My far bigger gripe with the whole fiscal-cliff exercise has always been the strategic dimension—how it affects the next showdown with the GOP, and the one after that. Coming into the negotiation, Obama had two big problems: First, no matter how tough he talked, Republicans always assumed he’d blink in the end, for the simple reason that he pretty much always had. (This is one of the major themes of my book about his first term.) Second, despite the results of the most recent election, in which Obama won a fairly commanding victory on a platform of raising taxes on wealthy people, the GOP continued to believe that public opinion was mostly on its side. House Republicans cited the preservation of their majority—never mind that their own candidates received fewer total votes than House Democratic candidates—and polls showing most Americans still think government is too big.
Fortunately, the fiscal cliff offered Obama a chance to solve both these problems. He could afford to be unyielding because the economic consequences of going over the cliff for a few days or weeks would be relatively minimal and almost entirely reversible. And doing so would immediately demonstrate to the GOP that public opinion was emphatically not on its side—polls showed that the public reaction to going over the cliff would be both intense and heavily trained on Republicans. Throw in Obama’s post-election bump in approval ratings, and there was never a better time to hold out.
Instead, the emerging deal will reinforce the convictions that have made the GOP such a toxic presence in Washington. If Obama will cave even when he’s got all the leverage, when won’t he cave? Never, the Republicans will assume. If Obama’s too scared to stop bargaining and let the public decide who’s right in this instance, when the polls appear to back him, then he must think our position is more popular than he lets on. Suffice it to say, these are not sentiments you want at the front of Republicans’ mind as they prepare to shake him down over the debt limit in another two months. The White House continues to maintain that it simply won’t negotiate over the limit. After this deal, why would any Republican ever believe this? I certainly don’t, and I desperately want to.
As in previous rounds of Obama-GOP negotiations, a lot of liberals are surely hoping that the lunacy of the House Republicans will save us from Obama’s overly generous offers. And, it’s true, House Republicans can normally be relied upon to reject a deal that’s absurdly generous by any objective measure but falls short of their virtue-police standard of purity. They may well do so again tonight, inshallah. But that doesn’t solve the broader strategic problem. Obama has already shown his cards on the parameters that will define his negotiations with Republicans throughout his second term. And there’s no one to save us from that.
Ignore all of the angry rhetoric directed at Republicans, and focus on the angst and anger instead; it is widespread on the port side.
I suppose that, in some ways, these displays of liberal anger can help in the upcoming negotiations regarding the debt ceiling; the president may be able to convince at least some Republicans that he had to drive a hard bargain in order to be able to satisfy his liberal base. But given that the fight over the debt ceiling will be on Republican turf, I am not sure that displays of liberal anger over the fiscal cliff deal will help him all that much.