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Obama’s political calculations get in the way of real solutions

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President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the White House.

President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the White House.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Here is my nomination for the lowest moment of the "fiscal cliff" debate. Right before Christmas, President Obama met with Speaker John Boehner in the Oval Office. "He told Boehner," according to The Wall Street Journal, "that if the sides didn't reach agreement, he would use his inaugural address and his State of the Union speech to tell the country Republicans were at fault."

Forget Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." Forget Abraham Lincoln's Second: "With malice toward none." Obama's Second Inaugural might drop a few choice one-liners on the elected Republicans gathered behind him on the West Front of the Capitol. Maybe he could have a struggling middle-class family hold the Bible as he takes the oath. Maybe Joe Biden could lead the crowd in a little chant: "Hey! Hey! The wealthy need to pay!"

It is bad enough that an American president should threaten to deploy his inaugural address in a vicious budget debate. It is worse that the threat seemed credible and unexceptional. Usually a presidential election involves a reset of American politics, with both sides (at least temporarily) forced to engage in the rhetoric and rituals of healing and unity. The 2012 election was not even a short pause in our swift partisan descent.

In cliff negotiations, Obama had one overriding goal: to make Republicans vote for rate increases on the wealthy. For 20 years the refusal to raise taxes has been one of the core issues that held together the disparate groups of the GOP. If Obama saw his job as bringing together a broad coalition to fix the long-term debt problem, he would have maneuvered Democrats to take on some of their core issues as part of a package, just as Republicans had to do. But Obama did not view his job this way. He wanted Republicans to swallow their humiliation pure.

Congressional Republicans are left with less influence than some apparently think. The debt ceiling is a form of leverage they can't responsibly use. A partial government shutdown or full implementation of the sequester are less toxic alternatives, but of questionable utility. (Threatening liberals with the prospect of huge defense cuts — a part of the sequester — is an attempt to menace them with their deepest desire.)

Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms.

This has left him with one economic approach: Raise taxes as much as possible, shift the burden to those he doesn't care about, and do as little as possible to slow spending growth, buying time until he can raise taxes again.

Some conservatives are convinced that this is the full emergence of Obama's democratic socialism. This explanation is not required. Obama probably still views himself as a pragmatist. He may comfort himself that he will take incremental action on Medicare in due time. But at this moment three factors overlap: his liberal policy instincts, a political opportunity to break his opponents, and the massively inflated self-confidence produced by re-election. So, force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return. Require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions. If they agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation's credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes.

There is one main downside of this approach. It delays any serious action on long-term debt for at least another two (and probably four) years. It is the path of a government that moves from fiscal crisis to crisis, gradually undermining global confidence that it can manage its own affairs. An economy in which uncertainty, slow growth and high employment become norms. A federal budget increasingly devoted to entitlements at the expense of other purposes, including defense — eventually undercutting our international influence in the same way that Europe has become depleted, insular and toothless.

Obama's short-term political calculations are understandable. It is the cost to posterity that is unreasonable.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.