Obama’s plan: Push Republicans off the fiscal cliff

October 18, 2012

I've criticized the Obama campaign for failing to detail much of a vision for a second term. But that's not to say they don't have one. They do. It's just a hard one to campaign on.

Nam Y. Huh -- Associated Press

After promising in 2008 to bring about a new era of cooperation in Washington, they're campaigning in 2012 knowing that, if reelected, they will start their second term with a brutal, economy-shaking showdown with Republicans over spending and taxes.

If the Obama administration were to really lay out their plans, they would go something like this. In November, President Obama will reiterate, clearly and firmly, that he will veto any attempts to extend the high-income tax cuts or lift the big, dumb spending cuts without finding equivalent savings elsewhere. In fact, as my colleague Lori Montgomery reports, they're already reiterating that promise.

That veto threat is the center of the Obama administration's second-term strategizing. The Obama administration believes -- and, just as importantly, they believe Republicans believe -- that they've got the leverage here. The Republican position on taxes is less popular than the Democratic position. The outcome of gridlock is much higher taxes, which is more anathema to Republicans and arguably cheering to Democrats. The big, dumb spending cuts, despite being poorly timed and inanely constructed, are very progressive in their effect, falling heavily on military spending while exempting Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare beneficiaries.


Note: These figures don't include savings from reduced interest payments.

I've called this the GOP's dual-trigger nightmare. It's bad for the economy, but it also effectively ends our deficits with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts more progressive than anything any Democrat has dared propose. Republicans absolutely can't let it happen. But the only way they can stop it from happening is to make a deal. 

The administration hopes this deal will include more than just deficit reduction. They also see it as a vehicle for infrastructure investment and tax reform. They think there's some chance that parts of the American Jobs Act, like the hiring tax credits, could sneak through the door, too. There's even talk of using it to address climate change, though everyone agrees that's unlikely. Whatever ends up in the final deal, there's little doubt that it will be a big deal, and it's likely to come together fairly quickly in the first year. The White House -- and the expiring tax and spending provisions -- won't give Republicans any other choice.

In a way, the Obama administration's plan for a second term is much like their plan for the first term: Make a deal with Republicans. Get a big bipartisan solution to our problems. But the means are almost precisely the opposite. Where in the first term, the hope was that they could reach out, talk through the issues, and come to an agreement, the plan for the second is to push the Republican Party off the fiscal cliff, and then force them to reach out in order to get pulled back up.

To put it plainly, in 2008, the Obama campaign hoped Republicans would work with them. In 2012, they have a plan. Their plan stands a good chance of working. But it doesn't sound as good as hope does in a speech. That's why you're not hearing much about it.

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Dylan Matthews · October 18, 2012