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Hostage to the Fortunate?
Obama compromises, but he doesn't know how.
By JAMES TARANTO
(Best of the Tube Tonight: We're scheduled to appear on "America's Nightly Scoreboard" tonight discussing the left's reaction to the tax deal. Fox Business Channel, 7 p.m. ET, with our hit in the second half hour. Repeat showing at midnight ET.)
OK, maybe the World's Greatest Orator does have a communication problem.
The news that President Obama had struck a deal with congressional Republicans to avert a brutal tax increase came as a pleasant surprise. We didn't think Obama had it in him to compromise. It turns out we were right, even though he has compromised. Having decided to compromise, he has shown that he hasn't the foggiest idea how to go about doing it.
Consider this exchange with NBC's Chuck Todd from yesterday's White House press conference:
- Todd: Mr. President, what do you say to Democrats who say you're rewarding Republican obstruction here? You yourself used in your opening statement they were unwilling to budge on this. A lot of progressive Democrats are saying they're unwilling to budge, and you're asking them to get off the fence and budge. Why should they be rewarding Republican obstruction?
- Obama: Well, let me use a couple of analogies. I've said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts. I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.
The president must read the Puffington Host. The "analogy" is problematic, to say the least. Whereas a hostage-taker is a criminal, Republicans in Congress are acting in a perfectly lawful manner. Further, they gained their power through democracy, not coercion. Hostages do not elect their captors. And having just been elected, in a vote that was a clear (though not irrevocable) rebuff of Obama, at least for the moment they have a stronger claim than he does to be acting on behalf of the American people.
Accusing your political opponents of hostage-taking is not an analogy, it is mere rhetorical invective. We don't object in principle to such inflammatory language (though we won't hold our breath waiting for a denunciation from the nolabelists and other "civility" phonies). But the appropriate time to employ it is in the midst of a political disagreement--when you're trying to rally your supporters or turn voters against your adversaries. When you're announcing and trying to sell an agreement, you act agreeably. You put your differences aside, at least for the time being.
Perhaps Obama feared that if he did so, he would look weak. In fact, he looks much weaker for behaving in such a petulantly confrontational manner. He left no doubt that this agreement goes against every fiber of his being, that it was forced on him and he didn't have the strength to resist.
That is, in fact, true. Because of the timing of the automatic tax increase and the start of the new Congress, the Republicans' success in last month's election, and the Democrats' failure to address this matter months ago, he really had very little choice in the matter. From his standpoint, it was a bad deal--and it was also about the best he could get.
The hostage video
But a professional politician should have known better than to put his personal feelings on display in such a manner. To be sure, making this deal look like a victory might have been beyond the talent of even a Reagan or a Clinton. In that case, however, it would have been wise to keep a low profile, perhaps announcing the deal via a perfunctory written statement rather than a televised speech, a news conference and a video to supporters.
That last in particular--a colleague of ours amusingly dubbed it "the hostage video"--points to the one possible rationale for Obama's confrontational attitude toward the Republicans: trying to appeal to his hard-left supporters, many of whom, as we noted yesterday, are even more tormented by the deal than Obama is. Yet at his news conference, the president lashed out at them too:
- This notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass [sic] a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn't get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.
- Now, if that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are . . .
To be sure, we loathe what Obama's hard-left critics stand for, and their anguish is our delight. But Obama isn't attacking them for our benefit. It seems, rather, that he can't help himself. He is genuinely hurt by their criticism and lacks the self-restraint to conceal those feelings.
Video: Opinion Journal columnist John Fund on liberals' reaction to the tax deal.
Obama's communication problem is that he is communicating far too much. The circumstances called for conciliation, toward both the adversaries with whom he has compromised and the supporters he disappointed by doing so. Instead, he gratuitously insulted both groups, displaying a degree of political incompetence that, while perhaps harmless to the country in this situation, is worrisome when we contemplate the prospect that he will be called on to deal with an international crisis, perhaps one involving real hostage takers, in the next two years.
Will Dems Kill the Deal?
The president's public displays of aggression raise another question: Did he bother preparing congressional Democrats to swallow the deal? A report in the Hill suggests not:
- House and Senate Democrats of all stripes reacted with fury Tuesday to President Obama's tax-cut deal with Republicans, threatening the package's passage through Congress.
- Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accused the president of abandoning a bipartisan effort in favor of negotiating solely with the GOP. . . .
- Asked Tuesday if House Democrats were adequately included in the tax-cut negotiations, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said: "I don't think House Democrats think so." . . .
- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also criticized the deal, saying in a Twitter post that it would add to the deficit and help the rich without creating jobs. The GOP provisions "help only wealthiest 3%," she stated.
Obama will need Democratic votes to get the plan through the House before the deadline of Jan. 1, when the tax hike otherwise will take effect, for not until two days later will Republicans take the majority. Possibly he has enough of them on board, even without the leadership: Assuming that all 179 current Republicans vote "yes," only 39 of the 255 Democrats would have to do so.
A New York Times editorial urges them to do just that: "The Democrats should vote for this deal, because it is the only one they are going to get." Then again, as Obama observed during his press conference yesterday, "the New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America."
In light of President Obama's peevish performance of the past few days, we thought it worth rehearsing some quotes from the 2008 campaign:
• "Barack Obama's temperament is famously unflappable. He has reacted with characteristic cool and caution to the Wall Street financial crisis, holding back at times while his rival charged ahead. His campaign mantra is 'No Drama Obama.' "--Mara Liasson, NPR.org, Sept. 25, 2008
• "Part of Obama's steadiness is born of necessity: An angry, or flashy, black man isn't going to be elected President. But I've also gotten the sense, in the times I've interviewed and chatted with him, that calm is Obama's natural default position."--Joe Klein, Time.com, Oct. 2, 2008
• "As for Senator Obama: He has exhibited throughout a 'first-class temperament,' pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s famous comment about FDR. . . . But having a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect, President Obama will (I pray, secularly) surely understand that traditional left-politics aren't going to get us out of this pit we've dug for ourselves."--Christopher Buckley, TheDailyBeast.com, Oct. 10, 2008
• "It is Obama's temperament--and not McCain's--that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower's stolidity for denseness or Lincoln's humor for lack of seriousness."--editorial, The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 2008
• "Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view."--editorial, Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2008
• "More than ever, we crave stability, a steady hand, the reassuring face on television. We even elevate such equilibrium to the superhuman: calm, as applied to No Drama Obama, often comes linked to the modifier 'preternatural.' "--Kate Zernike, New York Times, Nov. 30, 2008
To be fair, much of this commentary came in the wake of John McCain's panicked response to the financial meltdown. Although our view is that Obama's "steadiness" during that period reflected indifference rather than mastery, the contrast undoubtedly worked to Obama's advantage.
It's still possible that Obama's temperament is better than McCain's. But given the president's propensity to crack under the pressure of being criticized, how much better could it possibly be?
Bushism of the Day
"This isn't the politics of the moment. This has to do with what can we get done right now."--President Obama, news conference, Dec. 7
'I Wish I Knew How to Quit You'
"Why Obama Can't Shake Bush"--headline, Politico.com, Dec. 8
Drinking and Driving While Muslim
"A University of Colorado student who started wearing hijab after converting to Islam is fighting the Boulder County Jail's insistence that she remove her headscarf for a booking photo, saying that to do so would violate her religious beliefs," FoxNews.com reports:
Maria Hardman, 19, of Boulder, reported to the jail Wednesday to do the paperwork for a two-day work crew sentence that was supposed to be served this weekend. But when a jail detention officer told her to remove her headscarf for her mug shot, she balked.
"It's stated in the Koran in two or three places that believing women should wear the veil, except in the company of close family members," she said.
Hardman said she spent three hours at the jail while her lawyer tried to convince officials to let her take the picture with her scarf. She eventually was allowed to leave the jail without taking a picture at all. She said she was told she would be found in contempt of court for being out of compliance with her sentence.
In a first-person "open letter" to the Colorado Daily, a student newspaper, Hardman writes: "As a Muslim-American woman, I feel let down by my country. . . . Islamophobia is alive and well in America."
She also describes the offense that sparked the whole kerfuffle:
For the record, I do not dispute that I operated my 49cc motorized scooter on the day of Aug. 1. I was at a party, where I was served alcohol without my knowledge. I admit that when I discovered I was being served alcohol, I made no attempt to curb my intake.
"I am neither a fundamentalist nor an extremist," she adds. "I am not trying to bring Shariah to Colorado." We'll drink to that!
Out on a Limb
"Dem Lawmaker: Dems' Best Candidate in 2012 'May or May Not Be' Obama"--headline, TheHill.com, Dec. 7
"Early Prevention, Screen Programs Reduce Chronic Disease, Studies Find"--headline, Philanthropy News Digest, Dec. 7
With DNC in Mind, City Bans Carrying Urine, Feces
"Sarah Palin About to Dump on Tax Cut Compromise?"--headline, Atlanta Journal-Constitution website, Dec. 8
We Blame Global Warming
"Fort Lauderdale Breaks Cold Record for Dec. 7"--headline, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Dec. 7
"Unusual Methods Helped ICE Break Deportation Record, E-Mails and Interviews Show"--headline, Washington Post, Dec. 6
So Much for the War on Drugs
"Irish Vote on Budget, EU Says Crisis Pot Is Enough"--headline, Associated Press, Dec. 7
At Least Kevin Smith Can Still Surf the Internet
"Kevin Smith 'Too Fat' to Fly Southwest"--headline, People.com, Feb. 14
"Comcast: No Plans to Charge More for Heavy Web Users"--headline, WSJ.com, Dec. 7
The Lonely Lives of Scientists
"Happy Cows Taste Better, Say Scientists"--headline, Courier Mail (Brisbane, Australia), Dec. 9
The Lonely Lives of Older Men
"Older Men Want More Sex, Study Finds"--headline, Reuters, Dec. 6
'That Was a Heck of an Omelet'
"FDA Recalls Cheese, Smoked Salmon, Eggs and More"--headline, Yahoo! News, Dec. 7
The Miracle of Yeast
"Food Stamp Rolls Continue to Rise"--headline, WSJ.com, Dec. 8
'She Was Quiet, She Kept to Herself,' Says Wie Neighbor
"Michelle Wie Shoots 71 in Dubai"--headline, Associated Press, Dec. 8
No Layoff for Quasimodo
"L.A. Judge Rejects Putting Court-Appointed Monitor in Charge of Bell"--headline, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7
'Enough Is Enough! I Have Had It With These Moth--Oh, Look! A Squirrel!'
"Snakes on a Plane: Passenger Manages to Smuggle Two Parrots, a Squirrel and FOUR Snakes on Eight-Hour Flight"--headline, Daily Mail (London), Dec. 7
Hey, Kids! What Time Is It?
"Time for Dems to Relearn the Lost Art of Compromise"--headline, FoxNews.com, Dec. 7
Questions Nobody Is Asking
"Does a Bad Baby Name Make Someone a Bad Parent?"--headline, TheLoop21.com, Dec. 5
"What Aspect of Dealing With Bullies Did Obama Fail to Learn as a Child?"--headline, Puffington Host, Dec. 8
"Why Do Bad Things Happen to Stupid People?"--headline, Jim Mullen syndicated column, Dec. 8
"Where Do You Stand on the Leggings Debate?"--headline, Dayton Daily News, Dec. 7
"Who Is Attacking the Plastic Snails of Miami Beach?"--headline, Associated Press, Dec. 8
"Can't Anybody in the Obama Administration Talk Without Saying Embarrassing and Revealing Things This Week?"--headline, Commentary website, Dec. 8
"More than ever, America today reminds me of a working couple where the husband has just lost his job, they have two kids in junior high school, a mortgage and they're maxed out on their credit cards. On top of it all, they recently agreed to take in their troubled cousin, Kabul, who just can't get his act together and keeps bouncing from relative to relative. Meanwhile, their Indian nanny, who traded room and board for baby-sitting, just got accepted to M.I.T. on a full scholarship and will be leaving them in a few months. What to do?"--Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Dec. 8
Answers to Questions Nobody Is Asking
"How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming"--headline, TheAtlantic.com, Dec. 7
"Married Men Are Nicer, and Here's Why"--headline, Reuters, Dec. 6
It's Always in the Last Place You Look
"4,000 Oxycodone and Xanax Pills Found in Bust"--headline, WTVC-TV (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Dec. 8
Someone Set Up Us the Bomb
"Moderate Committee Picks Jar Conservative Ascendancy in House"--headline, DailyCaller.com, Dec. 8
Breaking News From 1777
"Washington Fights to Rebuild Battered Reputation"--headline, Der Spiegel, Dec. 6
News You Can Use
"Avoid Animals Raised on the Farm That Have Hair on Their Backs"--headline, Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.), Dec. 7
"Three Suicides in Peoria in 24 Hours Prompts [sic] Police to Remind Residents Not to Kill Themselves"--headline, Phoenix New Times website, Dec. 7
"Here Are Some Good Gifts for the People You Hate"--headline, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec. 8
Bottom Stories of the Day
"Di Masters Has NOT Resigned as a Selectmen"--headline, Ridgefield (Conn.) Press, Dec. 7
"Palo Alto School Calendar Stays Same in 2011-12"--headline, Palo Alto (Calif.) Online, Dec. 8
"China Launches Its Own Peace Prize"--headline, Daily Telegraph (London), Dec. 8
"Iran Talks End With Little Sign of Progress"--headline, Washington Post, Dec. 8
"Mideast Peace Effort in Crisis as US Freeze Bid Fails"--headline, Agence France-Presse, Dec. 7
Mr. Wiki Springs a Leak
WikiLeaks' Julian Assange is in jail in England pending extradition to Sweden on sex-crime charges. Long may he rot, but the accusations against him are dubious. "The most likely interpretation of events is that as a result of a one-night stand, one participant came to regret what had happened," reports London's Daily Mail.
Actually, two participants in two one-night stands. It's a long and sordid story, but to sum up the Daily Mail's account, Assange seems to have slept with two Swedish groupies in rapid succession. They ended up comparing notes and going to the police together and accusing him under what the paper calls "Sweden's complex rape laws." One of the women told a newspaper, "In both cases, the sex had been consensual from the start but had eventually turned into abuse."
Believe it or not, condom failure is an element in one of the accusations. We guess they call that breaking and entering, though not necessarily in that order.