Watching the press conference today, it was hard not to be struck by the extent to which Barack Obama really and truly wants a grand bargain on the deficit. One doesn’t say this kind of thing at a press conference, but you could easily imagine him saying, “Look, Republicans, I agree with you — I want to enact steep cuts in spending, but to sell my base on it you need to throw me some tax hikes.”
But here we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down. After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side. When Obama didn’t want to embrace Bowles-Simpson, then failure to embrace Bowles-Simpson was a valid critique of him. But had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson, then it would have been necessary for his opponents to reject it. That’s why now that Obama has a position well to the right of Bowles-Simpson, his opponents are still against Bowles-Simpson.