Michael Gerson: Is Obama going too far?

December 4, 2012 

The endorsement of a continental nation being a powerful stimulant, all victorious presidents face the temptation of overreach.

Following his re-election in 2004, President George W. Bush undertook 60 stops in 60 days to sell the nation on Social Security reform. America remained unsold. In 1992, President Bill Clinton attempted and failed to reorganize the country's health care system -- then promptly lost Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in four decades.

"The fundamental political mistake committed by Bill Clinton and his aides," argue political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro, "was in grossly overestimating the capacity of a president to 'win' public opinion and to use public support as leverage to overcome known political obstacles."

President Obama, prone to overestimate his own capacity at communication, is now on the verge of serious overreach in two areas: First, his opening budget bid -- a repackaging of his previous budget, which got precisely zero votes in Congress -- was a calculated insult. Obama proposed spending reductions of $60 billion a year -- about 1.6 percent of a $3.8 trillion budget. He asked Congress to cede its control over the debt limit.

And then he undertook a clumsy campaign swing, accusing Republicans of offering a "lump of coal" and a "Scrooge Christmas." It was a policy joke, wrapped in a taunt, delivered with a puerile touch.

Obama supporters nodded approvingly, saying that he is finished "negotiating with himself." But right now, he doesn't seem to be negotiating with anyone.

Some Republican senators open to budget compromise sounded genuinely disappointed. "It just seems unserious," one told me. Contrary to much reporting on the issue, the Senate GOP red line is not an absolute resistance to tax rate increases on the wealthy. It is an insistence that rate increases be part of a deal that includes entitlement reform.

So the most disturbing aspect of the Democrats' opening budget gambit was the attempt -- launched by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. -- to delink tax increases from entitlement changes.

The end game of a grand budget deal is not difficult to determine. Obama would get his rate increases, perhaps on earners making $500,000 a year or more, along with a variety of loophole closings for the wealthy. Republicans would get modest structural reforms of Medicare -- perhaps adjusting the eligibility age, increasing means testing and putting limits on "medigap" policies. And Medicaid could move toward a per-capita cap on the federal portion for nondisabled people -- an idea supported by governors of both parties.

If Obama really wants long-term fiscal stability that will reassure markets and encourage investment and growth, he needs the leverage of Republicans pushing for entitlement reform within budget negotiations. If he merely wants to fund unsustainable federal commitments for a few more years through higher taxes on the wealthy, he will try to steamroll Republicans on rates.

Right now, he seems to be taking the later course.

A second possible overreach concerns Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat -- now endorsed by the White House -- to change the rules for Senate filibusters. GOP senators already feel picked upon by Reid's practice of "filling the amendment tree," making it impossible for them to introduce amendments to legislation. If Reid kicks off the new session in January by limiting the historical privileges of the minority -- because the minority currently happens to be Republican -- it will provoke a furious revolt.

To get his rule change on filibusters, Reid would need to demonstrate that any Senate rule could be changed by a simple majority. This would make the Senate a smaller, more pompous version of the House, where the majority rewrites the rules every two years and the minority consequently counts for little.

At least in the short term, Reid would achieve little more than the humiliation of Republicans. An empowered Senate Democratic majority could pass 1,000 bills that would still languish in the Republican House. But Reid would succeed in provoking a constitutional crisis in the middle of a complex, continuing budget negotiation.

Either of these heavy-handed strategies -- the budget overreach or the attack on the filibuster -- could backfire. Taken together, they might light Obama's inaugural festivities in a glow of burning bridges. America has just ended a long, exhausting, divisive, dispiriting campaign, from which the president has apparently drawn this lesson: We need more of it.

THE WASHINGTON POST

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