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President Obama: I love You, but You Need to Raise Your Game

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community.]

Judging by recent press reports, the White House is apparently folding on the Bush tax cuts for people with incomes exceeding $250,000. On several levels, this is one of the most depressing episodes of the entire Obama presidency. At-best, this represents a damaging walk-back of a serious political mistake

Most obviously, caving in on this issue amounts to bad social and fiscal policy. (See Jonathan Chait’s several hundred columns making the rubble bounce on this theme.) The Bush tax cuts on the $250,000+ group squander $700 billion over the next decade. Especially in these hard times, when it’s a heavy political lift to finance basic services, that is vastly irresponsible.

Across the country, poor and disabled people are facing punishing service cuts. Teachers, police officers, public health workers are being laid off across the country. Those of us who have comfortable, secure jobs should be paying a bit more in this time of serious economic trouble. People who earn more than $250,000 per year can afford to pay a few percentage points more, as they did during the Clinton era.

This entire debate provides a depressing commentary on the state of American politics. Raising taxes on the top one percent of the U.S. population apparently brings greater political penalty than do state and federal budget cuts that hurt many millions more people. This political reality exemplifies the fact that affluent people simply have too much political influence these days. Implicitly and explicitly, this influence distorts policy debate.

To take one nonrandom example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that permanent extension of Bush tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers has an almost eerily similar impact on federal deficits as does the entire unfunded liability of our Social Security system. Somehow, all that scary talk about deficits and Social Security’s genuine but manageable long-term shortfall doesn’t carry over to this numerically equivalent issue in tax policy.

Perhaps most depressing, this episode illustrates the periodic preemptive surrenders that are frustrating to the President’s closest supporters. It’s disappointing not to win key items such as the public option. It’s a lot more demoralizing when progressives sense that we dither, when we negotiate with ourselves, when we allow rather popular positions undercut by moderate and conservative Democrats. Before we know it, we’ve lost things that are important to us without getting anything in return, without even a clear and compelling defense of what should be core Democratic positions.

To give up on this issue backtracks on a clear campaign plank from 2008. Worse, it concedes to Republicans a mandate they have not earned and should not be allowed to retrospectively construct based on the midterm election results. The “American people” do not support tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor, for that matter, do majorities support the deficit commission’s fundamentally conservative vision of limited government. (Large majorities support health reform’s measures to insure 32 million people and to more stringently regulate insurers, for example.) I see little evidence that Americans support conservative positions on the environment, a whole range of social issues, progressive taxation, and more.

President Obama, you have done well when you have gone head-to-head with Republicans, when you have civilly but frankly defended specific appealing liberal positions. When you and your minions lecture liberals on the need to be “realistic,” you demoralize your strongest supporters and embolden Republicans.

I am one of your proud and strong supporters. I will continue to be. Yet it’s time for you to raise your game, to counterpunch hard against a Republican congressional majority which claims a much greater mandate than it actually has won.

Don’t give them that.