What the President needs to say on tax cuts

I voted for Barack Obama because I had never before 2007 encountered a politician I agreed with more on more issues than the junior senator from Illinois. Unfortunately, I also haven’t found one since 2008 – and that includes Barack Obama. The man I voted for has not been the president he promised to be, and it has nothing to do with policy. It has to do with leadership.

For some reason, Obama is unable or unwilling to articulate why his accomplishments are so important, and why his positions make sense. Jabs about his aloofness and lack of passion connect because they’re undeniable. Phone calls to the troops and a quarterly visit to the common folk doesn’t cut it when the country is beside itself and the opposition is out for blood – he needs to lead from the front.

Take health care. The plan that passed is an essentially good plan, but it is also the Republican plan. The Heritage Foundation, the foremost conservative think tank in the country, spent more than ten years advocating in support of what we ended up with: state-based, non-profit health insurance exchanges, which create competition among private insurers for customers. According to top economists, the public option would have been the most effective way to guarantee lower costs, but health insurance exchanges are a centrist compromise. Politically the ramifications should have been great for Obama. After roughly 100 years of trying, President Obama  finally succeeded in passing near-universal coverage for all Americans, and it’s almost completely paid for.

The President’s error wasn’t in violating the Constitution, as the Right claims, or in rejecting a single payer system, as the hard Left claims. It was that he lost control of the message. After adopting the main points of the Republican plan, including funds for tort reform pilot programs, he allowed the Republicans to turn around and claim that the health care reform law was a victory for socialism and evidence of a tyrannical government. Somehow nine months of intense debate over ideas that had already been examined for decades was sold as being “rammed down our throats”. In the summer of 2009, Americans were decisively in favor of health reform – and in favor of including the public option. By the summer of 2010, Democrats were coming to terms with the “shellacking” that was about to befall them, largely because the people retrospectively sided with Republicans on the health care battle.

Time and again, the President has had the same problem: sound policy, lousy messaging. We have watched the President repeatedly triumph one week and apologize for it the next. Standing firm is not his mistake, but the opposite: acting in good faith and the spirit of bipartisanship, and expecting it to be reciprocated. Theodore Roosevelt wrote disparagingly of John Quincy Adams for believing what the Rough Rider called “the myth of nonpartisanship.” Roosevelt claimed that Adams was a failure because he refused to be the leader of his party as well as leader of the country, and thought presidents could be above politics. Paraphrasing Roosevelt, Adams did a disservice to the people who elected him and abased his own ideals by compromising and placating when he should have been putting up a fight.

Again, this is not to mean that the President should refuse to work with Republicans. Rather, he must not work with Republicans if in doing so he will both give concessions and get beaten up at the same time. The President will declare ground rules and then act surprised when the opposition, who never agreed to the rules in the first place, disregard them.

This current tax debate should be a slam dunk for the President and the Democrats. The idea to extend middle class tax cuts alone is the most popular there is, ahead of extending tax cuts for everyone, and Republican threats to hold up the entire Senate agenda are unpopular, especially when it means the loss of unemployment benefits. The Republicans have given Democrats a perfect opening to finally cement the narrative of Republicans as the “Party of No” and “obstructionists,” which they’ve tried so hard to sell to the American public. They can also argue that Republican support for the deficit-ballooning extension of tax cuts for the rich shows a lack of concern about the national debt. As soon-to-be-former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said, exasperated with the Washington Democrats, “If we can’t win that argument we might as well just fold up.”

Well, folding up they are. It now appears certain that all tax cuts will be extended, across the board. A three-year extension could easily add $1 trillion to the deficit, and the Republicans will know they are looking at two years of carte blanch in Congress.

So here is what the President, and every Democrat, should be saying:

“This is a time of sacrifice. Every American household has felt this recession, and every household has had to make hard choices about what to give up, and what to preserve. We must do the same as a nation. My debt commission has returned its findings, and we know that cuts to our military, our entitlement programs and many other sectors of government will be required to right the ship of our economy.

“We all have an obligation to help this recovery, and that responsibility falls to rich and poor alike. For ten years, we have watched income for top earners rise, while for everyone else it has been stagnant. The richest few have increased their wealth, while for everyone else there have been no gains. For ten years, this tax cut has been in place, yet no net jobs were created during the entire first decade of the century.

“The middle class is disappearing, and poverty is on the rise. Most Americans are dealing with issues as basic as where they will get the money to buy groceries, or how they will pay for their kids’ college. The Americans at the top do not have these concerns, and have on average seen their prosperity increase as the rest fall behind. And now they must do their part. This increase that the Republicans find so overreaching is at most 4.6 percent, and returns the tax rate to where it was during the most prosperous decade in American history, the 1990s.

“Republicans have pledged to block legislation such as the ratification of the START treaty, which is supported by five Republican former secretaries of state, and the extension of unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million struggling Americans, until the rich are guaranteed to keep their tax cut. Despite claiming that they stand for the middle class and reducing the debt, they have stated that if they cannot have tax cuts for the wealthy, which will add $4 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years, nobody can have the relief they desperately need.

“Republican priorities are clear. They answer to a constituency of wealth first and foremost. Now let me make my priorities clear. I stand for working to make sure we do not bankrupt ourselves. I pledge to reduce the debt and continue to move the United States out of this crisis. And I will not allow the Republicans to hold this country hostage while there are Americans who need help.

If they want to stand in the way of an agenda that helps ensure nuclear material isn’t being sold to rogue regimes, like the new START treaty, and making sure Americans who can’t find a job know they’ll at least be able to make rent, like the extension of unemployment, then they will have to answer to the country why neighbors and family members aren’t getting any help from the government.

“Republicans would deny funds to people who can’t afford to live unless people who have more than enough to live don’t get more. This is, I believe, unconscionable, and contrary to our values.

“We are going to face these kinds of tough debates in the future. But I want the Republicans and the American people to know that there are things on which I cannot and will not compromise. It is time for the Republicans to demonstrate the sincerity of their commitment to help the middle class and repair the deficit. I call on them to join me in extending tax cuts for the middle class, and moving forward with the important work the people need us to do.”

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