Obama has compromised with the Republicans. The wealthiest Americans will see their tax break continued for at least the next two years and the millions of unfortunate Americans who are out of work will see their unemployment insurance extended for 13 months.
Some people may try to paint this as a win-win, or at least as an even swap. Don't believe it. This was a victory for Republicans, piggybacking on their victory at the polls on November 2. The Democrats will try to put a good face on it. Hopefully they will not believe their own hokum.
Obama's rationale in caving to GOP demands is understandable. They had him and the Democrats cornered and they were, predictably, merciless.
Republicans wanted the tax breaks extended for the wealthiest and they got what they wanted. They knew they were in a commanding position and they pressed their advantage. It was pure political blackmail. United, the GOP told the administration and Congressional Democrats that they would block every attempt to pass anything else in this lame duck session until the tax breaks, including those for the wealthiest, were passed.
The Democrats knew their opponents were not bluffing. The Republicans in the Senate had proven their abilities as the Party of No, blocking just about every item on the Democratic agenda, and making the Democrats look inept and foolish, as the country ran up to the elections. They would certainly do so again and had already started, with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, gambling on his credibility with the Defense establishment, vowing to derail the START Treaty.
So, the Democrats were looking at getting nothing done for the rest of the year and, with a Republican House greeting them next year, getting nothing done for the foreseeable future. If they held to their original agenda and fought the GOP on tax extensions for people making over $250,000 a year, the GOP would block tax extensions for everyone else.
They would also block extending unemployment insurance benefits, and the START Treaty, and the Defense budget with the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, and the DREAM Act to help the children of illegal aliens on a path to citizenship, and the Zadroga Act to compensate ailing Ground Zero responders, and other legislation Democrats consider essential to helping America move forward, and to helping Democrats get elected and re-elected in 2012.
Obama could have taken the gloves off, and persuaded most of his party to join him in the fight. They could have hollered from every available pulpit from now into the new year, that the Republicans, in seeking to do the bidding of their real masters, the super-rich, were denying UI benefits to American families at Christmas, causing everyone's taxes to go up in January, hurting our national security a least as much as Wikileaks, telling Ground Zero heroes to go to hell, and several other Grinchlike results of Republican intransigence.
But the Republicans simply would have blamed the Democrats. They would not have to change their mantra at all. They'd say that extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest will stimulate job growth and that, by refusing the remedy, Obama was to blame for the stagnating economy.
It would not matter that the Republicans have no proof that giving the super-rich yet another tax break will cause them to create jobs. They've had the tax breaks for the last several years and have only increased their personal wealth, while the job market has remained moribund. Proof does not matter. Truth does not matter. Figures do not matter. Perception is all that matters. Republicans and their Chamber of Commerce-backed negative ad machine made that clear during the election campaigns. They managed to blame the entire economic mess on Obama and the Democrats, even though it was Republican policies and inaction that brought on the disaster.
Democrats were afraid the Republicans would win the perception war again, and that they'd get the blame for doing nothing, and the blame would stick.
That's why Obama caved -- so that middle class America would not turn further away from him.
But he did have another option. The Democrats could have invoked reconciliation, that legislative procedure whereby bills relating to the budget can be passed by a simple majority, bypassing the necessity of a three/fifths majority for introducing and voting on bills. With reconciliation, Republican Senators would not be able to block any of the measures Democrats wanted to pass, since they all relate to the budget.
There would have been a firestorm of protest from the right, hollering and screaming all over the media about a socialist takeover of government and Democrats ignoring the voice of the people, and on and on.
But the Bush administration invoked reconciliation to get the big tax breaks passed in the first place, and the Democrats could have responded in kind. They could have weathered the firestorm because they would have done the people's business - extending tax cuts for the middle class, extending UI benefits for those who need them, opening doors for the children of immigrants, compensating Ground Zero workers and making the world safer through an arms reduction treaty with Russia.
They would have done all that and stopped the Republican Party from irresponsibly giving another tax break to people who don't need it and will use it only to buy gold and turn their well-dressed backs on the nation.
The Democrats could have done that, but they chose not to. They did not want that fight. Perhaps they will be a bit more sanguine next year, when the GOP goes to steamroll them once again, confident that the Democrats lack the will to stop them.