The spin coming out of the White House is that President Obama cut short his annual Hawaii vacation to head back to Washington to help nudge Congress towards a deal that would prevent the nation from heading over the fiscal cliff. If so, this act of sacrifice will allow the president to show his leadership skills and craft a compromise tax and spending bill that will pass both houses of Congress. But with only a few days left before a massive across-the-board tax increase is imposed on the American people while devastating cuts in defense are put into effect, it’s much more likely that the president’s gesture is just for show.
If the president really wanted to avoid the fiscal cliff, he might have spent the weeks before his family headed to Oahu for Christmas making a good faith effort to make a deal with Congressional Republicans rather than digging in his heels on his own plan to raise taxes while refusing to substantially address the real issue at the heart of the fiscal crisis: entitlement spending. Most Republicans rightly suspect that he’s quite content to see the deadline expire. So why come home?
The answer is simple. The optics of more days of presidential golf while the country heads closer to an economic disaster would damage Obama’s image and make it clear that he views the impact of the fiscal cliff as being more to his liking than a reasonable compromise.
Throughout the negotiations over the budget, the president has always acted as if a continuation of the standoff served his interests. After all, if the deadline does expire without a deal he’ll get a good deal of what he’s wanted all along: big tax increases to give the government more money to spend and large cuts in defense spending without forcing the government to think seriously about how to reform entitlements. And if the polls are right, the Republicans will be blamed for the whole mess.
Last week’s debacle for House Speaker John Boehner in which a substantial number of House Republicans refused to back his Plan B compromise bill which would have only raised taxes on millionaires reinforced the president’s confidence that he can only win by prolonging the impasse. And by showing up in DC this week he can preserve the pretense that he wants a solution even while continuing to do nothing to advance one.
But these careful calculations may not turn out to be as well considered as the president thinks.
If the Democrat-controlled Senate fails to pass a budget proposal this week — something it has failed to do for the last three years — then it will be as much their fault as the House Republicans that a deal wasn’t made before we all go over the fiscal cliff. That means it is up to the leader of their party to ensure that some kind of bill that can pass both houses of Congress gets to his desk in the next few days. Should, as seems increasingly likely, that not happen, the consequences would be incalculable for Obama, his party and the Congress.
The assumption that only Republicans will bear the burden of why there was no deal only holds true if the president and the Democrats send a bill to the House of Representatives before next week’s deadline. Any bill that stops the tax increases and sequestration cuts is likely to get some Republican votes even if it is a short-term solution on the president’s terms. If that doesn’t happen, the economic downturn that will likely follow is going to hurt Obama far more than a Republican party that is already out of power. If so, the president may have reason to regret that his curtailed vacation wasn’t more a matter of a real effort to avoid the cliff than playacting for the media.