Matt Miller - The Archives
Where was the tax duel we needed?
The WashPost blog, December 7, 2010

"The issue is not, 'How do I persuade the American people?' They are with me," Obama said during Tuesday's press conference of his desire not to extend the Bush tax cuts for the best off two percent of Americans. "The issue is, 'How do I persuade Republicans in the Senate?' I have not been able to budge them."

But when did the president try? I mean really try—not by sending Jack Lew and Tim Geithner to say "pretty please" behind closed doors, but by mobilizing public opinion. If polls showed Americans with him, and Republicans in the Senate against, why didn't the president challenge Senate Republicans to a televised debate on the single question of whether extending $120 billion in tax cuts for the top 2 percent over the next two years was sound policy at a time of war and surging debt?

Much as he did with that touted visit to the Republican caucus in 2009, Obama could have gone to the Senate floor, invited the cameras in and given Americans a tutorial in federal finance and the state of the economy by way of explaining why keeping taxes for the top below their rates during the Clinton-era boom shouldn't be a priority today. It won't boost job creation, he'd explain. It's not about "punishing the rich," he'd add; it's about asking all Americans to do what they can to move the country forward. He could have explained that it's wrong to keep passing the bill for Afghanistan to our children in order to keep taxes lower for the most fortunate members of our society. Obama could have also noted how strange it is that a minority of senators representing far less than a majority of Americans could hold economic policy hostage unless the wealthiest get theirs.

A creative exercise in political theater, in which Obama and his foes would have been forced to move past sound bites to explain the reasoning behind their views and to engage with the arguments of their opponents would have been a chance for Obama to reclaim the initiative—and to reclaim $120 billion over two years for far better uses. Why didn't we get the tax duel we needed?