For those wondering whether Barack Obama would respond to the new reality of Republican control of the House with Clinton-like triangulation or ideological intransigence, the answer is now in, and it is both. By cutting a deal with the GOP on extending the Bush tax cuts and cutting Democrats in Congress loose, Obama showed a cold-eyed pragmatic side that has sent his ideological allies into orbit. Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted her disdain and pointedly declined to endorse the deal, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he may not have the votes to pass it. Apparently, we’ll have to wait a little longer for the kumbaya, post-ideological moment Obama pledged to bring to the nation’s capital.
While the professional Left waited for Superman, Obama offered his best imitation in today’s post-deal news conference, where he denounced Republicans as “hostage-takers” and fashioned the U.S. economy as the hostage. Here Obama the Chicago community-organizer returned with a vengeance. He claimed to be “itching for a fight” with newly confident Republicans on a whole range of issues. So this is the new Barack Obama, conciliatory and compromising one moment, petulant and arrogant the next.
Whether or not this works for Obama politically between now and the 2012 election remains to be seen. Obama’s fate is more likely be decided by the state of the economy and the unemployment rate more than by episodic East Room tantrums or White House brinksmanship with John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. This is what makes the Obama-GOP deal on taxes so ironic, for if it introduces a greater level of certainty for investors and business, it may lead to the kind of risk-taking, capital infusion, and job creation that has so far eluded the U.S. economy during Obama’s stewardship. That might actually improve his chances of reelection, and it was certainly a less unattractive alternative for the White House than letting the largest tax increase in U.S. history take effect on January 1.
The real question is, will enough Democrats swallow the pill and vote for the compromise that even Obama has only reluctantly and half-heartedly embraced? To date they have been in denial, reelecting Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer as their leaders in the House (which is akin to the Dallas Cowboys signing Wade Phillips to a new contract), dreaming up the “millionaire tax” as a last-ditch ploy to avoid extending the Bush tax cuts and laying the blame for their historic losses in November at the feet of foreign money, the Koch brothers, and Fox News. This is the stuff of fantasy.
Obama does not have the luxury of living in the Hill Democrats’ parallel universe. The Iowa caucuses are 13 months away. The reelection campaign looms. That is why if the Democrats vote “no” and take down this compromise, an even better deal for the GOP will pass in January in a Republican-run House. This fight is over, and the only thing remaining is the drama of Democrats facing the hard truth of Obama’s betrayal of their (and they thought, his) principles.