If you keep trying something and it doesn’t work and you are a rational person, you change course. President Obama is a rational person. His rip-roaring budget speech was a rational response to the failures of the past eight months. Republicans accused him of “class warfare” because he said the rich should pay more in taxes. When Republicans start saying “class warfare,” it almost always means that a Democrat is doing something right.
Obama’s aides insist that the president had little choice until now but to try to conciliate with the Republicans because they held in their hands the power to cause enormous damage. Obama made the budget deal early this year, they say, because he thought it would be bad for the economy to start off the new Congress with a government shutdown. And he had to make a debt-ceiling deal because the country couldn’t afford default. Now, they say, he has the freedom to bargain hard, and that’s what he doing.
There is something to this, although it doesn’t take into account other moments when the president engaged in a strategy of making preemptive concessions, giving away stuff before he even negotiated. (I’d argue that this tendency goes all the way back to the stimulus package.) But for now, it’s simply a relief for many — especially for the people who support the president — to see him coming out tough and casting himself as someone with a set of principles. And it was a political imperative, too. His image as a strong leader was faltering, and he was starting to lose support within his own party. He can’t win in 2012 (or govern very effectively before the election) if he looks weak and if his own party is tepid about him. On Monday, he began to solve both problems.
And as Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent point out, Obama may get more done by starting from a position of strength — by stating flatly and clearly what he’s seeking — instead of beginning with concessions and then having to concede even more. In the recent past, he allowed Republicans to control the terms of the debate. This time, he’s trying to set them. That’s usually a better way to get something closer to what you actually want. The Republican cries about “class warfare” reflect their awareness that if Obama can get them into an argument over why they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy, the GOP starts out behind.
Obama will get grief in some quarters over two decisions for which I think he deserves credit. The first was his giving up, for now at least, on the idea of raising the age at which Americans are eligible for Medicare to 67 from 65. The original rationale was that Americans in the age category who could not get private coverage would pick it up through the Affordable Care Act and its subsidies.
Put aside that (1.) it’s very hard for anyone to get affordable health insurance coverage once they pass 55 or 60, and (2.) we shouldn’t be doing anything that risks increasing the number of uninsured. The fact is, we don’t even know yet if the Affordable Care Act will survive long enough to take effect in 2014. We don’t know what the courts will do. And we don’t know if the president will be reelected. A Republican president with a Republican Congress will certainly try to repeal the law.
If the new health system takes effect, and if it can be strengthened with time, it may well make sense to move the younger and more affluent among the elderly to the new plan. (And who knows? Someday we may have a comprehensive national insurance plan.) In the meantime, let’s keep people in that category covered by keeping them in Medicare. There will be plenty of time to revisit the issue of health-care costs. It’s an issue we’ll be revisiting for years, maybe decades, anyway.
Obama is also getting hit for using the end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to count up $1.1 trillion in savings. You can argue about how the math works, but I like the fact that this makes clear that there are big costs to continuing our interventions. It challenges those who say we should draw down our troops more slowly to come up with ways of paying for the wars. We should have passed a temporary war tax long ago. Obama is once again making clear that the days of putting wars on a credit card are over.