Obama risks repeating first-term mistake
First he alienated GOP on stimulus. Now he's doing same on fiscal talks.

White House/Pete Souza

Article Highlights

  • On Monday, House Republicans gave the president a second chance to redeem himself, but will take it?

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  • Among many GOP insiders, it’s widely believed that President Obama’s biggest mistake in his first term was the stimulus.

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  • Fast-forward to 2012. It looks as if the White House is trying to repeat its mistake all over again.

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We've all heard that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. But what do you call it when it starts as farce? On Monday, House Republicans gave the president a second chance to redeem himself, but will he take it?

Among many GOP insiders, it is widely believed that President Obama's biggest mistake in his first term wasn't ObamaCare but the stimulus. It needlessly set a miserable tone for his presidency. Back then, Obama had roughly 70% approval ratings and most Republicans, like all Democrats, believed the government needed to take action to deal with the financial crisis. But rather than work with Republicans, Obama colluded with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to propose a stimulus Republicans had no authorship of and no confidence in.

Worse, the stimulus wasn't very stimulating. Rather than suspend payroll taxes, or just spend it all on infrastructure improvements, or some other relatively bipartisan and Keynesian approach, much of it was aimed at bailing out state governments (and municipal unions) and subsidizing losers in the green-energy sector. Obviously, the stimulus has its defenders, but for Republicans the stimulus represented every kind of hypocrisy, arrogance and folly.

Partisan politics

Emboldened by the partisan and wasteful effort, Republicans voted against the president's first big legislative effort — and they learned that partisan opposition to Obama was a political winner for them. Moreover, when the stimulus didn't work, Republicans were free to condemn Obamanomics. If the White House had worked with the Republicans, the failure (or success) of the stimulus would have been bipartisan, making the GOP midterm tsunami less likely.

Fast-forward to 2012. It looks as if the White House is trying to repeat its mistake all over again. For the past 18 months, Obama has insisted a "balanced approach" is necessary to deal with trillion dollar deficits. That was shorthand for raising taxes on the top 2% of taxpayers in exchange for meaningful spending cuts and other reforms. Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner agreed to raising taxes for the wealthy, albeit by closing out exemptions for the well-to-do. But by late last week, some Republicans were softening on higher rates as well.

A thumb in the eye

That was until the GOP learned Obama is unable to take yes for an answer. On Friday, via an offer made by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Obama redefined "balanced approach" to mean big tax rate hikes on the top 2% and even more spending. If that's not a big enough thumb in the eye, he's also demanding Congress permanently empower him to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. As moderate columnist David Brooks noted, Obama's greediness pushed the GOP away from compromise and back into war footing. It's like the stimulus all over again.

Even if Obama wins this fight (and he might), he will pay the price of another four years of acrimony, not to mention bad policy. Given that rumors of Obama's desire for bipartisanship have always been exaggerated, he might be fine with that. But what should the GOP do?

Obviously, the political and news media climate is heavily against Republicans, and any proposal that is clearly good by conservative standards has little chance of passage. And because of the incandescently idiotic gimmick known as the "fiscal cliff," doing nothing isn't an option either. All that leaves are the least bad options.

And though the negotiations could yet lead to something everyone can live with, it seems there's little chance the White House will agree to the sort of structural reforms to entitlements necessary to get our debt and deficit under control. Even total confiscation of annual income more than $1 million wouldn't get us close.

A bolder move would be for Republicans to back the president's debt commission. Obama created the Simpson-Bowles panel and was happy to use it as political cover while it was still deliberating. But when former GOP senator Alan Simpson and Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, unveiled their recommendations, Obama ducked. On Monday, the House GOP proposed what might be called Simpson-Bowles Lite — using recommendations Bowles made to the "supercommittee" last year.

Neither approach is without its flaws, but both are more serious and centrist than Obama's end-zone spiking. It is hard to see how the president's water-carriers in the press will denounce this as more Republican "extremism." Even using it as a starting point of negotiations would be a huge advance. The irony is that if Obama agreed to it, he would get his second term off to a much better start than his first term, all because Republicans came to the rescue.

Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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