Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Obama A One-Term President?

Not everyone is taking the debt ceiling compromise so well. Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, fumes that President Obama should have taken extreme measures such as invoking the 14th amendment to end debate unilaterally. American democracy itself, he says, is imperiled: "how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t."

But the debt deal hardly testifies to a broken system. Instead, it's democracy in action, where pretty much everyone gets what they wanted. President Obama can pose as a budget-cutter, though a whopping $7 trillion will be added to the deficit over the next decade. True, it's somewhat jarring to hear him extolling the virtues of slashing the deficit--this is the guy who spent trillions to try and juice the economy upon entering office. Now he never speaks about jobs. But then again, he probably realizes that many jobs are never coming back. America could be in for a prolonged period of high unemployment. Yet in the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Malcolm suggests that Obama got little out of the deal:

All he got basically, it seems, was an agreement to put off the next spending fight until after the 2012 presidential election. Republican legislators, who said they wanted to debate the debt limit again next winter, gave that up. Which helps them as much as the former legislator now in the White House.

Obama will, no doubt, have more to say about the deal today. See if he throws in more sour grapes as he did after the GOP won its Bush tax cut extensions in last December's talks. Back then, Obama, who promised to bring both sides together if elected in 2008, called his fellow deal-makers "hostage-takers."

What about Senator Mitch McConnell? He got everything he wanted—no new taxes. What he may not win, however, is an Obama who is a one-term president. For all the contempt being poured upon Obama by the left and right, he has solidified his bona fides with independent voters. His message going into the 2012 election is pretty obvious, and the GOP has inadvertently helped him make it. He'll say that he's pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, nailed Osama bin Laden, and managed to bring down the deficit by crafting a compromise deal in the face of vigorous opposition of both the Tea Party and the left wing of his own party. It's beginning to dawn upon liberal Democrats that the days of big new government programs are over. Spending is out. Austerity is in.

Obama is in love with conciliation. He will never abandon his credo that the climate in Washington needs to change. He'll depict himself as the only person that can stand up to the Tea Party. In fact, he may not even campaign against the GOP in 2012. He could pivot and talk about the Tea Party all the time. He will make it sound like a threat to both the GOP and Democrats.

And Obama does retain a trump card. It's called the Bush tax cuts. If he lets them lapse for everyone, not just the wealthy, then the deficit shrinks even further starting in 2013. The power of presidents ebbs and flows. Obama's has ebbed. If he's going to make his comeback, he has to start now.