WASHINGTON -- Americans are justified in feeling numbed by the car alarm of Washington politics.
Every now and then we get a reprieve from the noise. Something breaks through: a sex scandal, a gaffe, a surprise resignation. Already the words “Petraeus affair” have been supplanted by “DeMint’s departure.”
Sometimes our tropes get muddled. Commenting on the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy told reporters: “The president now has to engage. I think the sex [catches himself] ... the next 72 hours are critical.”
Noisiest is the “fiscal cliff,” which will be looming at least until Christmas or even New Year’s. What do most Americans know about it? Not much except that Washington, as usual, isn’t doing what’s necessary to prevent it.
The cliff negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have taken on the aspect of a game of chicken. Boehner needs spending cuts; Obama needs revenue. America needs both.
Who will blink first before we plummet off the edge into automatic tax increases for all, government spending cuts and a probable recession?
After so many years of partisan intransigence, it’s easy enough to assume that all parties are equally guilty, but this time Obama is driving the herd. Elections have consequences, as the president keeps reminding us. By this, he apparently means that he will have things his way, the rest of the country be damned.
Boehner’s good-faith attempts at a deal, offering new revenue through reforms as well as leaning toward some limited tax-rate increases, have been met with mockery. Obama’s laughable idea of a balanced deal includes taking control of the debt ceiling and doubling revenue demands, while offering little in the way of spending cuts.
In conversations around Washington immediately after the election, Republicans wondered what kind of president Obama would become in his second term. Experienced and confident, would he be the transformational leader so many Americans had hoped he would be once upon a time? This depends on one’s definition of transitional -- whether Obama would be a kumbaya post-partisan president or one who reorders the country according to progressive ideology.
His political history, albeit brief, provided the answer even if some failed to notice. Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, the president is not a conciliator but an instigator who habitually doubles down. He may not be a socialist, an accusation he swats away with a bored chuckle, but he is a big-government guy. He believes that government can do dramatic things that benefit a greater swath of society if he can just wrest away some of the lucre from the wealthiest citizens.
Obama was hardly coquettish back in 2008 in describing his vision to that nice plumber fellow, Joe Whatshisname, when he said he thought some of America’s wealth needed to be redistributed.
While many on the right became apoplectic at those words, others found it easy to imagine that Obama didn’t mean redistribution through confiscation, but rather through a more equitable arrangement of opportunities and rewards in a world where very clearly too much money was concentrated among too few.
Billionaires and tycoons who have gotten so very rich by gaming a system that favors insiders are loved by few. Why shouldn’t they share more to minimize others’ suffering? How many yachts, jets and homes does one need?
Turns out: Obama really did mean confiscation and redistribution, and this promise is the “gift” that got him elected and got Mitt Romney pilloried. Of course Obama was re-elected at least in part because so much of America now is a constituency of the needy. This is not an indictment of people who have suffered through a terrible economy and job losses. It is simply a fact that many people need a helping hand right now and Obama’s is extended.
By contrast, Republicans -- and especially Romney -- seemed merely to be part of the ongoing problem. Viewed as withholders, they were pathetically inarticulate about how conservative fiscal policies could make all boats rise. Now into holiday season, Obama is lighting trees and wishing everyone Merry Christmas, while the GOP grinches keep saying no.
The problems Obama inherited can’t be denied. Nor can it be denied that once he felt Republicans were going to block his agenda, he doubled down. All signs now indicate that Obama’s transformational presidency will not have Americans holding hands and singing over s’mores.
If we go over the cliff, Republicans will be blamed. And Obama, appearing virtuous while figuring he has four more years to patch things up, will get the middle-class revenues he needs while effectively neutralizing the enemy.
CORRECTION: In a previous column, I suggested that the assistant of secretary of state for African affairs oversees U.S. relations with Libya. In fact, though Libya is part of Africa, the country falls under the diplomatic umbrella of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.