A month since the election, we've already learned a few things. First, President Obama, with his easier-than-expected win behind him, is taking his 332 electoral votes out for a spin to see how much mileage he can get out of them. He has upped the stakes in his tax and deficit fight with Republicans, and thinks he has both the leverage and time to get his way.
Republicans, meantime, are behaving as if there was no election — they're resisting Obama with all the ferocity and contempt they showed in the summer of 2011, when a bitter partisan standoff with the White House led to S&P's humiliating downgrade of the government's long-term credit rating.
What is the president now demanding? It's an in-your-face wish list designed to infuriate Republicans:
* $1.6 trillion in new revenues over a decade. This is twice as much as what House Speaker John Boehner offered in those failed 2011 talks.
* A word that makes steam come out of Republican ears — stimulus — is back. Obama wants $50 billion.
* The president also wants the power to raise the debt ceiling on his own, without congressional authority. This is a huge power grab, anti-constitutional in the eyes of many, and when it was outlined Thursday by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly laughed.
All this, of course, is in addition to the bête noire of Republicans: Obama's insistence that the Bush-era tax rates — which Republicans agreed a decade ago would be temporary — should be raised for the top 2 percent of earners. It was this standoff in 2011 that led to the S&P downgrade. Republicans, of course, are not happy.
"They took a step backward, moving away from consensus and significantly closer to the cliff," McConnell said.
"The Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts," Boehner said. "No substantive progress has been made in the talks between the White House and the House over the last two weeks."
Sigh. So much for the rather optimistic (and fleeting) idea that both sides might actually be able to work together. How naïve.
But like any savvy negotiator, Obama is asking for more than he's privately willing to accept. The unilateral authority to raise the debt ceiling is the most audacious of his demands, and he knows there's a snowball's chance in hell that Congress will cede this authority to him. Legal scholars point to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law... shall not be questioned." The key clause here is "authorized by law." The president of the United States does not make the law. Congress does, and any president who attempts to take unilateral action on spending that has not been "authorized by law" could be regarded as being in contempt of the very same Constitution that he swore to uphold. Some Democrats disagree with this, but Obama himself, a constitutional scholar, knows better — or at least he did during his November 15 news conference:
"I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms. We are very cautious about that."
From a political standpoint, perhaps Republicans should consider granting the president that authority. After all, lawmakers don't want to be on the hook for raising the debt ceiling themselves, and allowing Obama to do it would allow them to shift all of the blame to him. Instead, though, Republicans have shown themselves to be the hypocrites they are with their latest stance on Medicare. Before agreeing to any new revenues, they want to see the president show he's serious about trimming entitlements by cutting Medicare. These are the same Republicans who a month ago were running campaign ads saying Obama had already taken $700 billion out of it. Guess they forgot. Clearly, the symbol of the GOP should not be the elephant, a magnificent creature known for its capacity to remember.
Republicans also seem to have forgotten that the administration has put measures in place to curb future spending by nearly $1 trillion. The Budget Control Act of 2011 contains 10-year discretionary spending caps that will — in theory — save $1 trillion. But these aren't cuts — it's just agreeing not to spend more. The projected savings are pretty even among defense and discretionary spending, so everybody leaves something on the table. The White House claims this would bring discretionary spending "to its lowest level as a share of the economy since Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office." Budgetary gimmick? You decide.
And what about the standoff over extending the Bush tax rates for the top 2 percent? The president says the GOP is holding 98 percent of the population "hostage" just so the wealthy can keep getting a break they don't need. Republicans counter that Obama is willing to take that 98 percent over the cliff if he doesn't get his way (Obama makes the same claim about the GOP). Republicans seem to forget that their wealthy friends will still enjoy a tax break on the first $250,000 of income — it's income above that threshold that would be subject to the higher rate. Obama knows this still won't raise the $1.6 trillion he wants over the next decade — but it plays well with most folks, not that the White House pays attention to polls.
So where do we go from here? Those fiscal cliff countdown clocks you see on TV are wrong. We don't have until January to work this out. Congress and the president both hope to leave town for their usual holiday break; that narrows the window to at least Christmas Eve. The more likely scenario is one we've seen all too many times before — or heard, actually: The sound of tin on asphalt. What's that, you say? Why, you should know that sound by now: It's the can being kicked down the road.