Return of the Real Obama
WASHINGTON – The rout was complete, the retreat disorderly. President Obama got his tax hikes – naked of spending cuts – passed by the ostensibly Republican House of Representatives. After which, you might expect him to pivot to his self-proclaimed “principle” of fiscal “balance” by taking the lead on reducing spending. “Why,” asked The Washington Post on the eve of the final “fiscal-cliff” agreement, “is the nation’s leader not embracing and then explaining the balanced reforms the nation needs?”
Because he has no interest in them. He’s a visionary, not an accountant. Sure, he’ll pretend to care about deficits, especially while running for re-election. But now that he’s past the post, he’s free to be himself – a committed big-government social-democrat.
As he showed in his two speeches this week. After perfunctory nods to debt and spending reduction, he waxed enthusiastic about continued “investments” – i.e. spending – on education, research, roads and bridges, green energy, etc.
Having promised more government, he then promised more taxes – on “millionaires” and “companies with a lot of lobbyists,” of course. It was a bold affirmation of pre-Clintonian tax-and-spend liberalism.
Why not? He had just won Round 1: raising rates. Round 2 is to raise yet more tax revenues by eliminating deductions. After all, didn’t John Boehner offer him $800 billion of such loophole-closing revenues just a few weeks ago?
To paraphrase Churchill on the British Empire, Barack Obama did not become president of the United States to preside over the liquidation of the welfare state. On the contrary, he is dedicated to its expansion. He’s already created the largest new entitlement in half a century (Obamacare). And he has increased federal spending to an astronomical 24.4 percent of GDP (the postwar norm is about 20 percent), a level not seen since World War II.
But this level of spending requires a significantly higher level of taxation. Hence his hardball fiscal-cliff strategy of issuing an ultimatum to Republicans to raise tax rates – or be blamed for a massive across-the-board tax increase and a subsequent recession.
I’ll get you the money by eliminating deductions, offered Boehner. No, sir, replied the president. Rates it must be.
Why the insistence?
(1) Partisan Advantage
As I wrote last month, the ultimatum was designed to exploit and exacerbate internal Republican divisions. It worked perfectly. Boehner’s attempted finesse (Plan B), which would have raised rates but only for those making more than $1 million, collapsed amid an open rebellion from a good quarter of the Republican caucus.
At which point, power passed from the House to the Senate, where a deal was brokered. By the time the Senate bill reached the House, there was no time or room for maneuver. Checkmate. Obama neutralized the one body that had stymied him during the last two years.
(2) Ideological Breakthrough
Obama’s ultimate ambition is to break the nation’s 30-year thrall of low taxes – so powerful that those who defied the Reaganite norm paid heavily for it. Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech at the 1984 convention promising to raise taxes ended his campaign before it began. President George H.W. Bush’s no-new-taxes reversal cost him a second term.
On this, too, Obama is succeeding. He not only got his tax increase passed. He did it with public opinion behind him.
Why are higher taxes so important to him?
First, as a means: A high-tax economy is liberalism’s only hope for sustaining and enlarging the entitlement state. It provides the funds for enlightened adventures in everything from algae to Obamacare.
Second, as an end in itself. Fundamentally, Obama is a leveler. The community organizer seeks, above all, to reverse the growing inequality that he dates and attributes to ruthless Reaganism. Now, however, clothed in the immense powers of the presidency, he can actually engage in unadorned redistributionism. As in Tuesday night’s $620 billion wealth transfer.
Upon losing the House in 2010, the leveler took cover for the next two years. He wasn’t going to advance his real agenda through the Republican House anyway, and he needed to win re-election.
Now he’s won. The old Obama is back. He must not be underestimated. He has deftly leveraged his class-war-themed election victory (a) to secure a source of funding (albeit still small) for the bloated welfare state, (b) to carry out an admirably candid bit of income redistribution and © to fracture the one remaining institutional obstacle to the rest of his ideological agenda.
Not bad for two months’ work.
© 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group