Anyone who wondered whether a vote for President Barack Obama meant something should have been reassured by his performance in Wednesday’s news conference. In the central issue that faces the country right now, whether the resolution to the so-called fiscal cliff will involve higher taxes on the wealthy, he could not have been more clear. Republicans who think they can blackmail the president into backing down on that question, as he did two years ago, had better think again.
Obama outlined several reasons why he was willing to accept an extension of all the Bush tax cuts, including those for the wealthy, at the end of 2010. The economy was particularly weak then, he said, and the extension was packaged with a number of other, crucial proposals, like an extension of unemployment insurance benefits. What he did not mention was perhaps the key difference between 2012 and 2010: Then, he had just stood up at a post-election news conference and admitted to taking a “shellacking”; this time, he was just re-elected decisively, while Republicans lost seats in both the House and Senate. As Obama noted, exit polls showed that substantially more people believe in higher taxes for the rich than voted for the incumbent president.
That’s why he could be confident in outlining just two options for how we proceed: Either the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, taxes go up on everyone and the economy suffers; or Congress agrees in the next six weeks to legislation that keeps the Bush tax cuts in place for the middle class but not the rich. Republicans would be wise to take the latter approach. They lost the fight over taxes on the wealthy at the ballot box, and seeking to evade that fact by holding the middle class hostage is not going to further endear them to the American people. There are plenty of other fronts on which to make their voices heard.
Higher taxes on the wealthy will not single-handedly solve the nation’s fiscal problems, but that’s no reason to reject them. As a matter of simple fairness, it would be wrong to demand sacrifices from those who cannot easily afford them — as we almost inevitably will be forced to do — without first asking those who have plenty to contribute more.
And it is by no means all that the president is proposing that we should do. His opening bid in negotiations for a grand bargain on deficit reduction includes about twice as much new revenue as the failed deal he discussed with Republican leaders in the summer of 2011. That includes higher taxes on corporations as well. But the president also indicated that he is willing to accept cuts to entitlement programs and discretionary spending as part of a deficit reduction deal. Elections have consequences, and Republicans need to accept that the ground has shifted under their feet in the last 18 months.
Although talk of the fiscal cliff and taxes dominated the news conference, the moment that is likely to be most frequently repeated on television is the president’s response to a threat by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham that they would block any attempt Obama made to nominate United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to the post of secretary of state because they believe she answered questions about the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, dishonestly. Obama, showing unusual fierceness, saying that if the Republican senators “want to go after someone, they should go after me.”
On the substance, though, he still largely dodged questions about the Benghazi attack, both in terms of what went wrong with the security at the consulate and of the administration’s shifting descriptions of the nature of the attack. Likewise, although he offered some assurance that the sex scandal surrounding David Petraeus’ resignation from the CIA — which has now expanded to include the commander of American forces in Afghanistan — did not involve any breaches of national security, the president dodged questions about whether he and the American people should have known about the FBI investigation into the matter before last week’s election.
And sadly, this may be the last good opportunity the news media (and by extension, the American people) have to directly press him on those issues. Obama’s news conferences have been infrequent, indeed; the last was eight months ago. If he was serious when he said he is looking for ways to improve upon his performance from the first term, this would be a good place to start.