Beneath the Presidential Platitudes

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson has put fresh emphasis on a major and underlying aspect of our fiscal disputes: It’s the yoots versus the coots. The young may not be aware of it, but they’ll long bear the tax burden of the entitlement arrangements the old have instituted. Mr. Simpson’s video is both merry—he dances Gangnam style to make his point—and shrewd. He casts the spending story as one involving greedy geezer organizations and sympathizes with the position of the young while teasing them for their preoccupations: “Stop Instagramming your breakfast and tweeting your First World problems . . . and start using those precious social media skills to go out and sign people up on this baby.”

On “Today” he was earnest. “Let me tell you, the young people aren’t organized,” he said. “The senior citizens are so well organized—they got the AARP . . . the Gray Panthers, the silver-head legislators, the pink panthers. They are organized and they don’t give a whip. The younger generation better learn to take part or get taken apart.”

That is the clearest message so far in the fiscal cliff debate, to the extent it’s a debate. The Republican negotiators, to the extent they are allowed to negotiate, are at a disadvantage in terms of explaining what’s at issue. There are a dozen of them, they’re lawmakers, they speak the language of legislation, and when they make statements at press gaggles they’re not talking to the American people but, inevitably, to the president, his staff and the larger political class. So the higher meaning of things, on the Republican side, seems to have gotten a little lost. In fact at the moment they look like a party that is both obsessed with a thing—tax rates—and unable to explain why it’s important.

The president operates under a different dynamic. There’s just one of him, he’s the chief executive, and he was just re-elected. He’s talking not to the Republicans—that’s what Treasury secretaries are for—but to the American people.

He could talk about the higher, deeper meaning of his stands, but he chooses not to. He speaks of immediate intentions—he doesn’t have to meet with the Republicans, “sitting in a room” isn’t the issue—and repeats platitudes about the outcome he desires: “a balanced, responsible approach,” not something “out of balance.”

It’s all so bland and rounded. But his actions are sharper, starker. He’s meeting with businesspeople, out making speeches, giving interviews. And there was his offer last week to Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, made through Treasury Secretary Tim Geither. That offer, reduced to its essentials, appears to have been: Tax increases including rate hikes, more spending, permanent lifting of the debt ceiling—and we may talk entitlement reform down the road.

Mr. McConnell said he laughed. Mr. Boehner said he was “flabbergasted.” Some, including in this space, were startled and saddened. We’re in a debt and deficit crisis, the Republicans just got beat and need an agreement, and you offer a deal they couldn’t possibly back? With the clock ticking toward a sequester deadline that could upset major portions of the economy? During a weak recovery with high unemployment?

But a week’s reflection gives rise to other thoughts.

First, that was a real Michael Corleone move. And that’s how the White House probably saw it. We refer of course to Michael in Las Vegas, when he was trying to get the casino license. He’s insulted by the U.S. senator, Pat Geary, who offers onerous terms for support. “I’ll give you my answer now, Senator. This is what I offer: Nothing.” The senator laughed, and left.

Here we end all further comparisons to the fiscal cliff and various subplot outcomes in “The Godfather Part II.” But Mr. Obama’s opening bid was a tough, brazen, angry move.

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That’s just a description of the move. What was behind it?

Our second thought is it was so obvious it was hard to see. Here we thank E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post’s reliable chronicler of and explicator of Democratic Party thinking. After the Geithner meeting, Mr. Dionne wrote a column expressing surprise at other people’s surprise. “An entirely new political narrative is taking shape before our eyes,” he said, and people are missing it. The president “finally has room to move.” His offer to the Republicans “was a compendium of what he’d actually prefer.” The deficit is not the highest national priority, economic growth is. Mr. Obama will favor spending to pump up that economy, not cuts that will take the air out of it.

Suddenly it was obvious: The president doesn’t want to cut spending, he wants to increase it. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, as he defines them. He does not want the government to be smaller but bigger, or, as he’d probably put it, as big as it has to be.

His actions aren’t only about politics—”crush the foe.” He’s happy to crush the foe, and would see the long-term political benefit in it, but it’s not his primary motive. And its not about economics per se—he knows raising taxes on the rich will not solve our fiscal problems. He’s seen, as he likes to say, the math.

What is motivating him primarily is ideology. And an ideological opening. He doesn’t like the malefactors of great wealth. He wants to “spread the wealth around,” as he told “Joe the Plumber” in Ohio in 2008. His ideological and political affinities are with those he defines as the needy, and his answer to them is to see they are the focus of greater public spending. Period.

His language is bland because his stand is not. He doesn’t want to startle people with clarity. When he was clear with Joe the Plumber, it got him in trouble because a lot of voters didn’t really want what they called redistributionism, which sounds to them like endless high taxing, high spendingand no way out.

Mr. Dionne, in turn, sent me back to “The Promise,” Jonathan Alter’s valuable history of the Obama administration’s first year. Mr. Alter wrote of the 2009 stimulus bill as a big “grab bag that would never get proper credit for being one of the most important pieces of legislation in a generation.” It contained the bank bailout, the extension of unemployment benefits, an expansion of food stamps, and money for states and cities to forestall public employee layoffs. But it contained other elements—infrastructure and education spending, scientific and medical research, clean energy proposals, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Mr. Alter provides a startling anecdote: “A congressman approached the first lady at a White House reception after the bill’s passage and told her the stimulus was the best antipoverty bill in a generation. Her reaction was, ‘Shhhh!’ The White House didn’t want the public thinking that Obama had achieved long-sought public policy objectives under the guise of merely stimulating the economy, even though that’s exactly what had happened.”

The oddest thing about the leftward part of the president’s base is that they’re always angry with him, always disappointed. A conservative sees it differently: Slowly but surely he has been trying to give them much of what they want. And it wouldn’t be because he disagrees with them.

Funny they don’t notice. Maybe it’s because he’s so careful not to say it.