I'm a sap, a specific kind of sap. I'm an Obama Sap.
When the president said the unemployed can't wait 14 more months for help and we had to do something right away, I believed him. When administration officials called around saying that the possibility of a double-dip recession was horrifyingly real and that it would be irresponsible not to come up with a package that could pass right away, I believed them.
I liked Obama's payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I'm a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus, it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.
It recycles ideas that couldn't get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn't try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.
He claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the IRS. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)
This wasn't a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon.
Yes, I'm a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
But remember, I'm a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent, too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight.
So the White House has gone back, as an appreciative Ezra Klein of The Washington Post conceded, to politics as usual. The president is sounding like Al Gore for President, but without the earth tones. Tax increases for the rich! Protect entitlements! People versus the powerful!
Being a sap, I still believe that the president's soul would like to do something about the country's structural problems. I keep thinking he's a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.
That means when he talks about raising revenue, which he is right to do, he can't really talk about anything substantive. He can't tax gasoline. He can't tax consumption. He can't do a comprehensive tax reform. He has to restrict his tax policy changes to the top 2 percent, and to get any real revenue he's got to hit them in every which way. We're not going to simplify the tax code, but by God Obama's going to raise taxes on rich people who give to charity! We've got to do something to reduce the awful philanthropy surplus plaguing this country!
The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There's a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.
The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I'm a sap.
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, "A populist presidential manifesto"
Let us begin by stipulating that President Barack Obama's new budget plan is unrealistic, highly partisan and a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.
That's what's so good about it.
At last, the president hasn't conceded the race before it began, hasn't opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn't begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morning delivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum.
"It is wrong that in the United States of America a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million," the newly populist Obama declared.
Obama squinted into the morning sunlight and chopped the air with his left hand. He got sputtering mad - literally - when he said his opponents would have us "settle for second-rate roads and second-rate bridges and second-rate airports and ... schools that are crumbling."
Then came that rarest of Obama moves: an ultimatum. "I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share."
Republican howls of complaints began even before the speech.
"Class warfare," protested Paul Ryan.
"Class warfare," complained Karl Rove's American Crossroads.
"Class warfare," judged House Speaker John Boehner.
The president welcomed the charge. "I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare," he told the Rose Garden crowd of 200. "I think it's just the right thing to do."
A moment later, the class warrior added: "Either we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes, or we're going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare. ... Either we gut education and medical research, or we've got to reform the tax code so that the most profitable corporations have to give up tax loopholes that other companies don't get. We can't afford to do both. This is not class warfare. It's math."
Whether his plan to tax the wealthy ever could - or should - become law is not really the point. Obama finally gave his side something to stand for after too much uncertainty. He also showed that he is finally learning to negotiate.
Had he called for a single-payer health-care system, he might have been able to win Republican support for the reform that was actually enacted. Had he held his ground earlier on tax increases for millionaires, he might have won more concessions from the GOP in the debt fights of the past year.
This late-term rally may be too late to save Obama, but it's a welcome change. "The president made a very, very serious effort to reach agreement on a broad range of issues," White House budget director Jack Lew told reporters after the Rose Garden speech. "When it became clear that there was no willingness on the other side to embrace a balanced approach with revenue, then we went back to put together a plan that reflects our view of how to do it."
Monday's Rose Garden revolution was televised but the president did not immediately adapt to his new role. Instead of pitchforks, there were teleprompters. Instead of launching into a Hugo Chavez stemwinder, Obama arrived 26 minutes late and began with a deficit discussion that put a woman in the second row to sleep.
Eventually, the president found his voice, describing Boehner's refusal to consider tax increases. "The speaker says we can't have it 'my way or the highway,' " Obama said, "and then basically says my way - or the highway."
He also challenged the opposition's claim to represent the wishes of the Founders, quoting the first president on the necessity of taxes.
To that, he added one more bit of class struggle - "it's not about numbers on a ledger," but rather "about fairness" - before departing the Rose Garden.
Out on Pennsylvania Avenue, about 200 demonstrators in wheelchairs were rallying in defense of Medicaid and in support of the millionaires tax. "No more cuts!" they chanted.
They don't yet have the energy of the tea party, but, at long last, Obama has given his side a reason to fight.