But the debate need not get that far. This fall, the President can dig in his heels, making clear to Republicans and to Democrats like Conrad that he simply won’t sign legislation to extend tax cuts for those at the top – even if it’s part of a larger bill to extend tax cuts to the other 98 percent of Americans.
He can say that, with deficits and debt due to explode in the coming years, we simply can’t afford to extend tax cuts for those who don’t need them. Moreover, extending tax cuts for those at the top won’t help the economy anyway because the well-to-do would likely save rather than spend the money.
The president can argue that if lawmakers believe the economy needs another short-term jolt of fiscal stimulus, he would be happy to work with them to apply the short-term savings from denying an extension of the tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans to more effective stimulus measures, as former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder recently advocated.
Presidents face these moments from time to time – moments when they must oppose not only the “loyal opposition” but members of their own party, moments when the Oval Office is a lonely place indeed.
President Truman faced it over Israel, when his legendary Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, and most of his foreign policy team argued strenuously that he should not recognize the new state, which he did anyway shortly after its creation.
President Johnson faced it over civil rights and Vietnam, both of which opened fissures within the Democratic party that would pave the way for Republican victories for years to come in once-safe Democratic areas.
President George W. Bush faced it over Iraq, when growing numbers of members within his own party began to echo Democratic calls to retreat before he ignored them and sent more troops to quell the chaos.
History has treated Truman well over Israel, and Johnson well over civil rights. The jury is out for Bush over Iraq.
It’s gut-check time for Obama. History can wait. The world will soon see whether he feels strongly about who should get more tax cuts and who should not.
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.