WASHINGTON — An entirely new political narrative is taking shape before our eyes, yet many here are still stuck in the old one.
President Obama’s victory blew up the framework created by the 2010 elections, which forced him to play defense. Now, he finally has room to move. That’s the only way to understand the ongoing budget talks.
This has several implications. First, why was anyone surprised that Obama’s initial offer to the Republicans was a compendium of what he’d actually prefer? We became so accustomed to Obama’s earlier habit of making pre-emptive concessions that the very idea he’d negotiate in a perfectly normal way amazed much of Washington. Rule No. 1 is that you shouldn’t start bargaining by giving stuff away when the other side has not even made concrete demands.
Second, Obama made clear that he will not allow the fiscal calendar to set his priorities. Past actions by Congress established this wacky set of deadlines requiring frenzied decision making. This does not mean the deficit is the nation’s highest priority. It isn’t. Speeding up economic growth is the most important thing now.
Thus did Obama’s opening proposal call for measures to boost the recovery, including an infrastructure bank, a public-private partnership that ought to appeal to Republicans. And he was right to insist upon an extension of unemployment insurance and another year of the payroll tax holiday or some equivalent way to keep middle-class purchasing power up. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t damage the economy. A sudden drop in the take-home pay of the vast majority of American consumers would.
Third, House Republicans have, so far, been unwilling to assume any risk to get what they claim to want. They seem to hope a deal will be born by way of immaculate conception, with Obama taking ownership of all the hard stuff while they innocently look on.
Obama went that route in 2011 when he feared that Republicans would bring down the nation’s economic house by failing to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. This time, he doesn’t face that risk.
If we go past the so-called fiscal cliff deadlines and all the resulting budget cuts and tax increases come into force, the administration can minimize the damage. It can delay the implementation of new tax tables so billions of dollars are not suddenly sucked out of the economy. There is no law requiring that budget cuts be implemented upfront or spread equally across the year. Obama can publicly announce he is delaying any cuts, on the theory that Congress will eventually vitiate some of them. And he can make sure the bond markets know of his plans well in advance.