| By: Robert Kuttner
December 16, 2010 04:49 AM EST
|The tax deal negotiated by President Barack Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is just the first part of a multistage drama that is likely to further divide and weaken Democrats.
The second part, now being teed up by the White House and key Senate Democrats, is a scheme for the president to embrace much of the Bowles-Simpson plan — including cuts in Social Security. This is to be unveiled, according to well-placed sources, in the president’s State of the Union address.
The idea is to pre-empt an even more draconian set of budget cuts likely to be proposed by the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as a condition of extending the debt ceiling. This is expected to hit in April.
White House strategists believe this can also give Obama “credit” for getting serious about deficit reduction — now more urgent with the nearly $900 billion increase in the deficit via the tax cut deal.
How to put this politely? For a Democratic president, this approach is bad economics and worse politics.
For starters, cutting Social Security as part of a deficit reduction deal is needless — since Social Security is in surplus for the next 27 years. The move also gives away the single most potent distinction between Democrats and Republicans — Democrats defend your Social Security, and Republicans keep trying to undermine it.
If you think the Democratic base feels betrayed by Obama’s tax-cut deal, just imagine the mayhem when Obama proposes to cut the Democrats’ signature program.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) compared Obama’s tax deal to punting on first down. A pre-emptive cut in Social Security is forfeiting the game before kickoff.
Obama is already in trouble with older voters. Republicans have succeeded in convincing seniors that the health care reform bill diverted money from Medicare.
Consider what the right will do when Obama moves to cut Social Security. Republicans, with no sense of contradiction or hypocrisy, will whack Obama once for not being sufficiently serious about deficit reduction — then whack him again for cutting Social Security.
As for the Republicans’ leverage on raising the debt ceiling, a more resolute president would dare the Republicans to jeopardize government bonds, just as President Bill Clinton dared Speaker Newt Gingrich to shut down the government. One hopes that Clinton, in his recent visit to the White House, reminded Obama that Gingrich blinked first. But Obama’s trademark is that he blinks first.
There was brief talk in the House Democratic Caucus on Tuesday night of tying an extension of the debt ceiling to the tax deal, to deprive the Republicans of that leverage. But that support crumbled in the face of White House lobbying and overwhelming Senate support for the deal. Obama, who gives in repeatedly to Republicans, turns out to be highly skilled at isolating Democrats.
Beltway Washington — the editorial writers, columnists, centrist policy organizations, Blue Dogs and, of course, the Obama administration and its Wall Street advisers — has become an echo chamber of bad advice.
Slaying the deficit gets top billing — generating a strong economic recovery is offstage. A smaller deficit is said to promote recovery by increasing confidence — though nobody can give a plausible explanation of the economics.
Destroying government’s capacity for social investment seems now only a tertiary concern for the White House — though a prime Republican goal. In this weird inversion, being willing to sacrifice the Democrats’ best-loved programs is taken as a sign of Democratic resolve.
Obama is finally getting the bipartisanship he craved — but entirely on Republican terms.
Republicans win three ways. They have a Democratic president doing their work for them, destroying the Democratic capacity to use affirmative government to address dire national problems and annihilating his own party.
And all this before they even take over the House.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and author of “A Presidency in Peril.”
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