OK, a post on the tax compromise

December 10, 2010

My opinion is book-ended by two Op-Ed pieces in today’s New York Times.

On the one end is Paul Krugman, expressing unease about the compromise not so much because the President didn’t get enough in return for continuing the top-bracket tax cuts – he concedes that Obama got a useful economic stimulus out of it, and “did, after all, extract more concessions than most of us expected” – but because of two things:  1) the substantive point he argues is that the compromise is structured so that at the end of the year we’ll be facing the expiration of the stimulus while the tax cuts have another year to run, leaving the President going into the election year in at least as bad a bargaining position vis-a-vis the Republicans as now; and to make it worse, 2) “by seeming angrier at worried supporters than he is at the hostage-takers, Mr. Obama is already signaling weakness.”

On the other David Brooks hails the President for finally starting to govern as what he calls a “network liberal” – able to cross party lines to build relationships and coalitions and make compromises,  like the post-partisan he had campaigned as –  rather than a “cluster liberal,” relying on his own party, “[viewing] politics as a battle between implacable opponents” with “loyalty and solidarity” as the key to victory.  (He explicitly regards the “cluster” and “network” types as existing in both our major parties and ideological wings).

My purpose here is not to discuss the substance of the policies in question (regarding which I am definitely more a supporter of Krugman than of Brooks) but to say that as analyses of the political dynamic I find some truth in both essays.  I think it is true that a President to be effective must be able to cross the aisle, avoid excessive partisanship and ideological purism; to govern, in Brooks’ terms, as a “networker.” But it is also true that our most effective Presidents – of both parties, and for better or for worse – have been at their most effective when they had a strong base behind them, and to do this a President must campaign as a “clusterer”.  Not only when there is an election coming up, but all through the term of office.

This I think is Obama’s failing.  If he had kept his base energized, if he had taken pains at all times to assure the working people that he was really doing his best for their interests and not just for the rich, if he’d used the bully pulpit more against the banks and insurance companies (even while negotiating with them in the privacy of his office),  his bargaining position would be much stronger. His party might well have come out of the last election in control the House of Representatives and with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

A powerful left-populist movement would be an asset to Obama, it would enable him to say to his interlocutors  “the people are demanding this, I have to give them something. If you insist on making me a one-term President you may get Bernie Sanders in my place.”  He would do well to learn to work with his base and not against it.

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