Amid demands from Republicans that President Barack Obama propose detailed new spending cuts to avert the year-end fiscal crisis, his answer boils down to this: YOU first.
Obama, scarred by failed negotiations in his first term and emboldened by a clear if close election to a second, has emerged as a different kind of negotiator in the past week or two, sticking to the liberal line and frustrating Republicans on the other side of the bargaining table.
Disciplined and unyielding, he argues for raising taxes on the wealthy while offering nothing new to rein in spending and overhaul entitlement programs beyond what was on the table last year. Until Republicans offer their own new plan, Obama will not alter his. In effect, he is trying to leverage what he claims as an election mandate to force Republicans to take ownership of the difficult choices ahead.
His approach is borne of painful experience. In his first four years in office, Obama has repeatedly offered what he considered compromises on stimulus spending, health care and deficit reduction to Republicans, who either rejected them as inadequate or pocketed them and insisted on more. Republicans argued that Obama never made serious efforts at compromise and instead lectured them about what they ought to want rather than listening to what they did want.
Either way, the two sides were left at loggerheads over the weekend with less than a month until a series of painful tax increases and spending cuts automatically take effect, risking what economists say would be a new recession.
Obama refuses to propose more spending cuts until Republicans accept higher tax rates on the wealthy, and Republicans refuse to accept higher tax rates on the wealthy while asking for more spending cuts.
"I'm puzzled why Republicans are locking into a principle that's not sustainable and why Democrats aren't taking the moment to put forward their own vision of entitlement reform," said Peter R. Orszag, a former White House budget director for Obama.
Orszag's former White House colleagues said they had grown tired of making unilateral concessions only to see Republicans moving the goal posts, as they see it. "The president is not going to negotiate with himself," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. "He's laid out his position, and Republicans have to come to the table."
Republican strategists argue that in resorting to campaign-style events to take his fiscal message to voters, Obama is overplaying his hand, much as President George W. Bush did after his re-election when he barnstormed the country in favor of a Social Security restructuring plan that he never tried to sell to leaders on Capitol Hill.
"He is overreading his mandate," said John Feehery, a former adviser to top House Republicans. "By doing the campaign thing, he is making the same mistake Bush made in 2005." Eventually, he said, Democratic and Republican leaders "are going to cut the deal, and Obama is going to be on the outside looking in."
The difference might be that Obama ran more explicitly on the idea of letting Bush's tax cuts expire for incomes over $250,000 while Bush's re-election was fought more on grounds of national security than Social Security. But both presidents emerged from relatively narrow re-elections determined to impose their will on a balky Congress resisting their leadership.
Obama seemed to defy the Republican House last week when Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner delivered a plan calling for $1.6 trillion in additional taxes from the wealthy over 10 years, as well as $50 billion in short-term stimulus spending and $612 billion in recycled cuts first put on the table during last year's failed debt talks.
Republicans erupted in outrage, though they produced no specific alternative. Instead, they noted that they had expressed newfound willingness since the election to increase tax revenue by limiting deductions for the wealthy, though not by raising rates.
The administration laid out its latest plan in less formal ways a couple of weeks earlier, according to a senior official who declined to be identified discussing private deliberations. But the message was that Speaker John A. Boehner could not move yet. After waiting with no further response, the administration decided to have Geithner deliver the proposal on paper knowing that it would be provocative but thinking that it was needed to move the process along.
Instead, the process has collapsed, at least for now. The depth of disagreement played out on the Sunday morning talk shows, even as Obama went golfing with former President Bill Clinton in a session that White House officials presumed would include trading notes about the fiscal crisis.
"We've put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues up there to try to get this question resolved," Boehner said on "Fox News Sunday." "But the White House has responded with virtually nothing. They have actually asked for more revenue than they've been asking for the whole entire time."
Geithner said it was up to Republicans to outline more spending cuts than Obama had previously put on the table. "Some Republicans apparently want to go beyond that, but what they have to do is tell us what they're prepared to do," Geithner told Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "And what we can't do, Bob, is sit here trying to guess what works for them."
That represents something of a shift for Obama, who did try to guess what worked for Republicans in his first term. When he crafted a stimulus spending program to bolster the economy shortly after taking office, Obama devoted roughly a third of the money to tax cuts he assumed Republicans would like. They did not. Likewise, his framework for universal health care included free-market elements he thought Republicans would embrace. They did not.
While Republicans argued that the overall programs overshadowed any palatable aspects, Obama came to believe he had made a mistake in offering concessions up front. In an interview in September 2010, he said he had learned "that if you already have a third of the package as tax cuts, then the Republicans, who traditionally are more comfortable with tax cuts, may just pocket that and attack the other components of the program."
Aides said Obama came to the same conclusion after his clash with Republicans over raising the nation's borrowing limit last year. "We put all these things on the table, and the reason we couldn't do a deal is because Republicans couldn't do revenues," Pfeiffer said. "So our view here is the president won't sign a deal that doesn't have higher rates for the wealthy. Until they cross that bridge, nothing else is relevant."
Yet there is risk in that. Republicans now understand that higher tax rates on the wealthy is Obama's No. 1 priority, so rather than give in, some strategists say they should hold out to leverage those to shape other aspects of a final deal.
"He only cares about one detail: raising rates on the top two brackets," said Tony Fratto, a former White House and Treasury Department official under Bush. "Everything else is secondary. That's why if that is going to happen, it will be last if Republicans can hold out. I think it's pretty clear Obama will sacrifice just about anything to get that. It's the only win for him."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service