The left often talked of the fiscal cliff as if it were only win-win for Obama. It wasn't, in my view. He faced two dangers: of seeming unable to come up with a compromise (which is integral to his appeal) and of seeing the US economy sink under the weight of an imprudent and drastic reduction in demand. As Josh Marshall has noted, Obama always wanted a deal. No president wants to kick off his second term with a double-dip recession. He got half of a deal that will not have as drastic an effect as the full cliff-divers wanted.
Does the promised debt-ceiling hostage-taking by the GOP render all this strategy moot? Maybe. But it seems to me that the GOP has hurt itself so far since the election on fiscal matters - appearing, especially last week, as a herd of feral, foam-flecked cats. I don't see their threatening to ruin America's credit unless they get to cut Medicare by $500 billion over a decade as a particularly strong political hand. Any party triggering a self-imposed credit crisis as the economy recovers will not be rewarded politically. On that, especially after 2011, the president has the upper hand. Americans do not like monkeying around with the national credit rating as a way to cut medical care for grandma.
More to the point, the GOP has yet to even lay out the details of its proposed entitlement cuts (and campaigned in part against them). One way out would be for both parties to focus on cutting the Pentagon bloat - but that's not going to happen any time soon. And so I can see revenue-raising tax reform returning as a way to alleviate some of the political pain on both sides.
In other words, I can see Obama's logic here. What he's getting - which is a gradual shift toward more fiscal responsibility, with key protections for the working poor and the unemployed in place - is all he really wants right now. Like many of Obama's incremental achievements, you can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. We have the biggest tax hike in decades - without a sudden recession. And we have huge, painful spending cuts looming unless new revenue is found through tax reform. The end result - for all its unseemly messiness right now - may still be a sane, graduated fiscal readjustment as the economy recovers. The sequester can be back-loaded a little to find that elusive sweet spot between structural fiscal rebalancing and economic growth. And we could even clean up the tax code a little.
It's not great, but it will do. Sometimes, the little advances are preferable under certain circumstances to big breakthroughs. And Obama has to face a rabid Republican House probably for his next four years. They self-destructed on Plan B. They will almost certainly have to swallow hard and vote for big tax increases in the next day or so [and, in fact, now have].
Like most of you I have also been inundated with e-mails and text messages from those on the Left tearing at their hair and rending their clothing in frustration over what they see as Obama's acquiescence in the fiscal cliff deal, but if I have learned ANYTHING about this President it is that he rarely focuses on short term victories and is usually thinking several moves ahead of his opponents.
That is essentially what Sullivan is pointing out with his article, and I have to say that I agree with his point of view. I firmly believe that in the end Barack Obama will go down in history as one of the greatest President's this country has ever produces, and I also bet that there will be a lot of "aha" moments for most of us looking back at this from the future that we are just too close to the political sausage making to see right now.