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Our Obama Bargain (Part 1 of 3) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Our Obama Bargain (Part 1 of 3)


(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

We have on our hands a President Groundhog Day. Tom Tomorrow nails it in this recent cartoon, as he so often does: regularly, and regularly and regularly, Obama initiates a negotiation; finds his negotiating partner maneuvering him into an absurd impasse; then “negotiates” his way out of a crisis with a settlement deferring reckoning (in the former of further negotiation) to some specified time in the future, at which point he somehow imagines negotiation will finally, at long last, work—at which point the next precipice arrives, and he lets his negotiating partners defer the reckoning once more.

First, it was his first failure to repeal the Bush tax cuts. He promised he’d really fight to get it done next year (he didn’t).

Next, in the summer of 2011, stung by his self-proclaimed Tea Party “shellacking” in the midterm elections (compare that to Ronald Reagan’s radically un-conciliatory response to his own shellacking in 1982), he promised to negotiate a deal to reduce the debt by $4 trillion. Then, once he lured John Boehner to the table, the Republican announced as his terms holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. The president reportedly thought he and Boehner were working together—“to freeze out their respective extremists and make the kind of historic deal that no one really thought possible anymore—bigger than when Reagan and Tip O’Neill overhauled the tax code in 1986 or when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich passed welfare reform a decade later.” He also believed, somehow, that Boehner could whip the gang of congressional lunatics he supposedly “led” into obedience. Silly Obama, who ended up with…this year’s debacle, as Tom Tomorrow’s dialogue between Bohner and Obama relates. December: “The arbitrary deadline is almost upon us! We’re about to go over the fiscal cliff!” (Bohner: “Who could have forseen it?) January: “Postonponing the threat of sequestration will buy us a little more time…before the next arbitrary deadline!” (“Sounds like a plan to me!”)

That time he went into those negotiation, of course, with four aces in his hand: the sovereign will of the American electorate, following a comfortable re-election victory borne aloft on the campaign promise to fight for tax hikes for those making over $250,000. Somehow the final disposition ended us up with a tax hike only for those making over $450,000 and left 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts in place permanently. A friend of mine called it the biggest betrayal of a winning coalition by a president since LBJ ran on not sending our boys to Vietnam.

But not to fear: he promises yet once more another bite at the apple: “The new new deadline will solve everything,” he says in Tom Tomorrow’s paraphrase, as Boehner, looking on at the sublime sucker in his midst, exhales contentedly, “Of course it will.”

As Paul Krugman put it, the bad taste in progressives’ mouths “has less to do with where Obama ended up than with how he got there. He kept drawing lines in the sand, then erasing them and retreating to a new position. And his evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling. If Obama stands his ground in that confrontation, this deal won’t look bad in retrospect. If he doesn’t, yesterday will be seen as the day he began throwing away his presidency and the hopes of everyone who supported him.”

But he never really stands his ground, does he?

Or to put it more accurately, he continues to presume good faith on the part of his adversaries by deferring the reckoning for the next negotiation. He imagines they’re playing the same game as he is: struggling nobly toward the goal of a “Grand Bargain,” each side giving up something of their cherished shibboleth—Democrats, spending and entitlement programs; Republicans, tax cuts. Even though in real life Boehner’s minions have already pledged never to revisit the tax question ever again—on the Sunday shows on January 6 Mitchell McConnell confidently announced, “The tax issue is finished, over, completed. That’s behind us"—and see ahead of them only a grand opportunity to confront “the biggest problem confronting our country…our spending addiction.”

In Groundhog Day at least Bill Murray learned something by the last reel. Not him. In our last reel with Obama we’ll still be in purgatory. Because the world simply doesn’t work in the way that he thinks it does. And yet he insists that it must.

We’ve arrived at a question of character, or deep psychological disposition. I’ve always thought of Barack Obama’s obsession with a “Grand Bargain”—Democrats give something on spending, Republicans give something on taxes—as having very little to do at all with concrete policy questions. After all, the austerity Obama seems to want has more and more been revealed as bad policy. Bad politics, too, of course. More and more, in fact, I wonder whether in some deep wellspring of his being this isn’t ultimately the point: if it’s bad, then it must be good. After all, he’s always said such deals should “hurt.” In the rhetoric of hurt lives the magic thinking: that the pain in itself makes for noble transcendence. In itself—not in the policy outcome.

There’s something so arbitrary about it, so cliché: pick the one thing that Republicans are supposed to cherish most (tax cuts!). Pick the one thing Democrats are supposed to cherish most (spending!). If you get both to give up what they cherish, something transcendent has occurred; something mystical; something deep, deep inside America’s soul—healing!

It’s almost as if, were the Democrats’ most cherished nostrum was that the sky is blue; and if the Republicans’ most cherished nostrum were that the sky is red, Obama somehow imagines that if he can somehow get both to agree that the sky is purple, lo and behold, America will finally be a warm and conciliatory place.

But guess what! The sky is blue!

To cash out the allegory: Guess what! Spending more during a recession, and keeping faith with Medicare and Social Security, which are not in imminent crisis anyway, is great for the well-being of the country!

And guess what! Even if feckless Democrats are glad to entertain the notion that the sky just might be purple, pronouncing themselves as eager to cut spending as Republicans (vitiating, by the way, the very premise that big spending is some sort of hard-shell Democratic shibboleth), insane, Leninist Republicans will never, ever, ever, ever, ever stray from their conviction that it is red—in other words, that tax cuts magically create prosperity, always and everywhere, every time. Why, here’s Rush Limbaugh braying that very thing the other day.

And yet, for Obama work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die—that we can, all of us, some day, agree about things that are not true, that really help no one, but that, by mere virtue of the agreement, will render us no longer Red America and Blue America but the United States of American. And the sky? Everyone will say it is purple. And this will be counted as a great victory.

To be continued. Next time I write about Barack Obama’s biography—and try to puzzle through where this perverse conception of the ways of the world comes from.

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