The details of the debt deal still being hammered out Sunday night allows the United States to avert an historic default if it survives tough votes in Congress. That's enough to bring great relief to the White House. But no cheers. The months-long melodrama leaves President Obama weakened politically and potentially constrained as a president.
Obama put the best spin possible on the deal when he announced it in the White House briefing room. But there's little good news for him and his party in what's immediately known about the framework of the compromise. The best hope for Democrats is that this will be like the deal worked out last December to keep government operating. As more details of that agreement became known, Democratic anger at the extension of the Bush tax cuts ebbed at the realization that they too had gotten things they wanted. But right now it's hard to see many victories the president can show to his party in this deal. He didn't get the “clean” increase he once demanded. He didn't get the “balance” (revenue increases) he demanded, though he insisted that taxes remain very much a part of the second phase of the bargain.
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He did get the Republicans to yield on his insistence on getting the ceiling raised high enough that this debate won't be repeated until after the 2012 presidential election. In achieving that, the president and the congressional leaders all but guarantee that next year’s campaign will feature a large and perhaps unprecedented debate over spending and budget priorities and the relationship between government spending and job creation. That's a long overdue debate and, if conducted honestly, will allow the winner of the presidential election to claim a genuine mandate.
But the bad news for Obama is that this deal – and his role in the deal-making – could make it more difficult for him to win a second term. To win reelection, he needs an improved economy with robust job growth. As the president mentioned in his remarks, the White House throughout this debate was acutely aware that massive spending cuts by the government would pose a severe challenge to a recovery already made more fragile by state and local government spending cuts. Critical to how much damage fresh cuts do to the economy will be – again – those details. How much of the cutting will be done in the next 12 months and how much is deferred to a later date? And how much will this detail constrain his ability to govern in the next 12 months?
There's no need to wait for details, though, to know that the president has damaged his standing with the progressives and activists who make up the Democratic Party base. Even before it was announced Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, blasted it as “grotesquely immoral” and “bad economic policy.” And Twitter and the liberal blogosphere were filled with criticisms of the president.
Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, strongly criticized Obama for making the deal and warned of direct consequences for his reelection campaign. “Seeing a Democratic president take taxing the rich off the table and instead push a deal that will lead to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefit cuts is like entering a bizarre parallel universe,” she said in a statement, warning of “horrific consequences for middle-class families.” Even before the deal was announced, the influential group had been rallying liberals to signal their displeasure by withholding their support for Obama’s campaign. Taylor said that more than 200,000 people have already pledged not to donate or volunteer for Obama in 2012 if he approves any cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. She said those who signed the pledge gave more than 2.5 million volunteers hours and more than $17 million to Obama in 2008.
The liberal group MoveOn.org, in a statement, said the debt deal “has gone from bad to worse” and called on Democrats to oppose it.
Of course, showing a willingness to stand up to the liberal base is not necessarily bad – if it pays off in increased support from the Independents who often determine the outcome of elections. But there is no sign that Independents approve of the president’s handling of the debt issue. The combination of a depressed base and a disillusioned center is potentially toxic to the president. His challenge in the next 15 months is to find an antidote by showing he's still able to govern under the terms of the deal and able to persuade his own party that they need to rally behind him.