Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Is Charles Krauthammer Scared of Obama?

Judging by this column, Charles Krauthammer is terrified of President Obama. Where some see a president who has capitulated to his ideological foes, Krauthammer, by contrast, detects a nefarious Obama whose cunning has set a trap for the GOP on tax and spending policy. Obama, thanks to the foolishness of the congressional GOP, which appeased him, is on the rebound. All the GOP did is ratify a new round of stimulus spending:

Even as they were near unanimously voting for this monstrosity, Republicans began righteously protesting $8.3 billion of earmarks in Harry Reid's omnibus spending bill. They seem not to understand how ridiculous this looks after having agreed to a Stimulus II that even by their own generous reckoning has 38 times as much spending as all these earmarks combined.

So says Krauthammer, at any rate. But is it true? Has Obama pulled a fast one on the GOP? Or did he betray his own principles?

Early polls suggest that Obama, in compromising with the GOP, has begun to shore up his centrist bona fides. It's also true, as Krauthammer notes, that the bill continues lots of pork for bogus projects such as ethanol, a program that even Al Gore now admits is inimical to sound environmental practices. The bill also adds about a whopping $1 trillion to the national debt.

But both Obama and the GOP were in something of a bind. Former vice-president Dick Cheney famously said that "deficits don't matter." But at some point they clearly do. We just don't know at what point.

Republicans were desperate to retain the Bush tax cuts in toto. In return they extended unemployment insurance for another twelve months and agreed to a payroll tax cut. But to argue that Obama somehow outmanuevered the Republicans is implausible. 

Krauthammer focuses on the politics, arguing that Obama's base has nowhere else to go. But it could. It could, in fact, go nowhere. On election day. That alone could jeopardize Obama's reelection chances. The real question is whether Obama is going to morph into the slayer of old-time liberalism.

He was elected on the expectation that he would revive the Democratic party. But what if he does it by completing the Clinton revolution? It's worth asking what will be left of liberalism after one, or especially two, terms of Obama. Obama is talking about using the tax cut program deal as a template for reaching other compromises with the GOP on issues such as reforming Social Security. Now that the midterm election has wiped out many House members, Obama is free to tack to the center.

Ultimately, the president remains the central actor. If there's a foreign policy crisis, he's the big man. If Obama wants to reshape the federal government, he can float a proposal that will appeal to Republicans. Obama's mistake during the health care debate was to rely on congressional Democrats to come up with a program. He forgot the old line that the president proposes and Congress disposes. It looks as though Obama may be going into proposing mode.

But whether this really turns him into the cunning chameleon that Krauthammer purports to see is another question. The blunt fact is that Obama can do all the trimming he wants, but if unemployment remains at 10 percent he's most likely a one-term president.