Like the Sirens reputed to lure sailors onto to rocks, a series of columnists who want President Obama to fail are praising Obama’s capitulation on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The motif of these comments has three common characteristics – all designed to destroy the Obama presidency. First, and the chutzpah of this aspect is wondrous, those that hate Obama’s policies are telling Obama he is demonstrating his strength by surrendering on the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. Second, they claim that Obama “moved to the center” by agreeing to support tax cuts for the wealthy. Third, they claim that Obama’s attacks on his strongest supporters are brilliant politics essential to saving his Presidency.
Dana Milbank’s recent column is one example of the three-part motif. The title of the column captures the first aspect: “Obama finally stands his ground.” What he means of course is that Obama failed to stand his ground, repudiating his promises to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Milbank also said that while extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was “dumb,” Obama’s agreement to extend those tax cuts was the first thing that Obama had ever done that made Milbank “proud.” Milbank is finally “proud” because Obama is excoriating his strongest political supporters – the “liberals” who Milbank detests. Milbank explanation of why he detests liberals parrots conservative Republicans.
Monday, we were treated to the triple motif from another commentator who desperately wants Obama to fail. Mark Penn, the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, claims in a column entitled “Democrats need to back Obama” that:
By becoming reverse tax protesters (chanting “raise taxes”), the liberals are sending out all the wrong messages to a country that overwhelmingly backs the key elements of the bipartisan deal the president struck.[T]he Democrats have got to stop returning to class warfare.
Obama took the first step this week in seeking to save his floundering presidency by moving to the center. His execution was far from perfect but his actions were sound.
Obama has now gone down a path he cannot and should not retreat from — governing from the center.
In a series of untruthful sentences, Penn hits each of the elements of the motif. Supporting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy constitutes “moving to the center.” “Liberals” are the demons whose desire to raise taxes would doom the Obama Presidency. Bush doesn’t engage in “class warfare” when he cuts tax rates for the wealthiest Americans – anyone who opposes Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, however, is engaged in “class warfare.” Obama’s capitulation on Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is not a retreat from his campaign promises – repudiating his capitulation to the Republicans on those tax cuts would constitute a “retreat” and demonstrate weakness.
None of Penn’s claims are true. The folks pushing for tax increases, during a severe recession, are financial conservatives in both parties. They were the deficit hawks, and Obama appointed many of them to the deficit commission. It was the Republicans who were holding tax cuts for 98% of U.S. taxpayers hostage. By calling the Republican bluff on taxes the House caused the Republicans to make this clear to the American people. The Republican’s strategy would have compelled them to raise taxes on nearly all Americans, which is why their strategy was a bluff.
Obama’s promise to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was supported by a strong majority of Americans. That means that Obama’s capitulation on those tax cuts constitutes a move away from the center toward the far right. This makes perfect sense. The people who want Obama to fail consistently push him to abandon policies that are desirable and broadly supported by the public because they want Obama to fail. Obama cannot seem to grasp that straight forward concept. Milbank, for example, attacks liberals’ support for the public option because it was both substantively critical to an effective health care plan (because it would contain costs) and politically popular.
Penn’s claim that Obama must not “retreat” on his capitulation on Bush tax cuts for the wealthy because that would demonstrate weakness is so obviously backwards that one is in awe of his willingness to spin fables that are the opposite of the truth. Penn comes by his willingness to spin professionally – it’s what he does for a living. He gets paid enormous sums to spin absurdities that have no basis in reality. Penn is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm. BM goes well beyond the typical PR firm. As Rachel Maddow has said, “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial.” There is an entire web site devoted to BM’s penchant for putting a happy face on mass murderers.
There are three questions that we need to ask about the campaign by those who want Obama to fail to encourage him to support the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy by advancing this three-part motif. First, why would those who want Obama to fail suddenly offer him good, sincere advice on how to succeed? Second, why would any Obama supporter believe that they were offering him advice on how to succeed rather than suckering him into political suicide? Third, given the facial absurdity of the motif and the obvious incentive of the commentators to harm Obama, why wouldn’t Obama treat their comments as conclusive evidence that his capitulation on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was a disastrous mistake?
Cumulatively, these questions lead to a disturbing inference. The Milbanks and Penns of the world invest the time to spin these fables because they think that senior members of the administration hate liberals so badly, and are so desperate for compliments, that they will fall for praise from people that hate them and want them to fail. They hope that the administration will take their advice and destroy itself and the Democratic Party by adopting policies that harm the nation (by making already record income inequality even worse) and require Obama to betray his campaign promises. It’s hard to conceive of a nastier insult to the administration – they’re convinced that Obama and his senior staff are uniformly incompetent.
The ideal result for supporters of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is to get them extended in a manner that allows Republicans to escape from the suicidal bargaining position they were in on holding taxes for 98% of American taxpayers hostage and blocking the extension of unemployment benefits, in a fashion in which the Republicans get to take primary credit for all of the tax cuts, and while causing the President to betray his campaign promises and launch an attack on his strongest supporters – an attack taken word-for-word out of the Republican playbook. That is precisely what they’ve achieved. They did not achieve the result through brilliance and they cannot achieve it without cowardice and ineptitude on the part of the Democrats.
Bill Black is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a white-collar criminologist, former senior financial regulator, and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.