The president is back in Washington, where in about an hour he will be meeting at the White House with the leaders of both houses of Congress in a last-ditch and likely futile to avert the fiscal cliff.
“What appears more likely,” writes Politico’s Manu Raju, “is either a bipartisan recognition that a deal is out of reach, or, at best, lawmakers would agree to continue talking before the New Year’s Day deadline.”
At the meeting, Obama is expected to make what the White House considers a scaled-back offer — one to raise taxes on income over $250,000, extend jobless benefits, delay defense and domestic cuts and patch the Alternative Minimum Tax, sources say. Raising taxes at that level is a non-starter for Republicans, who want far more in spending cuts.
But if offered, such a deal is almost certainly dead in the water. Raju quotes North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chief GOP deputy whip, as saying it would “take a monumental move” for a deal to be reached, adding that if Obama pitches a plan to set the tax threshold at $250,000, “I think we can just sort of laugh at it.”
That quarter-million-dollar figure is the flashpoint. House Speaker John Boehner cannot sell that tax increase to his base, at this juncture probably even if the president is willing to sweeten the pot by agreeing to serious entitlement cuts and reform.
And Obama can’t back down from that threshold. It’s not so much a matter that he won’t as it is that he can’t. What hangs in the balance is the yawning chasm that separates Obama the man from Obama the fictional warrior. Since his inauguration in 2008, he has effected a bellicose persona. It’s not a flattering trait, but it’s who Barack Obama, the community organizer, thinks he should project as president. Those who elected him dutifully waited for him to emerge as the tough, angry hombre they knew lurked somewhere inside his lanky frame.
And they waited … and waited. More than once he has been accused of caving to GOP demands, and each time he has been excoriated by his most ardent admirers in the media. In 2010, Katrina vanden Heuvel asked rhetorically in a Washington Post headline whether Obama was on his way to a failed presidency. Each time he whiffed — on this occasion he acknowledged in a White House address that “the American people didn’t send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories” — he would come back more firmly resolved to stick it to the opposition.
Why this was ever viewed as a positive is hard to see, but each time someone in his camp would emerge and state publicly that finally here is the Obama we voted for. And that is why, lousy reason though it is, he can’t back down on the amount of flesh he pledged to wring out of the wealthiest Americans. The country will suffer mightily, and so probably will he.
But he will at least be able to look in the mirror and say, “I’ve arrived.” Depending on how convincingly he says it, he may even believe it himself.