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President Obama, Architect of Pain

President Obama’s proposal to Republicans to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff — huge tax increases, huge spending increases, and no serious entitlement reform — is risible. What the president is offering up is essentially his last budget, which didn’t win a single vote of support from any member of Congress.  

It may be that this proposal was simply an extreme negotiating position that will be dramatically reshaped over the next 27 days. Or it may be that the president is, for political reasons, happy to have us go over the cliff. The calculation would be that he’s confident he can pin blame on Republicans for this having happened, portraying them as willing to increase taxes on the middle class and wreck the economy in order to keep taxes on the richest 1 percent from going up to Clinton-era rates.

The president, fresh off his re-election victory, does have a strong hand to play. But I agree with those (like Keith Hennessey and Charles Krauthammer) who believe Mr. Obama may well over-reach and in the process severely injure his second term. Because if we go over the fiscal cliff, and as a result unemployment rises to above 9 percent and we go into another recession, there is no way the president escapes responsibility for that. We saw a version of this during the 44-day debt negotiations in the summer of 2011, an ugly and unsatisfying process that left everyone associated with it — including the president — diminished and damaged (for more, see Bob Woodard’s instructive book, The Price of Politics). If we go over the fiscal cliff, it will make that episode look like a model of good government. The public will be enraged at everyone who played a part in this failure — and the most conspicuous person of all will be Mr. Obama.

His first term was characterized by anemic economic growth and job creation — and if no deal is struck between now and the New Year he may well see to it that his second term is no better. This time, by the way, he won’t be able to blame George W. Bush for his failures. Which is another way of saying that the next few weeks could go some distance toward determining whether Obama’s presidency one day ranks as among the most economically ruinous in American history.

In light of that, Republicans should continue to act in a reasonable and responsible way, as Speaker Boehner has with his offer to raise tax revenues in exchange for spending cuts and some steps toward entitlement reform. It may be that the president comes to his senses, and if so they should be ready to deal. But if not, and if the president insists that the GOP jettison its beliefs and simply accede to Mr. Obama’s liberal wish list, Republicans should — in a respectful but firm way — say no thanks. If they do so, Republicans shouldn’t pretend that going over the cliff won’t hurt them. But they shouldn’t be blind to the fact that it will also hurt Mr. Obama, and perhaps permanently.

Republicans, then, are in a somewhat stronger position than they may think. And even if they weren’t, capitulation — which increasingly is what the president seems to demand of them — would be undignified and unwise. If we go over the fiscal cliff, the country will unfortunately suffer. But so, politically, will Barack Obama, the architect of the pain.


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