To my friends on the left: This one’s for you.
Your grumbling that President Obama again gave away the store to Republicans is unwarranted. The deal to evade the fiscal cliff was no repeat of the debt-ceiling fiasco of 2011, when Obama famously bargained with himself. This time, he suppressed the urge to publicly consider raising the Medicare eligibility age. Meanwhile, he put off the clash over entitlements for another day.
Obama did cave or compromise (pick your term) on his earlier resolve to let Bush tax cuts expire for households earning over $250,000. The final package sets $450,000 as the cutoff.
The right wing’s tactic of negotiating while holding a knife to the economy’s throat may have blinded the left to noting that, while good theater, it is not very effective. It is also most unpopular.
By putting off dramatic cuts in spending and raising taxes only on the most cushioned Americans, Obama has avoided what made the fiscal cliff so scary — the specter of draining over $500 billion from a still-weak economy. A second round of recession could have followed, with the blame bouncing back to Obama and the Democrats.
Some liberals balk at setting such a high income level for letting income-tax rates rise. They are correct that more people should be paying more taxes. But they should understand that taxation is partly a mind game. Breaking through the right’s icebound stand that taxes should not rise for anyone ever was no mean achievement.
Complaints that this and only a handful of other tax changes basically enshrine the reckless tax-cutting of the Bush era miss the point. Nothing is forever, and now the very rich have less incentive to propagandize against raising taxes lower down the income scale as a means to protect their own rates.
Be mindful that support for government programs, such as Medicare, depends on more than the level of benefits provided. It also relies on taxpayers feeling they are getting more value for their dollars — and that the money is there. Obama has been taking quiet steps to start restoring fiscal balance, while preserving the essence of worthy government programs. These changes haven’t grabbed the big headlines, but over time, they will build confidence that America can have well-run public programs and fiscal sanity at the same time. Some examples:
This week’s fiscal deal continues the good fight, started by the Affordable Care Act, to curb waste and abuse in health care spending. For instance, it lowers Medicare payments to doctors who give more than one therapy session to a single patient in a single day. At the same time, it stopped the scheduled 26.5 percent cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, guarding patients’ access to care.
Obama may nominate Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, another move toward rethinking priorities. The former Republican senator from Nebraska has long questioned America’s bloated defense budgets and penchant for carelessly sending Americans into foreign battle. A decorated Vietnam veteran, fiscal conservative and independent thinker, Hagel has the credibility to oversee paring the defense budget in a rational way.
Another reason for optimism is Obama’s statement that he will not let anyone use threats to America’s credit rating as a bargaining tool, as he did in 2011. “While I will negotiate over many things,” he said, “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up through the laws they have passed.” Mr. President, hold that thought.
As a final reality test, my unhappy liberal friends, listen to the groaning on the right. Do that, and you’ll conclude: Obama did good.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is email@example.com