Worst possible play for Obama

Brian Phillips Contributor
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Campaigns have a saying: if you see your opponent making a mistake, let him.  This must have been going through the minds of Republican negotiators as President Obama agreed to extend all the current tax rates for two years.

Of all the directions the negotiations could have gone, this was the worst possible play for Obama and puts his reelection campaign in a hole from which it will not be easy to recover.

In a single day he broke one of his biggest campaign promises, infuriated much of his base, further eroded his dwindling support on Capitol Hill, and gave Republicans a winning issue to run on for the next two years.

Even worse for the president, it looks like the deal might not make it off the Hill, which means Republicans will have a stronger hand in crafting the extension in the new Congress.

The question is, “Why make the deal?”  Obama could have stood on principle and refused to maintain current tax rates for upper-income earners under any circumstances.  Republicans would have had to explain to voters why “tax cuts for the rich” were important enough to risk the tax cuts for everyone.  It’s certainly possible to defend that position, but it would have been an awful conversation to force the GOP to have for the next month.  (And let’s face it, Republicans haven’t exactly been pillars of strength on the class-warfare battlefield, and they’ve bent over on unemployment benefits each time.)

If the lame duck session were to expire without a deal, voters would blame both parties, and at least Obama would be on the side of nearly half the electorate who think only the middle class tax cuts should be extended.  He’d be a principled fighter with backing from a plurality of voters.

Instead he walks right into a Catch-22.  If the economy rebounds, Republicans will rightly say it was because they kept all the tax rates low.  The president certainly can’t take any credit for it — not after he strongly reiterated his opposition to extending all the tax rates during his post-announcement press conference.  Can you imagine Obama on the stump defending the tax cuts while also pushing for them to expire?  It would be John Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” on steroids.

And if the economy doesn’t recover, well, he’s toast anyway.  Unfortunately for Obama (and the country), that’s the more likely scenario.  Extending unemployment benefits through next year virtually assures the jobless rate is going nowhere fast; the temporary extension of the tax rates isn’t really stimulus, and does nothing to calm the long-term fears of business owners; and we should start to see reports about rising insurance premiums as a result of Obamacare right about the time the president’s campaign begins to get in gear.

That’s not exactly the platform you want to stand on when you’re asking the American people for your job back.

Certain Republicans and conservatives have voiced their opposition to the deal, and it’s understandable.  The tax cuts should have been made permanent, the unemployment benefits and payroll holiday are going to add to the deficit, and the death tax is now, well, back from the dead.

But what’s to stop a newly elected, more conservative Congress with a huge majority in the House and a slim minority in the Senate from passing a clean, permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, including full repeal of the death tax?  Nothing.  In fact, to stay on message and keep the issue going, it should be the first piece of legislation they send to Obama’s desk.

Brian Phillips is a veteran of House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and has worked in Congress. Most recently, he managed Sean Bielat’s campaign in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter @BPhil202