Obama And The Bush Tax Cuts: Once Again, With Feeling
Even before he was inaugurated, the so-called Bush Tax Cuts (BTCs) of 2001 and 2003 loomed over the Obama Presidency. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to extend the cuts for those making under $250,000 while letting the rest expire as scheduled before 2011. During the final days of 2010, however, the President found keeping this promise would cost more than it was worth and acquiesced to Republican demands that either all or none of the cuts were extended. He signed a bill carrying over all the cuts until 2013. The calculation made was that the sickly economy of late-2010 could not withstand raising taxes on 98 percent of the public, and that a promise deferred is not broken. So he extended the cuts for a year further still.
Besides acting as a de facto new round of stimulus, the tax cut extension guaranteed that the ideological ferocity which was overwhelmed by Hope and Change in 2008, but resurgent during much of Obama’s term, would reach near-unprecedented levels in 2012. With the country in the teeth of the worst economic era since the Great Depression — and thus with economic resources increasingly being fought over in a zero-sum context — the 2012 election was always going to be nastier and more polarized than 2008. But with Obama’s health care, financial, and environmental reforms already at stake, adding the enormously symbolic BTCs to the mix meant the President’s entire legacy would depend on his winning reelection. An incoming Republican President could take the eraser to an inordinate amount of Obama’s accomplishments.
Cut to the present moment. Although political professionals and avid newsreaders have been following the campaign for more than a year, for most Americans, the election season is just about to begin. A political truism states that it’s during the party conventions when voters really pay attention in earnest. (Yes, a campaign with a media timeline stretching years is in fact often decided by voters during the weeks of September and October.) That makes now, roughly the halfway point of the summer, an ideal time for candidates to make the kind of major announcements intended to henceforth define the campaign in the minds of voters and the media. They’ll make it clear by now, if they haven’t already, what they’d like to spend the next three months discussing. Whether they’ll get the chance to do so is, of course, another matter.
All of this backstory is provided to emphasize the importance of Obama’s request that Congress grant a one-year extension of the BTCs for those below the upper-tier threshold. It’s a completely political act. No one in possession of their wits believes Congressional Republicans will do it. They’d lose the leverage wielded to such great effect in late-2010; there’d be no hostages left to take. But the GOP’s position on this score is profoundly tenuous — public support for raising taxes on high-earners is near-unanimous, and voters already see Romney as overly deferential to the wealthy (see p. 13). Further complicating the situation for Republicans is the fact that their Presidential candidate happens to be extremely wealthy, even by Presidential standards. Whether he’ll eventually take the bait or not, Obama has repeatedly framed their disagreements in personal terms: ”Mr. Romney sure doesn’t need another tax cut.”
I don’t think it would be wrong to interpret the President’s declaration, as well as his subsequent request for Romney to release more of his tax returns, as the opening salvos of Obama’s media campaign against his Republican challenger. And with the state of the economy remaining the President’s central weakness, it’s looking like The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy was correctwhen he described Team Obama as initiating a “Plan B” focused primarily on:
[Neutralizing] the economic headwinds by changing the subject as often as possible, and by raising doubts about Romney’s record, both at Bain Capital and as the governor of Massachusetts. “We’ve got to make sure people fully appreciate Mitt Romney is not some safe alternative,” David Plouffe, one of Obama’s senior advisers, told the Times. Assuming the economy doesn’t get any worse, Obama’s strategists believe that they can eke out a narrow victory by mobilizing the same coalition that the campaign relied on in 2008—young people, minorities, women, and highly educated professionals—and by turning enough white working-class voters against Romney to deprive him of the surge in the Midwest that he needs in order to win.
Coming less than four years removed from Obama’s epochal 2008 campaign — a remarkable initiative for many reasons, but no more so than its capacity to inspire a childlike belief among many of Obama’s followers that we were on the verge of a utopian post-partisanship — the degree to which Obama 2012 is stylistically and philosophically its predecessor’s opposite remains striking. The President is running the pugnacious, unashamedly center-left campaign the Democratic Left has been clamoring for since John Edwards’ “Two Americas.” In its willingness to recognize the election as a battle between two power-seeking coalitions (rather than an anodyne civil tradition wherein we can “disagree without being disagreeable”) it’s reminiscent of Truman’s famous 1948 crusade. Liberals will likely never hear Obama say of his antagonists that he “welcome[s] their hatred“; but he’s at least tolerating their disapproval.