting, during which the president and his aides discussed his options, Obama repeatedly asked if anyone could guarantee that were he to put up his dukes, go to the mat, and play chicken with the GOPers, mid- and low-income Americans would end up with the breaks and benefits he believed they need. If he went nose-to-nose, mano-a-mano, and the R's didn't blink, they'd be nothing for nobody -- and the Bush tax cuts would end for the middle class, mean that come Jan. 1, hard-working Americans would see a smaller paycheck. To make matters worse, this might have an anti-stimulative effect on the economy.

Then what would happen? He might be able to win the blame-game against the Scrooge-ish Republicans -- which would be a significant victory, especially heading into the next Congress. But there would be no action until next year, and any tax-related bill would have to originate in the Republican-controlled House and pass a Senate with a larger and more tea party-ish GOP caucus. It could take weeks or months to hammer out a package. What were the odds it would contain as much assistance for the non-rich? In the meantime, working-class Americans would be contending with less money. That is, hurting more.

So at this late stage of the game, in the dwindling moments of the 111th Congress, should Obama have been willing to put those Americans on the line in order to do battle with the nefarious Republicans? Had he done so and won (forcing the GOPers to forgo the the tax bennies for the rich and to accept tax cuts and benefits, including unemployment insurance, for others), he would have saved the nation a lot of money and not established some dangerous precedents (such as the more generous exemptions for the estate tax). He would have served several valuable principles: We don't pay off the rich to help struggling Americans; we don't negotiate with hostage-takers. It would have been glorious. But had he failed, he might not have been able subsequently to work out a deal with the benefits of this one. As the nation has learned, the Republicans cannot be shamed into supporting measures that help besieged Americans -- but they can be bought off. ...

It's not hard to see why the guy who had to make this difficult call opted not to go nuclear. Obama was engaged in asymmetrical warfare, He apparently worried about what would happen to the unemployed and put-upon Americans without a deal. The Republicans didn't. This put Obama at a disadvantage. I don't counsel anyone not to criticize the package (and how Obama steered himself and his party into this corner). But I can almost feel his pain.

Of course, as Corn also notes, Obama bear some responsibility for letting things get this far. As my colleague Noam Scheiber reports in this week's print edition of TNR, the administration considered forcing the tax issue during the summer--and decided not to do so.

But it's a lot easier to blame Obama for that strategic choice than for embracing a tax compromise that may be the best possible deal at this point.

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