I’m a bit ambivalent about the deal that Obama struck with the Republicans in Congress vis a vis taxes. On one hand, the Bush tax cuts are an abomination, a boondoggle of historical proportions (What? A rich oil executive gets elected and the first thing he does is make his buddies richer? Shocker). Nobody can pretend to be concerned about the deficit and argue against letting them lapse. Which leads to the other hand. Obama did get some things in return (unemployment insurance, etc.), but mostly he gets to point out just how insensitive, insane and inconsistent the Congressional Republicans are. They will have to explain why holding unemployment insurance hostage to keep tax cuts for the top 1% in place is good policy. We’ll get more headlines like this one from the Times website: “Republicans Block U.S. Health Aid for 9/11 Workers.” And it’s never been a bad thing for a President to be perceived as bucking his party’s extremists.
However, there’s a line that a President can’t cross. It lies where a President cultivates enough dissent that a faction of his party puts up a serious candidate in the re-election primaries. In the modern political era (post-WWII), there have only been four presidents that have been so challenged: Johnson (Eugene McCarthy), Ford (Ronald Reagan), Carter (Teddy Kennedy) and Bush I (Pat Buchanan). These are also the four presidents held to one-term through elections. Johnson and Ford had some special circumstances that Obama won’t face… the last two are more instructive. Kennedy got traction against Carter because Democrats were (correctly) convinced that there was no way Carter could win reelection. Obama isn’t anywhere near that point… he’s actually gotten quite a bit done, and doesn’t make people want to gobble Prozac when he appears on television. Bush was challenged because an extreme wing of his party (i.e. the parents of today’s Tea Partiers) couldn’t abide his ignoring of his “Read My Lips: No New Taxes” tagline. Obama’s never committed to anything that stupid, and it’s hard to see the Democratic liberal base throwing the nation’s first black president under the bus.
But, as Obama starts to assert his independence from the Reid/Pelosi Congress in anticipation of the 2012 election cycle, he needs to make sure that the outrage from the left stays at a manageable level.