There may be a last-minute compromise reached today in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, but not if President Obama has anything to say about it. Even as Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were believed to have led the effort to have the structure of a deal in place for the two houses of Congress to vote on later today, the president emerged to make a statement that seemed geared to scuttling the negotiations.
In a campaign-style event, the president spoke of a possible accord between the two parties that would avert the immediate effects of the fiscal cliff being reached. But the bulk of his remarks were devoted to goading the Republicans into backing away from any deal. Not only did he gratuitously insult the GOP about their stands on the budget to the great amusement of the hand-picked audience of supporters, he also made it clear that the tax increases in any compromise would just be the start of what he hoped to accomplish. Even worse, he implied that spending cuts, especially the entitlement reform that is necessary for any long-term solution to the nation’s problems, are not really on the table as far as he is concerned.
Given the tone of his comments and the timing, Republicans should be forgiven for suspecting that his real purpose was to send the country over the cliff in the belief that only the GOP would be blamed for the disaster.
The president obviously thinks the very last moment before a fiscal catastrophe that would raise taxes on all Americans and impose devastating cuts in defense is a good time to mock the idea of spending cuts and to threaten further taxes. The only possible motivation for this is to convince suspicious Republicans that any give in their position will not be met even part of the way by the Democrats. In other words, if even now the president is unprepared to contemplate entitlement reform, then it is difficult to make the argument that they should do the responsible thing and compromise.
Through last year’s debt ceiling crisis as well as the fiscal cliff talks, the president has always behaved as if he thought he had nothing to lose by engaging in class warfare demagoguery. Since going over the cliff means raising more taxes and feeding the government beast that he seems uninterested in restraining as well as cutting defense spending, why shouldn’t he try to incite the GOP to refuse to agree to a deal?
But for him to behave in this manner on the very eve of the crisis while leaders of both parties are struggling to construct a makeshift measure that will get the nation past midnight is telling.
This is not just the confident manner of a re-elected president, but the contempt of a man who believes he doesn’t have to listen to anyone but himself. This may presage future fights over taxes in which he thinks he will continue to have the whip hand over the GOP. But the law of unintended consequences may eventually catch up with him. Though his soak-the-rich rhetoric resonates with many Americans, they also understand that entitlement reform is in the best interests of the nation and that raising taxes on millionaires won’t balance the budget. Few outside the hard left really believe, as Obama seemed to say today, that America only has a tax problem, not a spending problem.
If in the coming months and years these irresponsible tactics catch up with the president, we may look back on his behavior today and see it as the turning point in the debate. The Greeks had a word for the kind of behavior President Obama demonstrated today: hubris. His second term may well be blighted by it.