Looking Forward to a Laundry List

I think William Galston is absolutely correct to emphasize that after whatever tax deal does or doesn’t get done during the lame duck session, there’s an urgent need to get out of the back and forth over “Bush tax cuts” and on to more fundamental reform of the tax code. But I think this tactical advice is mistaken:

This is one of many reasons why the 2011 State of the Union address may well be the most important speech of Obama’s presidency. If he is able to chart a new course toward growth and fiscal sanity and back it with specifics — starting but not ending with tax reform — he will improve not only his own prospects, but the nation’s as well. If he does not — if the speech devolves into the kind of routine laundry list that Winston Churchill once dubbed a “themeless pudding” — the chances of gridlock and drift will rise, and so will the prospects of a return to unified Republican governance in 2013.

It sounds silly to call for less presidential leadership, but I think the evidence suggests that what’s needed here is actually a very vague and generic endorsement of the concept of tax reform plus some themeless pudding. Frances Lee’s important book Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate argues persuasively that what happens when a president tries to “lead” on an issue like this is that a dynamic of partisan polarization kicks in. What you really need to get tax reform is for some hard-working members of congress from both parties to take the initiative in hammering out a framework and building support on the Hill. If such a thing happens, the White House should of course try to play a constructive role. But jumping all over the issue and a creating a dynamic where tax reform becomes “a key priority for the Obama administration” that opportunists on the right want to kill for the sake of a political win would not be a constructive intervention.