Michael Tomasky on How Liberals Need to Hold Their Anti-Obama Fire

Liberals need to play politics smarter than they did in 2009 and show that they have the president’s back.

There’s one question on the minds of liberals in Washington right now, or maybe I should say there’s one fear—that Barack Obama is going to give the Republicans more than he needs to in order to consummate this elusive “grand bargain” over taxing and spending. There are reasonable grounds for concern, and the people who don’t want Obama to touch entitlements should by all means make their position known and exert as much influence on the president as they possibly can. But what they emphatically should not do is take positions and use language that helps to make inevitable a split between the administration and its progressive flank of the kind we saw in 2009. If there’s one thing that’s going put wind in those ragged and depleted Republican sails, that is surely it.

The standard liberal position right now, to the extent that there is one, is essentially this: we don’t need a grand bargain. Obama is holding all the cards and doesn’t need to deal. The Bush tax rates expire on Jan. 1. So, let them expire. Then pass a bill that restores the Bush rates on all dollars earned below $250,000, resulting in an effective tax increase for dollars above that amount.

That’s the tax side. On the spending side—the “sequestration” cuts that also kick in Jan. 1 if there’s no big agreement—there’s less of a consensus, but I have been hearing from some liberals that Obama could and should be blithe about this deadline, too. The domestic portion of those cuts, these people say, can be ameliorated through some complicated budgetary chicanery, and after all, these cuts would be in effect just for a year. Liberals don’t talk as much about the automatic defense cuts, which, let’s face it, as a group they don’t care as much about.

The thing that Obama must avoid at all costs, to liberals, is an entitlement benefit cut. Unlike the temporary sequestration cuts, an entitlement cut would likely be a permanent reduction in America’s great historic social insurance programs and as such would be unacceptable.

Undergirding these arguments is a confidence, almost serene, that Obama can do all of the above and emerge victorious in the spin war. Americans would see Republicans holding up a continued tax cut in order to defend the top 2 percent. They will understand that Obama won the election, an election in which, as Obama noted at his Wednesday press conference, even a good chunk of people who voted for Mitt Romney support raising the top marginal tax rate (that was 60 percent, according to the exit polls). The blame, for once, will fall where it belongs—on the obstructionist opposition. Either that, or the GOP’s leaders will see that their position is untenable and cut a deal. They did it once before, with Obama, on the payroll tax.

I agree with most of the above substantive positions, but boy am I not confident about the politics of this situation. Political spin isn’t a zero-sum game. That is, it is possible, as the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco taught us, for both sides to lose. The Republicans lost more ground, but Obama lost his share, too. And after all there is only one president. I can just hear Wall Street if the deadline passes with no action: Uncertainty! No leadership! Hostile climate for investment! Liberals might have contempt for those people and those views, and these views might even be objectively wrong, but they will exist, and they will exert influence. This question of how a no-deal Obama would be perceived in the broader country (by business, by swing voters, etc.) is one that I think has to be taken seriously.

Add to this the knowledge that it is Obama’s inclination, by temperament and instinct, to do a deal. And people who are inclined toward wanting to do deals will give up things that people who are not so inclined won’t. Last year, in the deal with John Boehner that didn’t hold, he floated $360 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts. White House ally Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland—no Blue Dog he, by a long shot—yesterday floated the possibility of raising the Medicare eligibility age. So. What happens if Obama puts something like that on the table?

Before liberals rush to the barricades chanting “¡no pasaran!” I would urge everyone to take a breath and think back to exactly this time four years ago. Every pundit in town was saying the Republicans were in disarray. Obama was riding high. It was going to be a glorious four years.

Lots of things got in the way of that, notably the lousy economy, and secondly the obstreperous Republicans. But it didn’t help that every single thing Obama tried to do was derided from the left as a total sellout. The stimulus was too small and should have topped a trillion (as if that was his fault). He needed to be more like Roosevelt and welcome the hatred of the overclass (something FDR didn’t do until 1936). And of course there was the brouhaha over the abandonment of the public option (which it looks like we’ll be getting in effect anyway sooner or later). Within six months of his inauguration, the pro-Obama coalition was in tatters, and if you stop and think about it, it never really came together again until this year.

I’m not saying this was all liberals’ fault and none Obama’s. It wasn’t. But apportioning blame for the past isn’t the point. What’s important now is that that not be repeated. Liberal groups should think ahead a little and not take positions and use language today that will feed a narrative, which the mainstream media would love to latch on to, of disarray and disgust. If you want Obama to be able to do immigration reform and a carbon tax this term, then to me it stands to reason that a “Dems in disarray” meme will only make those things harder—and it will certainly only make the Republicans stronger.