Charles Krauthammer calls President Obama “the new Comeback Kid,” arguing that with the tax cut deal his re-election is more likely than not. Krauthammer also takes congressional Republicans to task for facilitating Obama’s comeback.
The tax deal helps Obama in two ways. First, it provides, at long last, evidence that he can reach across the aisle and join with Republicans in formulating and enacting a popular measure. Second, it may boost the economy and, in any event, if the economy revives it provides him with a plausible basis for taking credit.
Obama’s status as a post-partisan is hardly cemented, though. The prospect of a massive tax hike put pressure on both parties to act together. With that pressure gone, it will be difficult for Obama to make future deals, even assuming he wants to. In the fall of 2012, Obama’s reputation for post/bi-partisanship will be based on the totality of his dealings with Republicans over the next year and a half. If these dealings are consistently rancorous, the tax deal will be a distant memory.
That is, unless the economy is strong. In that scenario, Obama’s re-election prospects will be good, and the tax deal may well be remembered as the turning point.
But it remains to be seen how strong the economy will be. The absence of across-the-board tax hikes is probably a necessary condition for a robust recovery, but it may not be a sufficient one. After all, taxes (other than the payroll kind) are simply remaining where they have been throughout the recession and weak recovery.
But to the extent Obama is on the rise, did Republicans pave his way? I don’t think so, given their options. To be sure, it takes two sides to make a deal, but Republicans can’t prevent Obama from tacking to the center by taking popular compromise positions. If the Republicans had turned down a deal that gave them what they wanted on income taxes in exchange, basically, for extending unemployment benefits, I believe they, not Obama, would have paid the political price.
Keep in mind that the Republican brand remains unpopular. That’s why John Boehner and others are, wisely, so image conscious now. They want to prove they can govern reasonably and responsibly. And they are aware that Bill Clinton began his comeback when congressional Republicans came to be viewed as unyielding and over-reaching.
There will be times when Republicans should be unyielding, and one of them occurred this week with the omnibus pork bill. But I don’t consider a popular deal that keeps all taxpayer’s rates from rising such an occasion.
Krauthammer is therefore wrong, I think, when he asserts that Obama was “holding no high cards.” His ability to use the platform of the presidency plausibly to paint congressional Republicans as unreasonable and uncooperative is a high card for him, as it was for Clinton.
The fact that Democrats are a majority in the Senate is another high card. Krauthammer says that the Republicans could have gotten everything they wanted on tax cuts in January without fear of an Obama veto. But could such a package – one that kept tax rates for millionaires where they are without extending unemployment benefits – have garnered 60 votes in the Senate come January?
To do so would have required the votes of 13 Democrats. I don’t count 13 even semi-moderate Democrats in the new Senate, and so I don’t think those votes would have been there.
Meanwhile, Obama would have been in a perfect position to triangulate with the House and Senate by continuing to push for the compromise he offered the Republicans in December. That would not have been a bad place from which to launch a comeback.
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