It was a bit macabre to see Bill Clinton holding court with White House reporters last week at his old hangout, right down the hall from the Oval Office. The current president was at his side, looking very much like an emcee who has introduced the main speaker for the evening and then forgotten to leave the stage.
Mr. Obama did finally leave, claiming he and his wife had a prior engagement, but that didn’t mean everyone else had to go, and, indeed, no one else did. Mr. Clinton continued to engage the press with the same winning combination of charm and intellect that had captivated audiences for nearly a decade a mere decade ago.
At some point, as he stood by the former president’s side, the current president must have been struck with the same thought many of the rest of us were having: why can’t I (Obama) be that good? Some of us continued that rumination by noting that we thought he would be and are woefully disappointed that he isn’t.
But that kind of thinking doesn’t go very far in modern-day presidential politics. Every president brings his own strengths and weaknesses to the job. Those with the communication skills of a Bill Clinton tend to be idolized more after they’ve left office than they were when they were in it. And, for all his vainglorious pontificating and intellectual superiority, Mr. Clinton was hardly perfect, as his own party’s ignominious defeat in the 1994 mid-term elections more than substantiated.
But neither, of course, is Barack Obama, who is still trying to “reinvent himself” after last month’s “shellacking” that he and his party suffered at the polls. The final tally is a loss of a whopping 63 Congressional seats and six Senators, which if it isn’t a landslide, certainly makes the president’s own 7-percentage point popular vote victory two years earlier seem a lot less impressive.
More to the point, it immediately raised serious questions about the likelihood that Obama would follow the path of Jimmy Carter (one term and out) rather than Mr. Clinton (two terms and probably could have been three but for term limits).
Of course, Mr. Obama and his team would like to have different plans, if for no other reason than that at the end of a first term he would be far too young (51) to retire to a life of memoir writing and foundation funding. And, too, it must be assumed that he actually has visions of a grand design for America’s future that would only be enhanced by a second four-year term.
And so, in the weeks since the mid-term elections, we have seen a new Barack Obama, one who seems intent on finding his way back into the hearts of the American voter. Thus, we got the latest tax bill which Mr. Obama proudly announced had resulted from a deal struck by Vice-President Joe Biden and one of his mortal political enemies, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate.
The deal, now enacted into law, freezes all of the Bush income tax cuts for another two years and also extends unemployment benefits through 2011 and cuts social security taxes by two percentage points for calendar 2011. It also restores part of the estate tax that had disappeared by legislative fiat for all of calendar 2010, albeit the new estate tax will still be far lower than Obama and his Congressional allies had intended at the beginning of the year.
Conservatives expressed grudging satisfaction with the deal, while liberals were aghast. In both cases, the reactions were appropriate. Conservatives gained the obvious: more tax relief for the super-rich, and the not so obvious: the opportunity to begin an assault on the country’s Social Security system (more on that point in a moment), while liberals got precious little: increased unemployment benefits for another year and no increase in income taxes for the vast majority of Americans.
Liberals also initially expressed pleasure at the two-percentage point reduction in payroll (social security) taxes until the B’rer Rabbit aspect of that provision became apparent. By agreeing, oh so reluctantly, to that tax cut, Republicans had secured another campaign point to press a year from now.
That point will be much the same one that we will see repeated in the election year of 2012, but it will have far more draconian consequences. By arguing, as they assuredly will, that payroll taxes must not be increased (the country still being in a sluggish recovery from recession), Republicans will set the stage for making the lower tax rate permanent, with the result being that Social Security will become even less solvent and more at risk of insolvency.
This is the old “starve the beast” strategy that is behind most of the tax cut chicanery the GOP has been playing for the last thirty years. They don’t like anything that increases the size of government (save for military spending), especially when that increase takes the form of a dreaded “government handout.”
Social security is not a government handout, because it is paid for by the workers who ultimately benefit from it (when they reach retirement age), but that fact has become lost to the public consciousness with the passage of time.
The current administration of the Social Security program is all part of the national budget, meaning the taxes collected through F.I.C.A. payroll deductions all go into the national treasury and are paid out of that same national treasury. There is, in other words, no “lock box” for Social Security. It’s just another government program, albeit an entitlement. But if the entitlement can’t be afforded, it must ultimately be reduced in size or, in the extreme, repealed entirely.
And so, as President Obama took great credit for the passage of the near-trillion dollar tax bill last week, Mitch McConnell was smiling wisely at his side. He knew who held the winning ticket in that deal.
The president may be trying to re-discover his magic, but as the year ends, he’s still no Bill Clinton.