Monday, April 11, 2011

Cage Match: Obama Present or Absent?

Two pundits that I respect come to different conclusions about President Obama’s role in working out the budget deal that kept the government from shutting down last Friday night.

Paul Krugman
says the president was AWOL:

Among other things, the latest budget deal more than wipes out any positive economic effects of the big prize Mr. Obama supposedly won from last December’s deal, a temporary extension of his 2009 tax cuts for working Americans. And the price of that deal, let’s remember, was a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, at an immediate cost of $363 billion, and a potential cost that’s much larger — because it’s now looking increasingly likely that those irresponsible tax cuts will be made permanent.

More broadly, Mr. Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion — a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay. Shared sacrifice!


What’s going on here? Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office, Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America’s partisan differences. And his political strategists seem to believe that he can win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise.

But if you ask me, I’d say that the nation wants — and more important, the nation needs — a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand. And that’s not what we’re seeing.

Josh Marshall comes to the president’s defense by looking at the deal in the long term… for now.

We’ll only be able to judge its significance when we can see it as part of the president’s larger strategy, the unfolding series of decisions he’ll have to make over the next twelve months.

In retrospect people see President Clinton’s moves in 1995 as savvy approaching brilliance, at least in political terms. But it didn’t seem that way to many people at the time. Certainly, almost everyone from the liberal wing of his party thought he was giving away the store and a more general belief in his fecklessness was almost universal across the Democrats’ ideological spectrum.

It wasn’t quite as it appeared though. Clinton is a political intuitive. At the most generous reading he let the Republicans take their punches until they’d allowed themselves to get dangerously exposed politically … and then he made his move. Doing so earlier would have been foolish, certainly in political terms and quite likely in policy terms too.

If that’s what the Friday night deal was about, it could be shrewd. The costs in terms of over-zealous cutting are small — very small — in comparison to the vast decisions to be made next. For that reason, I’m not convinced yet that this was quite the defeat for the president that a lot of people are claiming. It all depends what comes next.

So, who’s right?