While liberals cheered President Obama’s speech on deficit reduction, New York Times columnist David Brooks was disappointed. “This wasn’t a speech to get something done,” Brooks writes, "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, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible."
For Brooks, the blame falls squarely on Barack Obama, who has abandoned his “Reasonable Man” approach in favor of one that draws clear contrasts with the Republican Party. As far as Brooks is concerned, this is part of a pattern, where Obama proposes substantive policies -- comprehensive tax reform, a “grand bargain” of deficit reduction, etc. -- and pulls away from them at the last moment. “To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used,” Brooks explains.
There are a few problems with this narrative of betrayal, the least of which has to do with the characterization of Obama’s rhetoric. Brooks believes that yesterday’s speech was a display of pure partisanship -- a show tailored to the liberal base with little in it for moderates, independents, and reasonable Republicans. But liberals aren’t the only ones calling for higher taxes on the rich. For more than a year, large majorities of the public have called for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Most recently, The New York Times and CBS News found that 56 percent of respondents support higher taxes on those earning $250,000 a year or more. Brooks might have a lot of sympathy for the wealthy -- he complains that this is a tax on philanthropy -- but that view isn’t shared by the bulk of Americans.
This aside, the big issue with David Brooks’s column is that he assumes a world where Barack Obama is the sole political actor. Yes, he gives quick mention to the “mean and intransigent” Republicans, but when it comes down to his criticism, he holds Obama personally responsible for failing to secure tax reform, entitlement reform, and other policies favored by Brooks. It’s as if the Republican Party, and its reflexive opposition to everything the president does, didn’t exist. If short-term stimulus isn’t possible, it’s not because Barack Obama gave a mean speech; it’s because Republicans oppose short-term stimulus, and short of resigning the presidency and appointing Paul Ryan his replacement, there’s nothing Obama can do to change that.
It’s too early to say whether President Obama’s newfound backbone will have any resonance with the public. But at the very least, it can’t be any worse than David Brooks’s preferred strategy -- pre-compromise, followed by acquiescence to right-wing priorities. The former might make a few Obama supporters upset, but the latter was a recipe for political disaster.