Huffpost Politics
Howard Fineman Headshot

Obama Channels Reagan, and Risks Becoming Carter

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WASHINGTON -- As President Obama channels Ronald Reagan he risks turning himself into Jimmy Carter.

By staking his next two years on hundreds of billions of dollars of new or renewed tax cuts -- none of them tied directly to compensating cuts in government spending -- Obama is alienating his own Democratic base in a way that could make him what Carter was: a one-term, ineffective "outsider" president.

Back in 2007 and 2008, when he was a presidential candidate, Obama expressed surprising admiration for Reagan's game-changing, tax-cutting presidency.

Like other campaign-trail wiseguys, I thought that this mostly was a sly, Obamian way of dissing the Clinton Years (and by extension Hillary Clinton) as an intellectually and historically inconsequential saga of mere survival.

Maybe he's just been backed -- or backed himself -- into a Reaganite corner, but after the sweeping tax deal the president just made with Republicans, I'm wondering if he hadn't meant more than we thought at the time.

The White House and the party spin doctors it controls are putting out press releases touting all that Obama "got" in his "negotiations" with the GOP.

But most of what he "got" were more unpaid-for tax cuts to go along with the $100 billion or so he waved ahead in two year's worth of tax cuts for every family making more than $250,000 a year.

Even the estate-tax deals had levels and limits far lower than what accountants and tax advisors to the rich had been bracing for, I'm told by industry types.

The macroeconomic essence of the Reagan Years was: stimulative tax cuts that would goose the economy, yes, but leave a legacy of debt that would ultimately require program-starving governmental austerity.

George W. Bush, eager to show that he wasn't his father's son when it came to lip-moving on taxes, vastly doubled down on the Reagan theory. That, two wars and a drug-prescription subsidy (and heavy deficit spending by Obama) has left us with what is fast becoming a Third World level of unsustainable debt.

Democrats are justifiably angry and confused.

That was the reason why House leaders met Saturday night with Vice President Biden.

There are probably enough votes in both the House and Senate for passage, and perhaps what we are seeing and hearing now is theater. The essence of the game now will be to let as many Dems as possible vote against the package -- so they can protect themselves in their states and districts -- while still making sure there are enough votes for passage.

I talked today to some senior House Democrats who told me it's no sweat, but they have to be very careful that it all doesn't get out of hand -- which was why the President called his press conference.

Perhaps the 52 Blue Dogs alone are enough -- assuming unified GOP support -- to carry the House. And half of them lost their races -- and if they want to create mischief (or express concern about the debt) they are free to do so.

But this deal crystallizes the new reality of this year -- which is not only that the GOP is on the rampage but that the Dems have fallen out of love with their ostensible hero.

Even if there is no democratic challenger to Obama, he is in grave danger of Carterization.

Consider this: if the economy improves over the next two years, it will in part be "because" of the Bush tax cuts! And if it doesn't, it will be because of the Bush tax cuts that became the Obama tax cuts!