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Ticket Replay: Cave-in or compromise, Obama's tax cut deal with the GOP could win him much, cost little

Democrat president Barack Obama announces a tax cut compromise 12-6-10

During the holiday season, as in years past, The Ticket is republishing some of our favorite items from the previous political year. This story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2010::

Much talk in the 32 days since the midterm elections that, while President Obama mentioned his national "shellacking" that day, he'd not made the kind of standard presidential political pivot to signal contrition and acceptance of the voters' overwhelming dissatisfaction with the way he and his Democratic party have run the House, the Senate and the White House since taking control of all three 23 months ago.

Can't say that anymore.

Not after his major tax flip Monday. A reversal of a key campaign promise. A reversal of his compromise outlook just last month. A cold waterbomb dropped on his leftist base from the White House balcony.

After days of intense negotiating not significantly with un-Happy Harry Reid or any of the....

...other Democratic dukes and duchesses he raised gazillions of campaign dollars for this year, Obama announced the deal he'd worked out mainly with Mitch McConnell. Yes, that Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, the leader of the Senate's minority No-birds who ended up saying yes to extending unemployment benefits in return for extending all of the Bush tax cuts, plus some newer ones.

In his remarks (full text here, as usual), Obama painted himself as a presidential presider, who sure didn't like all of the Republican demands, knew he'd take heat from his own side, got some necessary progressive goodies but, by golly, was determined to do what he thought was right for the country, especially the beloved middle class and the struggling economy.

He said:

I know there’s some people in my own party and in the other party who would rather prolong this battle, even if we can't reach a compromise. But I'm not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington.

Indeed, Obama's been taking heat from the left since the Republican handwriting appeared on the Capitol wall last week. That important part of his base was already impatient over unfulfilled promises like "don't ask-don't tell" repeal, Guantanamo closing, surrendering the single payer healthcare plan.Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on 12-4-10

Many of them were using the trusty line in the sand metaphor these days, crumbled core principles, too quick to cave. Although were those cave complainers watching this guy last year during the 59 healthcare townhalls he tirelessly talked through, many of them staged when everyone knew healthcare was simply not going to happen?

Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner lectured Obama that "Governing is more than a series of transactions...(It's) a competition of ideas on how we make the country better."

Sen. Tom Harkin, who's important to presidential candidates needing help in Iowa's Democratic caucuses, which Obama doesn't anymore, said if the president "caves on this, then I think he's gonna have a lot of swimming upstream."

For some reason CNN sought reaction to the president from unelected Democrat Bill Maher, the alleged comedian.

Maher announced he's very disappointed with the fellow, said there's still hope Obama may come around to his progressive senses but said right now the guy appears to be merely "another in a long line of Democrats who come across as wimpy and wussy." (Memo to Bill Maher: Wimps and wusses don't defeat the Clintons.)

It won't be a tectonic shock to Obama's key political advisor David Axelrod that such revolting talk from the left side of the left-handed president may actually help him in the eyes of the broader American public. Lo these 23 months of failed policies, many had come to see Obama as a captive of that constantly complaining crowd. Same applies if someone mounts a hopeless primary challenge from over there.

To the extent that dealing with Republican suits for tax breaks that benefit all Americans makes Obama appear his own man for a change, we'd bet it helps in future job approval ratings; until now, they've been far stronger on foreign affairs than domestic chores.

Obama had the luxury of not being on any ballot this fall. Not so, next time. Truth is, if the U.S. economy is still in the southern hemisphere come summer of 2012, the Barack Obama-Tim Kaine ticket will likely be toast no matter what. So, a 2010 tax deal could well help and couldn't much hurt.a Car in a Ditch

As he had to, the president grumbled cosmetically Monday about aspects of the political deal. How could he appear pleased about compromising with the same obstinate conservatives he so mockingly portrayed all fall as wanting the keys to the car back after driving it into the ditch? 

But the possibility is by "caving" on the Republicans' coveted total tax cut extensions for everyone, Obama may well have ensured his own re-election.

It could be the start of the political rehab showing that this aloof Harvard fellow who let Congress write the economic stimulus legislation that didn't stimulate, can get into the huddle and call the plays like a leader, not a king viewing from up there in the royal box. And it only took Obama a month after his midterm losses.

Back in 1994 when Bill Clinton received a lesser shellacking from voters angry over his liberal policies, he took three months to follow Dick Morris' advice, adopt some Republican goals like welfare reform as his own and declare out of the blue, "The era of big government is over." The result: An easy 1996 reelect for him.

As for Republicans, by insisting now on their holy grail that tax cuts are the fastest economic fix, they may too have done what they believe best for the country and their supporters while dooming their own party's dream of recapturing the White House, if the shots of financial incentives work their private sector wonders.

One thing for sure, though. By extending the tax cuts for two years, they'll end less than two months after the presidential election on Nov. 6. That guarantees that tax cut extensions -- and who gets the credit or blame for them -- will be a prime campaign debate topic that fall. Write that down now in your 2012 daytimer -- in ink.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press; Harry Hamburg / Associated Press (Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell on 12/4/10); Associated Press.

 
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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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