Barack Obama’s news conference today was most interesting on the subject he’s currently deep in negotiations over: the fiscal cliff, and taxes in particular.
The headlines aren’t going to be about the upcoming tax and spending deadlines, however; they’re going to be about the president’s spirited defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. That in itself is worth noting in the context of budget negotiations. After all, Obama surely knew that he would get a question about Rice and that the forceful answer he chose to give would be the soundbite everyone would play.
Beyond that, the most interesting questions were the attempts to nail down Obama’s bottom line on tax rates for the wealthy, with Chuck Todd eventually pushing him for a yes or no commitment: “Is there no deal at the end of the year if tax rates for the top 2 percent aren’t the Clinton tax rates, period? No ifs, ands or buts and any room in negotiating on that specific aspect of the fiscal cliff?” Obama’s reply:
With respect to the tax rates, I — I just want to emphasize, I am open to new ideas. If the Republican counterparts, or some Democrats, have a great idea for us to raise revenue, maintain progressivity, make sure the middle class isn’t getting hit, reduces our deficit, encourages growth, I’m not going to just slam the door in their face. I want to hear — I want to hear ideas from everybody….
But, what I will not do is to have a process that is vague, that says we’re gonna sort of, kind of raise revenue through dynamic scoring or closing loopholes that have not been identified…. So, that’s my concern. I’m less concerned about red lines per se. What I’m concerned about is not finding ourselves in a situation where the wealthy aren’t paying more or aren’t paying as much as they should.
I’m with those who interpret this more as an attempt to sound reasonable than as any real hint of willingness to compromise on the tax rates. Obama clearly wasn’t willing to give the kind of flat-out answer that Todd gave him a perfect opportunity for. But his formula — raise revenue, maintain progressivity and use real numbers — really doesn’t leave much room for anything other than raising the tax rates he campaigned on.
Public presidential bargaining is always tricky. Presidents need to leave room for compromise when they know they’ll need to compromise, but they also need to show resolve for negotiation purposes … while also worrying about various constituencies who may be worried (or excited) about what will come out of it all, and also, at the same time, conforming with how the general public expect them to act. And they need to do that, at times, with incomplete knowledge: Obama doesn’t really know the Republicans’ bottom line, or exactly how any of this will play out.
As I read Obama’s answers, however, I became convinced that he’s pretty dedicated to pressing hard for the tax rates he’s advocated. That still doesn’t mean he’ll wind up there; that depends to some extent on the Republicans’ priorities, not just his. But that’s what he’s clearly driving toward.