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Obama didn’t get mugged in deal with Republicans

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
December 7, 2010 6:19 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

There’s a lot more to Obama’s tax-cut deal with Republicans than you’d imagine from the Democratic hand-wringing over it.

Symbolically, it seemed a huge GOP victory, because many liberal Democrats had framed the whole argument in terms of giveaways to the wealthy and Republican callousness toward the unemployed. They wanted to decouple the tax cuts given to high-income Americans in 2001 and 2003 from the cuts given to households of lower income.

Democrats wanted to renew the latter while letting the former to expire on schedule at the end of December. This would make the tax code more progressive – a Democratic dream and a nightmare of many Republicans.

In the current economic distress – huge deficits combined with deep recession – the Democrats had the better side of the argument. Renewal of tax relief for the most affluent would be a missed opportunity for whittling down the immense gap between federal revenue and spending. Letting rates suddenly rise in January for less wealthy Americans – who pump most of their discretionary income into the economy – would have been disastrous.

But on Monday, Republicans held the line, and Obama abandoned his previous demands to squeeze more from the affluent. Many Democrats are gnashing their teeth and accusing their president of spinelessness.

But a closer look at the deal – the actual deal, not the symbolic one – tells a different story.

For starters, there’s the extension of unemployment benefits to 2 million jobless Americans who were about to see their income evaporate. This denies Democrats the chance to keep on painting Republicans as heartless Scrooges, but bottom line, they got what they wanted.

Another sweetener is the one-year, 2 percent cut in the Social Security payroll tax, a break that overwhelmingly benefits Americans of modest income.

Another is the $40 billion earmarked for refundable tax credits for the working poor, parents of limited means and families paying college tuition.

Yet another: new tax incentives for businesses to the tune of $90 billion. Most of those are small businesses, and Democrats wanted this provision.

This is a far more complex deal than partisan rhetoric (and moaning) makes it out to be. Economists are impressed, and are raising their projections for job creation and growth on the assumption that Congress will ratify the deal.

In politics, where symbolism reigns, it’s often easier to get angry over the other side’s wins than celebrate one’s own. In this case, congressional Democrats ought to voice their anguish, pocket their victories, approve the deal and move on.

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