The Washington Post

Obama has the advantage of ambivalence

President Obama has the advantage of ambivalence.  The present trajectory of the economy, rising government spending and tax increases suit him just fine — or at least it appears that way. I've lost track of the president's desires for the American economy. Perhaps the Democrats see themselves only as the party of spending, not stewards of a healthy, growing economy. This would explain their behavior. Perhaps they think the economy just needs time to recover, but this is wrong. To recover, the economy needs good policy.

The current talks on the “fiscal cliff” are now in a no-man’s land of gestures and posturing. The Republicans offer the president tax increases, and Obama considers them.  But the GOP is negotiating with itself.  They think that a preemptive agreement to increase taxes will bring the president to the table with a serious offer on entitlement reform.  So far, no real spending restraint has been deemed acceptable by the president and the Democrats in Congress. All the talk about the problems associated with deficit spending has taken a back seat to inside maneuvering and a focus on what the Republicans will do about taxes.

A tax increase has become an end in and of itself, not a part of a deficit-reduction plan. The president appears ready to accept trillion-dollar deficits indefinitely. In Washington, the party that is for the most spending usually gets its way — and also wins the PR battle. 

Our debt is currently over $16.2 trillion.  That’s $52,026 per U.S. citizen, and $142,600 per taxpayer.  I wonder what President Obama thinks is too much debt, or if he has taken the myth that “deficits don’t matter” to new heights?  

The White House swiftly rejected House Speaker John Boehner’s “plan B” proposal. Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed Obama’s opinion that the deal “doesn’t ask enough of the very wealthiest in taxes,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said he believed it could cause the United States to be potentially downgraded, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated firmly that the plan would not pass the Senate. 

As I've said before, never underestimate the ability of the government to do nothing. Nothing has a powerful ally in the White House. Responsible leaders are stuck, because if we do nothing, the economy takes another big hit and our government priorities and basic functions are disrupted. No one knows exactly what the consequences would be in the near-term or long-term. But if we do what Obama wants and, say, pass his budget as-is, the economy takes another big hit, and our government priorities and functions enshrine the president’s entitlement-based politics.  The culture of dependency will become a permanent lifestyle for more Americans than ever.

The fiscal cliff debate has revealed the great divide in American politics and society even more than did the 2012 campaign. Our economy needs good policy, and right now, it’s not getting it. That’s not because the president and the Democrats can't do the job — it's because they don't want to. 

Boehner is right to use his power to pass some things.  His point might only be shaking his fist at the more powerful administration, but at least he’s doing something.  A lot of times in politics, there is an art to picking the least-worst option.  For the GOP to at least pass some things in the House is better than to pretend that talks with the president will solve our problems. 

Ed Rogers is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog, a political consultant and a veteran of the White House and several national campaigns. He is the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in 1991.


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