E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer December 2, 2012

An entirely new political narrative is taking shape before our eyes, yet many in Washington are still stuck in the old one.

President Obama’s victory blew up the framework created by the 2010 elections, which forced him to play defense. Now, he finally has room to move. That’s the only way to understand the ongoing budget talks.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

This has several implications. First, why was anyone surprised that Obama’s initial offer to the Republicans was a compendium of what he’d actually prefer? We became so accustomed to Obama’s earlier habit of making preemptive concessions that the very idea he’d negotiate in a perfectly normal way amazed much of Washington. Rule No. 1 is that you shouldn’t start bargaining by giving stuff away when the other side has not even made concrete demands.

Second, Obama made clear that he will not allow the fiscal calendar to set his priorities. Past actions by Congress established this wacky set of deadlines requiring frenzied decision-making. This does not mean the deficit is the nation’s highest priority. It isn’t. Speeding up economic growth is the most important thing now.

Thus did Obama’s opening proposal call for measures to boost the recovery, including an infrastructure bank, a public-private partnership that ought to appeal to Republicans. And he was right to insist upon an extension of unemployment insurance and another year of the payroll tax holiday or some equivalent way to keep middle-class purchasing power up. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t damage the economy. A sudden drop in the take-home pay of the vast majority of U.S. consumers would.

Third, House Republicans have, so far, been unwilling to assume any risk to get what they claim to want. They seem to hope a deal will be born by way of immaculate conception, with Obama taking ownership of all the hard stuff while they innocently look on.

Obama went that route in 2011 when he feared that Republicans would bring down the nation’s economic house by failing to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. This time, he doesn’t face that risk.

If we go past the so-called “fiscal cliff” deadlines and all the resulting budget cuts and tax increases come into force, the administration can minimize the damage. It can delay the implementation of new tax tables so billions of dollars are not suddenly sucked out of the economy. There is no law requiring that budget cuts be implemented upfront or spread equally across the year. Obama can publicly announce he is delaying any cuts, on the theory that Congress will eventually vitiate some of them. And he can make sure the bond markets know of his plans well in advance.

This is not pretty, and it’s not ideal. But the only way to keep the next four years from becoming another long exercise in gridlock and obstruction is for Obama to hang tough now. And he has every right to.

Republicans claim they are fighting for cuts in entitlement programs, particularly Medicare. Fine. Let them put their cuts on the table. So far, all we have are words. Obama has outlined $400 billion in savings from Medicare. If this isn’t enough, the GOP’s negotiators should tell us how to find more. And having individual Republicans toss out ideas is not the same as a detailed public counter-proposal.

Republicans also say tax reform can raise enough money so we can avoid rate increases on the wealthy. Fine. Let them put forward a comprehensive plan so we can judge it. Their problem is that tax reform can’t produce the revenue that’s needed, but let’s at least see what they have in mind.

Obama is criticized for making life difficult for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who has to bring around a rather right-wing caucus. Sorry, but demanding this sort of solicitude doesn’t fly anymore. Boehner rather brilliantly used the “I have to deal with this crazy uncle in the attic” gambit to extract a lot of concessions in 2011. Republicans walked away from the great deal Boehner won for them. The intervening election means they won’t get a similar gift this time. Obama has to win something for his own progressive supporters who rightly feel empowered by November’s results. Two can play the crazy-uncle game.

So a normal negotiation looks strange only because the past two years have been so utterly abnormal, driven by tea party extremism and an irrational hostility to Obama, a fundamentally moderate man who has already shown a willingness to offer more than his share of concessions. Boehner knows this, which is why everyone (especially Wall Street) should calm down.

ejdionne@washpost.com