Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Obama Tax Plan: A Matter of Principle

And so it would seem that the President has become the Great Unifier after all.

Too bad he had to commit political suicide in order to do it.

But, hey, at least he managed to finally unify the majority of the country. Everybody, it seems, wants his blood now. Finally, something we can all agree on.


In the cold gray light of this bitter December morning, the howling has reached deafening volume and the knives are out.

The Right, of course, already hated him.  No, strike that, hate is not the right word.  Hate doesn’t include the gut wrenching disgust they feel knowing that Barack Obama is sitting in the Oval Office. Hate doesn’t include the gnawing fear they feel – fear that the wrong people, from the wrong side of the tracks, from the wrong side of the political aisle, from the wrong social class, from the wrong race, from the wrong school, from the wrong father, from the wrong world, are invading their private domain, stealing their country, usurping their place.  They loathe him, and they have with a furious red-eyed passion verging on gibbering violent insanity since the minute he first walked up the front steps of the White House.  Those staid conservatives remind me of old American Blue Bloods, those aristocratic lily white New Englanders from the old families who can trace their lineage back to Jamestown or the Mayflower.  The movers and shakers, the ones that live in the big houses in Martha’s Vineyard and the penthouses on 5th Avenue.  They own the money and the power, they own the factories and the businesses and the old department stores and high-class hotels.  They live in the right communities. They go to the right church. They have the right friends. They own the world.  It is theirs by inheritance, by tradition, by destiny, by birthright.  Their world revolves in accordance with a set plan, as it did for their fathers, and as it will for their children.  And then, one day without warning, their precious daughter, America, came home from college with her new boyfriend – a black man.  A goddamned black man. A liberal. One of them. There he sits at the dinner table, he’s polite and intelligent and articulate and a student of law – but all they see are those big jug ears and that white smile and it’s everything they can do to limit their appalled outrage to barbed soto voice comments about fried chicken and watermelon.  All they see is the help acting like an equal in their midst and they’re mortified at the thought of what their friends down at the country club are going to think. No, hate is the wrong word, it’s the wrong word because it doesn’t even begin to describe the sense of violation they feel knowing that later tonight he’s going to be giving their daughter the high hard one under their very own roof. They’ll never accept him. Never. And they’re going to do everything they can, whatever it takes, to end this relationship before it goes any further.  He’s not going to be their son-in-law.  There will be no progeny.  Never. Period. They intend to make it like it never happened. They’ve got powerful friends who know how to fix these things, morality doesn’t enter into it, that’s how it’s done. People need to know their place.

And the Left? Well the Left is now the woman scorned – and Hell, as they say, hath no fury like that bitter angry bitch.  They loved him once, yes they did.  They remember what it was like at the beginning, he was different and exciting and good in bed. He was exotic and maybe a little taboo.  He recited poetry and took them on fabulous dates. And at night he rocked their world.  In their head they’d already married him, picked out fabric swatches and named the children, a girl if I remember right.  Oh sure, he had his flaws, what man doesn’t, right? But they were going to fix those, turn him into the perfect Norman Rockwell painting.  He said he’d change, but after a while they came to the sickening realization that it was hopeless. It turned out that he had a mind of his own.  It turned out that he was just like all the rest.  What a goddamned disappointment he turned out to be.  And the most galling part? Listening to the Right and their mocking taunts, we told you so we told you so nyah nyah.  There is no hatred so bitter as that what used to be love.  They’re cursing his name to their friends and plotting revenge.  Monday they’ll talk to a lawyer and the bastard isn’t going to get a fucking thing.

Both sides are blinded by passion, different passions, but passion nonetheless.

However, in the cold gray light of this December morning, after waiting two days for the other shoe to drop, looking at the President’s decision on the Tax Cut Bill dispassionately, I think he did the right thing.

No, to answer your question, I haven’t lost my mind. Nor have I lost faith in this President. Just the opposite, in fact.

Yes, I know. Go on, get it out of your system, just try not to break anything important … and try not to hit anything with the bones of your hands, that’s what sticks and stones are for, trust me on this.

Perhaps it’s my military background. 

It is far, far too easy to win the battle ... and then lose the war. That’s what happens when you lose sight of the objectives. Far too often on the battleground you’re forced to choose between lousy options.  Far too often you don’t get to pick your enemies – or your allies for that matter.  You end up working with people you dislike, hurting people who are your friends, making choices you hate, and making sacrifices that will haunt you for the rest of your life.  Far too often you have to compromise, and compromise again, losing the respect of those you value, in order to achieve the real objective.  It is a foolish commander indeed who fights the imaginary conflict his nation thinks they are fighting.  It is the utterly ineffective and hapless commander who fights the war he wishes he was fighting.  It is the stupid and brutish commander who fights a war of inflexible political principle.  The wise commander instead understands that the real conflict is defined by the realities of the battlespace.  To expand on Bismark’s original thought: war, like politics, is the art of the possible.

This morning a lot of Democrats feel betrayed. 

The Huffington Post started spitting venom yesterday morning, they even stopped speculating about Wikileaks long enough for one editor to ask “Is Obama Stupid?” HuffPost commenters, liberals in the majority and normally generally supportive of the president, in large part agree that he must be, stupid that is – and I had to look twice to make sure that I hadn’t accidentally stumbled into a forum hosted by FoxNews or Yahoo. Soon to be ex-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi called the President’s tax plan “a bridge too far,” but an aide for a prominent Democratic Senator went further and was quoted angrily saying that “the president fucked up!”  The media and the internet are aflame with white hot passion and a lot of folks on the Left sound an awful lot like that aforementioned spurned ex.

I can understand this. I can.  But, it does you no good whatsoever, especially in Washington, to wish for those things that simply are not going to happen.  You can stand on principle, inflexible and resolute – you may win the battle, but you will lose the war.  You will.  If you want to achieve the real objective, you have to maneuver within the constrains defined by the battlespace. Politics is, indeed, the art of the possible.

What is possible may not be what you wanted, exactly.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: If you always get what you want, you’re not living in a democracy.

Yeah, sure, but neither is it a democracy if we never get what we want. Right? That’s the anger talking. The Left has gotten plenty of things they wanted in the last two years, and the Right too, and it won’t take you long to make a list if you stop and think about it dispassionately for a minute.  It’s easy today to point at the president and say, he sucks at compromise, he sucks at negotiation, we got screwed! 


What was the objective?

No, not what was your objective, not what was Democratic Party’s objective, not what was the objective of Democrats in Congress, what was the President’s objective with this tax bill?

He made it clear: 1) Do nothing to destroy the fragile economic recovery. Period. Debt and deficit reduction are secondary to that.  2) Extend unemployment benefits, this has to happen now and it should have happened a month ago, and 3) Do not allow the Bush Era tax cuts to expire for the middle class.

The Republicans in the current lame duck Congress have made it  abundantly clear that they aren’t going to do a goddamned thing, nothing, that serves the president’s agenda – and they will actively block any attempts to move legislation forward.

The Republicans in the new Congress have made it abundantly clear that they aren’t going to do a goddamned thing to further the president’s goals either – and in fact intend to reverse the gains the Left has made over the last two years.

The new Speaker of the House has stated publically that his primary objective is to ensure that the president is not reelected.

This is the battlespace the President must operate in. 

He could pretend it otherwise, he could wish it otherwise, he could stand pat on principle – and in each case there will be only one loser, those Americans who can least afford it. 

The Republicans will not lose, in fact, they’ll win the White House and Senate – and that’s exactly what they’re counting on. 

The Rich will not lose, because they never do. If they end up paying more, so will the poor and middle class. The difference is that the rich can afford it.

Hell, even Barack Obama will not lose. If he stands pat, he’ll lose the office, sure, but the way things are going he will anyway. He’ll be a one term Democrat. Another Jimmy Carter.  But when he leaves office he’ll still have been the first black president and history won’t be able to take that away from him and he’ll still be rich and he’ll still command million dollar speaking fees and he’ll still have a Nobel Peace Prize and he can always go back to teaching constitutional law at any college he so chooses.

No, the only people who will lose, if the president stands pat, is us - the republicans have made that absolutely clear and demonstrated their resolve.  The president himself said, it was like negotiating with hostage takers.  And you know what? It sure sounds good to say you won’t negotiate with hostage takers. It sounds noble and principled. Go on, kill them. We’re not budging. Sure that sounds good.

Unless you happen to be one of the hostages that is.

This isn’t the movies. Bruce Willis isn’t going to blast his way into Congress and take out the obstructionists.  You want the hostages back alive? You better give the sons of bitches what they want.

The president traded tax breaks for the rich, including the Estate Tax, for the things he really wanted, unemployment benefits, no rise in taxes for the middle class, and preservation of economic recovery.  It probably cost him reelection. It cost him the support of his own party.  It cost him the respect of you, his own supporters – the very people who would have lost the most if he had stood pat on principal.  He got the Republicans to agree, even if he had to buy their agreement, after they had firmly demonstrated a willingness to shoot the hostages. Time was running out, it’s now or never. If the lame duck session of Congress doesn’t act, we all lose. And the only way to get the lame duck to do anything was to buy the cooperation of the obstructionist Republicans, there is no time for anything else.  And the Democrats? They’ll agree too. Yes they will.  They already have, enough of them anyway, reluctantly, with gritted teeth, but they will pass the president’s bill.

Two years. The President bought two years.  

Why is that significant, I wondered? Why not extend them for four years or ten or permanently? Why two years?

And so I waited to write this post.  I didn’t figure I would have to wait for long.

You did catch the President’s interview on NPR on Friday morning, yes?  He intends to overhaul the tax code.  Think about that. Think about what that means.  Think about the timing. Notice the lack of Republican response. 

Sucks at compromise?

Sucks at negotiation?

Suck at getting what he really wants?


He did what he had to do to achieve the real objective.  Most likely he gave up any chance at a second term to do it.   I strongly suspect that the President of the United States sacrificed the respect of his own party and people and his political career in order to do what was right for the nation as a whole.  History will certainly tell.  I listened to his voice yesterday morning, and he sure as hell didn’t sound like a man who’d sold his people out. Again, maybe it’s my military experience. My particular military experience.  I’ve known a hell of a lot of self centered assholes in my time, those who could always be counted on to put their own careers ahead of their people every single time.  But I’ve known a number of fine, fine NCOs and Officers who would, and did, give everything for their men. 

And I know the difference when I see it. 


Well, you have to decide which of your principles really matter.


  1. The Republicans could not get the tax breaks for the wealthy without his explicit signature.

    I doubt that any of the four houses in question can override a veto.

    That puts him in a far more powerful position than I think you are giving him credit for.

    However, for what it is worth, I don't think any of the tax cuts should ever have existed much less be extended.

    The bill also does nothing for the long term unemployed, 99 weeks and more.

  2. Well, Jim, I hope you're right.

    The problem is, bluntly, I don't have any reason to think you're right. I am still trying to decide whether what he gave up this week was worth what he got--I certainly won't deny he got something out of it, and maybe that something will include a chance to overhaul the tax code.

    And I won't deny that the left has gotten a lot the past two years, though I'm still evaluating that, too.

    But a lot of Very Smart People are out there saying that what the President got this week isn't worth what he gave up. And one of the things he gave up was a good chunk of whatever limited political capital he had left. One pithy comment that has stood out is that the President may have assuaged the hostage-takers by giving them more hostages: there's no reason to think this fight won't be re-fought when the tax breaks expire. And the President may have dealt a blow to Social Security and established a bad precedent.

    And with those fears comes the fear that the President is losing the war. It is noble and idealistic for Obama to say he's above playing politics with unemployment benefits and the needs of the middle class, etc., but the fact is that "playing politics" is the only game in town. If you believe that the future greatness of this country is tied to progressive ideals--helping the poor, the sick, the needy, the very young and very old--it doesn't help to be a one-term president whose achievements are undone by a conservative successor and allied Congress. I utterly hate the idea of unemployed folks losing their benefits, but I am stuck with the fear that in the long game, future unemployed people will suffer when their benefits are reduced or eliminated to balance a budget left askew because tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans remain sacrosanct and inviolable.

    We'll see. Like I say, I hope you're right. I want you to be right. I would like to be wrong, very wrong.

  3. I have to agree with Eric, or at least his link, on the SS payroll tax. I don't think this has ever been touched before and now it has been done by a Democrat.

    The conservatives, as when I grew up there were still liberal Republicans, have been looking to kill SS since it was brought up, the president just opened the door.

    Other attacks on it just became a lot easier, a very bad precedent.

  4. Well said. I know some people on the Left are frothing, and I feel their pain. (grin) But there was nothing to gain by trying to push this negotiation to the brink of the end of the year, and more possibilities for a last few votes if this big bill was gotten out of the way early. Having the Left livid will only encourage the Right to vote for it. (evil grin)

    Medicine does not have to taste good on the way down to work.

    Dr. Phil

  5. Tanks for giving me something to think about.

    I haven't actually decided how I feel about this - I can't help but feel betrayed to a certain degree, and yet...the President is far too smart not to have a method to his madness.

    Isn't he?

  6. Jim,

    We often agree, but this time I think I'll have to wait and see. The past two years have been a great disappointment IMHO. Perhaps that stems from unrealistic expectations that might have been (deliberately?) set way to high at the start. Certainly, the absolute failure to really address accountability for clear crimes of the last administration, the bungled legislative record and the absence of any real communications strategy (besides hippie punching) all play into my currently low opinion of the man's performance thusfar. The makeup of the incoming Congress, and their ability to exert power now when they have no actual power in the lame duck session, does not give much optimism that Obama will reform anything, much less the tax code. Unless, that is, said tax reform leads to even lower revenues from the plutocrats.


  7. What I don't get is this: Would Obama possibly have done this without talking to Pelosi first? What kind of Democratic President makes a deal with Republicans when he can't bring his own party to the table to sign it? It makes him look totally powerless -- why would Republicans even come to the negotiating table with him in the future if he can't guarantee his party will back up his deals?

    It makes me wonder if the whole thing wasn't orchestrated from the beginning -- Obama comes off as the rational deal-maker who will give the Republicans something to get what he wants; while Democrats in Congress give notice that they're not going to let the Republicans walk over them for the next two years, and that they can be as united and obstructionist as the Republicans. (Which strikes me definitely as a long-sighted victory on the part of the both the President and the Congressional Democrats -- but at the cost of losing the rest of the lame duck agenda, and possibly the deal itself.)

  8. I don't know, Jim. I think he might have done better if he would have played the martyr, and had all the tax cuts expire (thereby solving much of the deficit). Although, with this deal I see the major win is this, the Republicans will not be able to pass a balanced budget in the next two years, and once they try there will be screaming and garment rending and electorate will be exposed to the dark side of conservatism.

    But even with his comment about "hostage takers" I don't think he played his hand hard enough (that is, he had to agree to this, and how this agreement violates the conservatives own platform). That way, for all the bad things that will be coming down the pike because of this, he could say, "Not my fault, it was their ideas and they held me up to get them implemented."

    However, if the President hopes to have a second term, at some point he's going to have to play the game of chicken by playing to not swerve, just as Clinton did by shutting down government. He'll have to pick the right time to do it, to set up his hand as being played in the "I'm just thinking of you all," so when the Parks are closed, SocSec checks stop flowing, and Medicaid isn't accepted, he can point at the conservatives and say, "Their fault, not mine."

  9. It's interesting that you should mention Clinton, Steve. Today, Bill Clinton specifically said that he thought Obama did the right thing and that a government shutdown caused by a standoff with the Republicans as he did would be the wrong thing at this time.

  10. I suspect Obama will win a second term. Nobody of prominence is lining up to attack him from the left, and the right will end up running one of The Usual Suspects, who will look like (and be) an idiot next to Obama.

    I will say that the Democrats in Congress screwed the pooch on this one - we should have had this vote before the election.

  11. I will say that the Democrats in Congress screwed the pooch on this one - we should have had this vote before the election.

    Exactly. Now we have to live with the consequences. This is one of them.

  12. OK, I would like to bring up the elephant in the room...Afghanistan.

    If Obama isn't concerned with a second term, or if he's really willing to risk everything for the benefit of this country, he can do the one thing that no one can stop. He can start pulling the troops out of that miserable country immediately.

    And before you start to grumble and spit about giving up, or giving in to the TERRORISTS, let me explain...WE'VE LOST ALREADY - GET OVER IT!

    Oh sure were still mighty scary and we can blow the living snot out of anything that pokes its head out of a cave, but let me ask you this, after 10+ years, what the hell do we have to show for it?

    This is our money damn it, take a look here...


    Tell me what you and I have earned with all that hard won money from the Bank of China?

    How has 10+ years, thousands of dead and mangled American sons and daughters benefited you an I directly?

    I like so many others live in a state (California) running a huge deficit, and one that wouldn't necessarily exist had we not had to contribute billions of dollars towards an effort to bring democracy to a country that no one in history has ever been able to do.

    Let me tell you what is has gotten me, schools closing, police stations and fire stations closing, privatization of schools, privatization of the military...

    I live in a county that has decided that it can no longer afford to maintain all of it's roads and is literally going to allow over 80% of them to revert back to gravel and dirt.

    I'm a responsible consumer folks, I look carefully at all my options before I buy something, and I take care to keep receipts and warranties. I've looked at the pro's and cons of this paltry little purchase of ours, and I've decided it aint worth the cost.

    Yeah I understand that there's a restock fee, I'm fine with that.

    And to you naysayers, your just fooling yourselves.


  13. I don't like this deal. On the other hand, I'm not sure that a better deal could have been made, so Obama, to my mind, did a right thing.

    Besides, now when the Republicans scream about the deficit, Obama can point out that its due to the tax cuts that the right wanted.

  14. A great post and I needed to digest it. It really gave me something to think about and I believe you are correct. I was really upset with Obama but I am beginning to feel better but I am easy. Thanks Ottis

  15. Well, Jim, of course a government shut down would be a Bad Thing™. It was a Bad Thing™ when it happened to Clinton. It's a Bad Thing™ for the country and to those people who were affected by the shut down. Which is why the Republicans got the bad rap at the time. Because Clinton positioned himself as the defender of the middle class and the opposition and wanting to trash everything in their temper tantrum of ideology. Which is why Obama needs to position himself in that spot. The conservatives are already discussing that a shit down would be a Good Thing™ this time. How they learned from last time (when they're really just clapping louder and faster). They're going to drive straight in this game of chicken, and Obama needs to prepare the airbags and aim for the grill.

  16. Hey Joe, that's the same thinking that allowed the power vacuum in Afghanistan back in the late 80s after we helped the Mujahadeen throw the Russians out. Hell, we don't need to finish anything. We're done. Let's go.

    Look how well that worked out for us. To paraphrase a famous quote, "We broke it, we bought it." Yes it's going to cost us more now, and it'll be a harder fight (thank you Bush Administration and pushing the Iraq War when you did). However, if we pull out now we'll have to fight the same war there in another 5-10 years. When it'll cost even more.

  17. Hello Steve,

    I tell you what, you tell me just what the hell we've earned for our ten years and billions of dollars of debt.

    What in Gods green earth, do you feel is worth what we've spent?

    I'm sorry because I don't see it, but maybe you can illuminate me? We are hemorrhaging dollars at a rate that is beyond scary.

    How have we benefited, or how do you see us benefiting in the future from our efforts?

    What gains will we make that will cover the cost and the interest on the debt we and our future generations will get to pay China.

    Show me the return, convince me, please.

  18. We've taken a failing state, one which allowed itself to align with even more radical elements than were already in charge of half the country, and at least gotten it tottering on it's feet and denied safe harbor for those same radicals who attacked us. To leave now would be to see that nascent nationalism collapse back into tribal allegiance and create a power vacuum that the powers we expelled would be all to ready and willing to fill (part of what we're fighting now was them retaking the country in our absence).

    While the original goal was to eliminate the threat and finish the work done in the 80s to create a stable, secular nation, it's now changed to create a nation strong enough to not allow safe harbor for those radicals.

    I agree with you that it has cost too much and taken too long. That's one of the major reasons I opposed the Iraq War (and yes, this cost, this higher cost is directly related to our being distracted form the real goals of this war by a President lead by other old men who wanted to assuage their collective guilt for what they had done, also strangely enough, in the 80s).

    If we leave now, as we did in the 80s, we will have to fight this war again. And it will cost more in both treasure and blood. To walk away now is also to abrogate our responsibility and debt to our NATO allies who carried our water for 6 years. As a nation, we can't do that. If we did, what little standing in the world we've regained since 2008 would be trashed.

    I hear you being war weary. I am too. But if we aren't willing to finish what we started, to fix what we broke, then we have no standing. Might as well roll up the borders, kick out the UN, stick our fingers in our ears singing LA LA LA LA, and prey the rest of the world ignores us. I doubt they will.

    And I'll just remind everybody, Afghanistan and the Taliban created the conditions for Al Qaeda to flourish. And that allowed them to reach out and attack us on our home ground (and you need to comprehend just how incredible that was). They bloodied us. You don't get to walk away after that.

    At least, that's my humble opinion. You are free to differ.

  19. Hello Steve,

    I respect your opinion on this, I don't agree with any of it, but hey...whaddaya gonna do? :)

  20. No worries, Joe. Like most things, I know a lot of people don't agree with me.

  21. It probably cost him reelection.

    I think Obama knows he wouldn't be re-elected anyway. The Republicans let him slip into the office once- foolishly believing that no one could resist McCain/Palin. They would be lining up in droves to prevent a second term, no matter what his accomplishments in a first term.

  22. Fingers crossed Jim is correct.

    Wouldn't it be grand if we found out Obama pulled a fast one on the insurance companies and the Republicans by accepting in the new HCR bill what he thought would be thrown out by the courts, sticking the insurance companies with the rest of the reforms?

    @Steve Buchheit: "Might as well roll up the borders, kick out the UN, stick our fingers in our ears singing LA LA LA LA, and prey the rest of the world ignores us."

    I thought we already tried that! (<;

  23. And if it took extending the tax cuts to get the deal on 'don't ask, don't tell,' I for one think it was worth it.

  24. Exactly.

    I suspect that the President was willing to give on tax breaks for the rich and on the estate tax in order to pass the DADT repeal and the DREAM Act. Of course, DREAM failed, but the DADT repeal passed. Again, politics is the art of the possible.

  25. Don't be so fast to judge him as a single term President. A lot can happen in 2 years. A lot will depend on who the GOP puts up. Back in September 2008, the election could have gone either way. But financial events and Palin's stupidity had a fundamental effect on the election. As well as the country's financial climate.

  26. Obama actually won some respect from me when he compromised. It meant to me that he's really willing to work in a bi-partisanship manner (a promise he made easily during his campaign and I don't think he realized exactly what the cost to himself it would be). A compromise isn't a compromise unless BOTH parties dislike the deal.
    An unwillingness to be disliked by one's own party is one of the reasons I disliked Gore. I really liked him as a vice-president. He was outspoken and thoughtful. Then, during his campaign, it was clear that he would sacrifice his individuality to become a puppet for the Dems. I had thought Obama was at risk for doing the same, but it appears not. Yay!

    And from a cynical gen-Xer, I have never expected Social Security to outlast the Baby Boomers retirement. Financial reasons, not political, was how I'd guess it'd go. (Not sure how the Repubs will get rid of it without losing the +65 voting block.)

  27. Jim, I have the perspective of a bit of time, but I have to admit that if I had read your post when posted, I’d probably agree 100%. I can’t say the same right now. Why? Well mostly because, I’m not convinced that Obama’s election in 2012 is hopeless. It’s not easy to unseat the standing President, and after the debacle in Wisconsin, I think that the American people have a better idea where the conservatives are trying to steer the nation. I don’t know about you, but that scares me a whole heck of a lot more than the idea that Obama is willing to compromise. Actually, I’ve been so disgusted with partisan politics that I’m almost to the point that won’t vote for representatives either party. In the last election, I voted for exactly one person identified as either a Republican or Democrat. Are there any real statesmen left in this country? Just to be sure I’m well understood when I say statesman I’m using this definition:
    A senior politician, especially a man, who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good.

  28. I know this was posted over a year ago but I remember thinking at the time why is everyone so angry, he did what he needed to do for the good of most of the people. I thought I was the only one who saw it that way. Of course you express ever so much more eloquently than I do. I like the teminology that one of your readers used "brain words". If my brain words came out on paper the way they are in my head it would sound something like what you wrote. But alas,something gets lost between my brain and the page.


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