It finally seems to be dawning on much of the Washington press corps that President Obama doesn’t much like the way governance works in a democracy and so he just doesn’t do what presidents are paid to do: get things done.
It seems that his press conference yesterday, marking the hundredth day of his second term, was more or less of a disaster. He whined that his failure on gun control, cybersecurity, and removal of the sequester was all the fault of Congress, and especially congressional Republicans. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post slices and dices that one most effectively. But Jen, of course, is a conservative. More surprising, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also beats him up big time.
On “Fox and Friends” this morning at 7 a.m. came the news that President Obama and Speaker Boehner had had a phone call last evening, content not disclosed.
That shouldn’t have been news—these are the leaders of each party trying to avoid a governmental disaster that could come in less than a month, and should be talking 10 times a day. But it was news, and that’s troubling to say the least.
As Daniel Henninger makes clear in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Where in his career did Barack Obama ever learn the art of the political deal? Nowhere.” He writes:
In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:
Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”
The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”
Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.
In his review in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”
“I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us,” writes Wills.
Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.
Michael Boskin isn’t much impressed with Obama’s complaint that he inherited a budget deficit. He points out that Obama’s own budget sets us on a course of reckless spending, the cost of which can’t be reasonably balanced by tax hikes (at least not without crippling our economic growth). Boskin explains the depth of the hole Obama — not George W. Bush — is digging for us:
On average, in the first three years of the 10-year budget plan, federal spending rises by 4.4% of GDP. That’s more than during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Vietnam War buildup and President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup combined. . . Remarkably, President Obama will add more red ink in his first two years than President George W. Bush — berated by conservatives for his failure to control domestic spending and by liberals for the explosion of military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan — did in eight. In his first 15 months, Mr. Obama will raise the debt burden — the ratio of the national debt to GDP — by more than Reagan did in eight years. . . He projects a cumulative deficit of $11.5 trillion by 2020. That brings the publicly held debt (excluding debt held inside the government, e.g., Social Security) to 77% of GDP, and the gross debt to over 100%. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush each ended their terms at about 40%.
The tax hikes needed to pay for all this would choke off economic growth. (“Such vast debt implies immense future tax increases. Balancing the 2015 budget would require a 43% increase in everyone’s income taxes that year.”) This all is occurring, as Boskin notes, while baby boomers are hitting retirement age, thereby pushing up entitlement costs.
It is understandable then why Obama would rather deflect the discussion to his predecessor’s fiscal shortcomings. But the figures Boskin cites are real and the blame for our worsening situation will rightly be directed to the current White House occupant. He loves, of course, to tell us that choices are “false” or to hover above the political debate as if he were a cable-TV commentator or, yes, a law-school professor. But this is a problem that requires him to do something. And when decisive, potentially unpopular action is required (e.g., Afghanistan war strategy, Iran policy) Obama seems to shrink before our eyes. Is it timidity? Lack of experience or executive ability? We don’t know.
All we can judge Obama by are his decisions and the results he obtains. So far, on the budget (as on so much else), he has come up wanting. There is no policy innovation, no debunking of liberal dogma, and no willingness to embrace the best of his opponents’ ideas. So we can understand why George W. Bush is a favorite crutch.
Political language often frames the public discussion of political issues. “Pro-choice” sounds a lot better than “pro-abortion.” Economic “stimulus” sounds a lot better than government “spending.” The party that better frames the language surrounding the public debate can sometimes win the debate almost by that means alone.
So let me take Jennifer’s perceptive post “Taxes Are Taxes” one step further. It is a mistake to say that Congress is “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.” The proper way of framing the issue is “failing to stop a massive tax increase.” The issue is not tax cuts relative to the 2001 economy, but the prospect of a huge tax increase on the 2010 one.
In April 2008 — long before President Obama engineered an increase in government spending that transformed “billions” into small change, making anything under a trillion a certification of political acceptability (rather than, in Everett Dirksen’s phrase, “real money”) — John F. Cogan and R. Glenn Hubbard described, in an article entitled “The Coming Tax Bomb,” what will happen if Congress fails to act:
This would be the largest increase in personal income taxes since World War II. It would be more than twice as large as President Lyndon Johnson’s surcharge to finance the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. It would be more than twice the combined personal income tax increases under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The increase would push total federal government revenues relative to GDP to 20%.
All this is before the tax increases the Democrats want to use for cap-and-trade, health care, the Afghan war, etc. — or rather, it is after such tax increases. The strategy appears to be to enact those tax increases first and then engineer another one simply phrased “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.”
It is not too soon to bring this issue to the forefront, even though it will not come to a head until next year. Indeed, as Cogan and Hubbard argued, the prospect of scheduled future tax increases may itself be part of the current economic problem, and making the Bush tax cuts permanent might provide certainty for investors that would spur the economy. In any event, it would be a mistake to defer discussion of this until next year, especially if the debate then is framed as a mere “expiration” of something “Bush” did.