The financial plan that Tim Geithner advanced yesterday caught everyone by surprise in its suck-on-this boldness, so unusual for Obama in such situations. Up to $1.6 trillion in revenue; new stimulus spending; new mortgage help; and elimination of Congress' role in the debt limit! Wowza. What's behind this?
First of all it looks like the White House just figured, and correctly: Let's not get bogged down in technicalities like Medicare reimbursement levels. It's of course inevitable that these negotiations will eventually get bogged down precisely in Medicare reimbursement levels. But Obama seems to have figured, let's not start that way. Let's start with a package that amounts to a vision and makes a statement.
The statement is about putting jobs and growth ahead of deficit reduction; it's about saying that we believe these are the right ways to stimulate the economy; and it's about saying that we're not going to open these negotiations on Republican turf.
That is: If the White House had instead yesterday offered a modest set of specific entitlement cuts and domestic spending cuts, that would have started the negotiations on GOP turf, since those are the two things the GOP wants. This of course is exactly what Obama used to do: As in last year's debt negotiations, he started by offering the Republicans half a loaf, and the compromise ended up at 75 or 80 percent of the GOP loaf, and Obama looked weak and his voters were terribly dispirited. it took months for him and them to recover.
He seems to have learned the lesson that that didn't work so well. And behind the learning of that lesson? Being reelected.
Nothing validates a politician's sense of self like being reelected. Once could have been a fluke, the pol secretly thinks to himself. Especially for Obama, especially under 2008's highly unique circumstances. Did I, he had to wonder sometimes at 3 am, just somehow pull the wool over people's eyes?
But then the people had four years to take his measure, four years during which the other side threw everything it had at him. Then came a campaign against an opponent who looked central-casting presidential, was obviously qualified, was well-financed, and ran a pretty good campaign all in all. And Obama beat him clearly and decisively.
That can make a fella say, "All right. The people want me. They want my agenda and my ideas. So let's roll."
I don't think, and I don't think Obama thinks, that most of what Geithner rolled out yesterday is going to become law. But that isn't the point. The point is to lay down markers, draw some lines in the sand, and give his voters something to rally around. There's a risk that when he has to give up on some of these things, he'll look weak, but I think that's a pretty minimal problem. More likely, the Republicans will look obstructionist and small to most people, because majorities tend to support Obama's positions on most of these things.
So this was a strong play, however it all turns out. It tells the GOP they're dealing with a different guy now. High time.