December 16, 2010
There are good and bad meanings to the word "compromise": one is to come to agreement through mutual concessions; the other is to undermine one's integrity by caving in to opposition. On the tax-cut deal now before the Congress, did President Obama engineer a classic compromise that gives each side an equal balance of things wanted and unwanted; or did he compromise himself, surrendering his principles for things he should have had anyway with more guts and better timing?
Compromise of principle is on the minds of both the left and the right. Many liberal Democrats are appalled that their president blinked in the stare-down with Republicans over extending the Bush tax cut for those making over $250,000 a year — another campaign promise come a-cropping. Republicans are delighted that what they said was absolutely non-negotiable was taken by the president as absolutely non-negotiable — a sign that if they keep saying "no" long enough and loud enough, he'll fold every time.
Some observers, however, do not perceive weakness but shrewdness in Obama's tax-cut proposal. David Brooks of The New York Times lauds the president for "returning to first principles" — the principles of working with the opposition, a centerpiece of his campaign and early presidency — not an ideologue but a "network liberal" in the line of Ted Kennedy, someone who believes that "progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions ... with people they disagree with." Obama's move, Brooks writes, was not a Clintonian shift of position from left to center, not a self-reinvention; instead, it was "standing at one spot in the political universe and trying to build temporary alliances with people at other spots in the political universe."
Announcing the proposal last week, Obama said as much: He continues to oppose the tax break for the upper class as a giveaway irrelevant to the recovery; but given the political circumstances, it was better to throw the Republicans this bone if they'd go along with things they themselves dislike — extending unemployment benefits, decreasing the payroll tax, maintaining the earned income tax credit — things beneficial to the middle class and at least marginally helpful to the economy.
There does seem to be something different in Obama's approach to the tax issue. In his early initiatives, notably health-care legislation, he naively expected bipartisan cooperation; then, frustrated by "no" at every turn, he had the Democratic Congress ram the bill through on procedural technicalities, alienating independent voters and sparking the Tea Party movement. This tax bill, by contrast, was pure horse- trading, real compromise, both agreeable and disagreeable to all, but with enough agreeables to make it palatable. Monday's test- vote in the usually deadlocked Senate — 83 to 15 to forestall a filibuster — was nothing short of remarkable in this paralyzed political climate.
Brooks thinks that "Obama has put himself in a position to govern again ..., reminding independents why they liked him in the first place."
Whether this will prove true for the rest of his term, especially with the power-shift in the new Congress, remains to be seen. Will voters see him as a Great Compromiser or as greatly compromised? Stickier issues than tax cuts await him.