If Barack Obama winds up losing his re-election bid in 2012, we may well identify his December ’10 debacle as the beginning of the end, the key juncture when he alienated his Democratic base by caving egregiously to the enemies who have sworn to destroy him. For many of the grassroots Democrats who helped nominate and elect him, the tax cut “compromise” forged on the eve of Pearl Harbor day is the deal that will live in infamy.Obama’s presidential bid was predicated on a promise to wipe the slate clean, to, in his words, “put an end to the Bush philosophy.” On the foreign side, that meant ending the war in Iraq; on the domestic side, that meant eradicating Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. Back in 2007, Obama told Iowans that the rich should be compelled to pay their fair share: “Those doing well should put a bit more back. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” In 2008, tweaking his populist message, he mocked the notion that “we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that it trickles down to everybody else.” Indeed, his ’08 party platform stated that “families making more than $250,000” should “give back a portion of the Bush tax cuts, to invest in health care and other priorities.”But last night he announced his surrender, and signaled to his long-suffering supporters that he lacks the requisite spine to stand on principle and honor his promises. As Adam Green, a prominent liberal activist said on MSNBC last night, “It’s a tragic day for those of us who trusted him to fight.” And if the liberal base feels it can’t trust him, what does that portend for 2012, when Obama will surely need maximum base turnout in crucial states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin? His deal with Republicans – in essence, he agreed to indulge the rich for another two years, and in exchange the Republicans agreed not to hold jobless benefits hostage – will likely sow further grassroots Democratic despair. This tax showdown was a definitional moment for Obama, and he failed it. Last night, he even acknowledged the failure: “Ever since I started running for this office, I’ve said that we should only extend the tax cuts for the middle class.”Granted, Obama got a few things from the GOP in return, such as the continuation of a college-tuition tax credit, and a more expansive earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but we all know that the “temporary” extension of Bush tax cuts for the rich is tantamount to de facto permanence. Indeed, the emboldened Republicans will be back in 2012 to argue, in the heat of the campaign, that permanence is the requisite next step. Lesson for Obama (and why he needed this lesson is a mystery): When you cave to blackmailers, blackmailers always come back for more.Plus, Obama caved on another key issue, the estate tax on inherited wealth. (This tax is naturally of great concern to Republicans.) Before the dealmakers got involved, the rules beginning Jan. 1 were supposed to look like this: a $1 million exemption per person, and a maximum tax rate of 55 percent. But Obama has agreed to deepen the money pot for rich heirs. Under his deal with the delighted GOP, the exemption will be $5 million per person, and the tax rate will be 35 percent.But with respect to the key issue – his extension of tax cuts for the rich – there’s a theory going around that Obama has played this smart. If the various tax cuts in this deal wind up boosting the economy (while inevitably deepening the deficit), Obama supposedly would be well positioned in 2012 to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes – because (a) an improved economy would be the ideal time to do it, and (b) the deeper deficit would compel that they do it.The problem with that scenario, however, is that it assumes Obama would man up for such a battle in 2012, after having failed to do it now. His Democratic base, feeling betrayed, is now inclined to be skeptical.Actually, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. There are some eerie parallels between Obama in 2010 and George H. W. Bush in 1990. The senior President Bush cut a ’90 budget deal with congressional Democrats to raise taxes, thereby infuriating the grassroots Republicans who had bought into his ’88 campaign promise: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Feeling betrayed, the GOP base was insufficiently motivated to back him for re-election in ’92. Obama might be developing a similar plot arc on the Democratic side. And what most infuriates his grassroots supporters is that it seems so unnecessary – given the fact that staunch opposition to tax cuts for the rich is actually a winning political issue. Every national poll in recent months has reported that a majority of Americans want the top-end Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule at year’s end. The latest one, sponsored by CBS News, reports that 53 percent favor expiration, while only 26 percent favor the rich. That’s a 2-1 margin, yet Obama knuckled under rather than mount the bully pulpit.
Which only guarantees that the Republicans will keep trying to roll him.There is another eerie paralllel, by the way. I’m thinking here of The Godfather, which, as we know, is the font of all life wisdom.In the expanded director’s cut, a bewildered Michael Corelone asks his dad why he had brokered a deal with the enemies who had sworn to destroy him, a deal that was basically a capitulation to his enemies’ terms.Don Vito replies that his hands are tied: “I swore that I would never break the peace.”Michael says, “But won’t they take that as a sign of weakness?”Don Vito stares for a moment and says, “It is a sign of weakness.”