Weekly Standard: Spending Money Left And...Left

Aug 9, 2011

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

President Obama's support for raising income taxes on high earners is more than a talking point. It's an obsession. In negotiations in July over a $4 trillion "grand bargain" on deficit reduction, the president proposed the tax hike as part of an agreement with Republicans. It was a clumsy mistake on his part, an unforced error. Rather than facilitate a deal, he helped kill it.

What was the president thinking? Republican opposition to eliminating the Bush tax cuts for households with annual incomes of more than $250,000 a year was hardly a secret. Obama had made erasing the cuts a staple of his speeches. And Republicans had regularly rejected the idea — as a matter of principle.

Yet in the closed-door talks Obama brought it up again, this time in the context of what a "trigger" would impose if Senate and House negotiators failed to agree on cuts in spending and elimination of tax loopholes. Were that to occur, the tax increase would go into effect automatically. Obama said this was only fair and he personally was willing to pay more in taxes. His argument was a stale reprise of his speeches. Republicans had heard this pitch before.

They were not appeased. For Republicans, not raising taxes is foundational, primal. Raising taxes is acceptable only in rare circumstances. To give up on that, Obama would have to respond by giving up something just as basic. Dropping the individual mandate from his health care program would suffice. The president wouldn't consider it. With no agreement on a trigger, the bid for a grand bargain died. And a less ambitious compromise, calling for $2.4 trillion in spending cuts, was attached to legislation increasing the debt limit.

I offer this episode as evidence of the president's inability to move to the political center or even lean perceptibly in that direction. It would have been to his enormous benefit while running for a second term to have negotiated a major breakthrough in tackling the spending and debt crisis, and on a bipartisan basis, no less. It would have represented a propitious turn. It would have appealed to centrist voters. But Obama couldn't get there.

It's unclear exactly why. It could be liberal ideology that forced him to insist on things, like that tax hike for the well-off, though it should have been clear to him that Republicans wouldn't go along and a sizable chunk of independents wouldn't have been overjoyed. It may be fear of alienating his base in the Democratic party and on the left. Or perhaps he lacks the mettle to make even a small shift to the right. The result is the same.

I'm assuming a drift to the center, policy-wise, would be advantageous to Obama's reelection prospects. And the best way to carry it out would be to jettison talk of tax increases and morph into a champion of spending cuts. If there's a better way, I don't know what it would be. Maybe he'll find one.

At the moment (and contrary to media accounts), Obama is stuck on the left. He's missed repeated opportunities to ramble rightward. Last December, a bold plan was recommended by the president's own debt commission to cut spending, boost taxes, and reduce the deficit and the national debt. Obama might have endorsed it with qualifications. He took a pass instead.

Then came his State of the Union address. About the only thing that's remembered about it is Obama's failure to mention the word "debt" until 35 minutes into the speech. No move to the middle there.

As we got into February, the president presented his 2012 budget to Congress. It was not only DOA. It was criticized by Democrats and by his claque in the press. It proposed a bigger deficit. That was followed in April by a speech, superseding the budget, in which he concentrated on attacking the only budget still in existence, the one passed by the House.

The continuing resolutions keeping the government in operation this year gave Obama three more opportunities to claim credentials as an advocate of spending restraint. One might have expected him to jump at the chance. But no. He opposed Republican efforts to add cuts to the stopgap spending measures. Nor did he urge the Senate, controlled by Democrats, to approve a budget.

Now we come to the debt limit. The president initially wanted a "clean" bill, increasing his administration's authority to borrow enough to keep the government alive and paying its debts until the end of 2012, with no spending cuts included. In the ensuing talks Obama once again proposed a tax hike for the affluent.

After signing the bill (without his cherished tax increase), the president had still another chance to change his tune. Alone, he stepped in front of the press corps in the Rose Garden and proposed . . . more spending.

We need to pump money into "airport construction projects" and establish an "infrastructure bank" through which the "rebuilding" of the country would be funded. We need Congress to ratify trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, which may sound cost-free but won't pass unless organized labor's demand for $1 billion in "trade adjustment assistance" is approved.

Besides, the president said, "growing the economy isn't just about cutting spending." And "you can't close the deficit with just spending cuts." Obama didn't neglect to mention "the wealthiest Americans" who must be required to "pay their fair share" in taxes.

A Republican congressman who's dealt frequently with Obama is certain the president is staying put. He'll rely on class warfare rhetoric, building his base, demonizing his Republican opponent, and picking off as many independents as he can. He'll talk obsessively about raising taxes on the wealthy. Move to the center? Never.

Based on what we've seen from Obama since the 2010 election, there's every reason to believe the congressman is right.

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