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Paul Krugman and Noam Scheiber: Obama Makes Another Strategic Mistake

Paul Krugman:

Conceder In Chief?: OK, I’ve had my own sorta-kinda briefing on the apparent fiscal cliff deal, and I’m pretty much with Noam Scheiber. Viewed on its own, it’s a bad and upsetting deal but not as terrible as initial rumors had it. But the strategic consequences are likely to be very bad indeed, and in very short order too.

As background, it’s important to understand what Obama clearly could have gotten just by going over the cliff. Basically, he could have gotten the whole of the Bush high-end tax cuts reversed, which would mean close to $800 billion in revenue over the next decade. What he couldn’t get, or at least couldn’t count on getting, were various spending items…. So what Obama appears to have done is trade away part of the revenue from high-income taxpayers in return for some of the spending items he wanted. Extended unemployment benefits for a year, and the refundables either extended in perpetuity or for 5 years…. If you want think about the longer-term implications here, they’re ambiguous. The deficit is no problem right now, but there will eventually be a collision between the rising costs of social insurance programs and the inadequacy of the revenue base. Something will have to give.

There were two big risks, from a progressive point of view, in Obama’s eagerness to get a Grand Bargain. One was that he would allow the Bush tax cuts to be locked in, making it very hard to get additional revenue; the other was that he would give in on fundamental benefit cuts. Well, he did #1, partially, but didn’t do #2 at all. This sets up a future confrontation: it will be very hard for progressives to raise taxes, but also very hard for conservatives to cut those social programs….

OK, now for the really bad news. Anyone looking at these negotiations, especially given Obama’s previous behavior, can’t help but reach one main conclusion: whenever the president says that there’s an issue on which he absolutely, positively won’t give ground, you can count on him, you know, giving way — and soon, too. The idea that you should only make promises and threats you intend to make good on doesn’t seem to be one that this particular president can grasp.

And that means that Republicans will go right from this negotiation into the debt ceiling in the firm belief that Obama can be rolled...

Noam Scheiber:

Democrats' Cliff Compromise Is Bad; But The Strategic Consequences Are Disastrous: I’ll be blunt: I hate the fiscal-cliff compromise that Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden are hammering out today, which will make the Bush tax cuts permanent on income below $450,000, renew the current, relatively generous, level of unemployment benefits for a year, along with some low- and middle-income tax credits, and grant the GOP a reprieve on the scheduled reversion of the estate tax to its Clinton-era setup. I think the president made a huge mistake by negotiating over what he’d previously said was non-negotiable (namely, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000). Then the White House compounded that mistake by sending Biden to “close” the deal when Harry Reid appeared to give up on it. As a practical matter, this signaled to Republicans that the White House wouldn’t walk away from the bargaining table, allowing the GOP to keep extracting concessions into the absolute final hours before the deadline….

My far bigger gripe with the whole fiscal-cliff exercise has always been the strategic dimension—how it affects the next showdown with the GOP, and the one after that. Coming into the negotiation, Obama had two big problems: First, no matter how tough he talked, Republicans always assumed he’d blink in the end, for the simple reason that he pretty much always had. (This is one of the major themes of my book about his first term.) Second, despite the results of the most recent election, in which Obama won a fairly commanding victory on a platform of raising taxes on wealthy people, the GOP continued to believe that public opinion was mostly on its side…. [T]he fiscal cliff offered Obama a chance to solve both these problems. He could afford to be unyielding because the economic consequences of going over the cliff for a few days or weeks would be relatively minimal and almost entirely reversible. And doing so would immediately demonstrate to the GOP that public opinion was emphatically not on its side….

Instead, the emerging deal will reinforce the convictions that have made the GOP such a toxic presence in Washington. If Obama will cave even when he’s got all the leverage, when won’t he cave? Never, the Republicans will assume. If Obama’s too scared to stop bargaining and let the public decide who’s right in this instance, when the polls appear to back him, then he must think our position is more popular than he lets on. Suffice it to say, these are not sentiments you want at the front of Republicans’ mind as they prepare to shake him down over the debt limit in another two months…

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