Welcome to another episode of liberals in fantasyland! The “professional left” (as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs calls them) is going crazy over President Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman yelps that the president is caving in to “blackmailers.” Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel warns in the Washington Post that he “risks a failed presidency.” Norman Solomon of Progressive Democrats of America fulminates that “Obama may have just ensured that he’ll face a significant challenge to his renomination in 2012 from inside the Democratic Party.”
All this hyperventilation shows how delusional these liberals really are. We agree with them, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are a bad idea the country cannot afford. But Senate Democrats tried twice last weekend to cancel those cuts. They failed badly both times, and in January the new Senate will tilt even more sharply to the right. The votes are simply not there for raising taxes on anyone, even the rich. Deal with it. Face facts, not fantasies.
That’s exactly what Obama is trying to do. He knows that compromise requires both sides to give something. And without a compromise, tax rates will go up on Jan. 1, unemployment benefits will lapse, and a fragile economic recovery will take another devastating hit. Obama risks a “failed presidency” if he accepts that disaster, not if he tries to avoid it.
“For too long, Washington has been a place where any compromise was seen as a failure,” the president told supporters in a video message, “where victory was defined not by what you achieved for the country but by who you defeated in partisan warfare.”
He’s absolutely right. This deal is not caving in to “blackmail”; it is recognizing reality. Yes, the Republicans have been cynical, devious and intransigent. They also won the last election and gained a share of power. Liberals want Obama to keep posturing. He wants to start governing, and the only one way to do that is to work with the opposition.
In fact, governing well could turn out to be his best political strategy. Independents liked Obama’s emphasis on bipartisanship during the campaign, and they still do. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of independents urged Obama to work with Republican leaders while only 29 percent said he should stand up to them.
More important than Obama’s image is the health of the economy. The recent rise in unemployment to 9.8 percent crushed White House hopes for a robust recovery. As Fed chairman Ben Bernanke admitted on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” “We’re not very far from the level where the economy is not self-sustaining.”
Liberals like Krugman complain that the last stimulus package, at $800 billion, was too small. But when this package is added up – including reduced payroll taxes and larger investment incentives for business – it will pour an additional $900 billion into the economy, more than the original stimulus bill.
Some of it might be wasteful – the rich are more likely to save and not spend their tax windfall – and the blow to the deficit will be huge. But the economy desperately needs another boost. By opposing this deal, liberals are hurting Obama’s prospects for a second term, not helping them.
Finally, there is the suicidal threat to run a liberal against Obama in the primaries. History is clear: A sitting president who faces a serious primary challenge is often mortally wounded. Just look at Gerald Ford in 1976 (Ronald Reagan), Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Ted Kennedy) and George Bush in 1992 (Pat Buchanan). Liberals might be frustrated now, but would they prefer Mitt Romney in the White House? Or Sarah Palin?
This is not a liberal country, and hasn’t been since the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the mid-1960s. In 2008, only 22 percent of all voters called themselves liberals (44 percent identified as moderates and 34 percent as conservatives). Successful presidents have to govern from the center, and that’s what Obama is trying to do. As the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell noted, “We’ve had more conversations in the last two weeks than we’ve had in the last two years, and I think that’s a good sign.”
It is. The president has made the first move. McConnell and the Republicans have made a good start toward reasonableness, but on many fights to come, they have to stand up to their own hardliners and take the hand the president is extending. That’s what the country wants. And what it needs.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.