How President Obama Orchestrated John Boehner's $40 Surrender Starting A Year Ago

The President has just signed a temporary extension of the payroll tax cut, after John Boehner and the House Republicans caved under tremendous pressure from the American people.

I have said it before, and I will say it again. Barack Obama is the most brilliant political strategist of our time - hell he's one of the most brilliant of any time. When the Republican Teabaggers in the House thought they could raise taxes on working Americans in order to protect giveaways to multinationals and the ultra rich, someone in Washington wasn't ready to let it go. President Obama wasn't ready to go. The payroll tax cut - the first tax cut in recent memory for the working poor - was due to expire at the end of this year, and the Republicans wanted to end it. Yes, they will tell you that they wanted to keep it in place, but make no mistake about their real intent: ending it by putting in poison pills.

When the Senate passed a deal last week - consisting of a temporary extension of the tax cut for two months, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits and a Medicare payment fix for providers, Teahadists thought that they hadn't extracted anything from the White House, and John Boehner, ever the very-bad-at-his-job Speaker of the House, went out there to try to please them. So the President, whose only concern has been to prevent a tax hike on working people next year that would stifle economic growth, yanked at those teabags that John Boehner was holding out.

$40. That's the amount of the payroll tax cut on each paycheck (assuming the paycheck is every two weeks) for the average family or individual making $50,000 a year. The GOP is so out of touch with the struggles of everyday Americans - one out of two of whom now live at or near poverty - that they figured that 40 bucks every two weeks means nothing - just as it wouldn't to their super rich friends. But Barack Obama, who's been poor and spent his building years being a community organizer knew better. He asked Americans directly, what does $40 mean to you? And hard-working, tax-paying, red-blooded Americans flooded the Internet and the airwaves.
@whitehouse #40dollars is half of my grocery budget for the week for my family.
#40Dollars is the cost of my monthly blood test to make sure my #Crohns meds aren't making me sick.
#40dollars is a pack of diapers. And that's not nothing when you have two little ones.
#40dollars. That's a tank of gas each paycheck
@whitehouse #40dollars is the difference between having food for the next week and not eating at all.
The President not only has taken ownership and leadership on this issue, he fought like hell. And yesterday, once again, the President went out there and insisted that Congress do its job. He brought the voices of ordinary people who make America the most extraordinary place on this planet. Here is the president, standing by the American people while he engages us in our own governing. Among the stories the President quoted, three nights in an unheated home:

I can tell you what $40 means to me. It's a tank of gas, it's a week's worth of groceries. It's almost half of my portion of the health insurance premium I get through my employer. It's a few movie nights. It's literally half of my cell phone bill.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress heard from their constituents, and John Boehner folded. Like a cheap, $40-tent. Look at Speaker Orange's face as he announces this and the the rest of the Republican leadership in the House hangs him out there to dry all by himself:

But if we step back for a second and try to figure out how this happened, barely a year after the biggest Republican electoral resurgence (likely) in history, we cannot help but look at a few obvious factors:

  1. Barack Obama is a brilliant politician, and an American president who's had nothing but the best interest of ordinary people at heart.
  2. John Boehner sucks at his job as Speaker of the House, and more accurately as leader of the Congressional Republicans.
  3. The Tea Party badly miscalculated their 2010 electoral triumph and took it as a signal to beat up on the President and move the country to further right, faster.
All of that is pretty obvious in hindsight. But to know that with foresight, more than a year ahead of time, takes brilliance and political acumen that is unprecedented. When the President first took office and pushed for and accomplished sweeping changes such as health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform and the largest economic stimulus in history, he knew there would be a political backlash fueled not just by right wing fury and Fox News media frenzy, but also fueled in almost equal part by the ideological Left's obsession over line-item demands not met in these legislation (i.e. their 'ponies') - whether it was a weak public option in health reform, nationalization of the banks in financial reform, or whining about the size of the economic stimulus without ever suggesting any productive ways of expanding it.

So the President knew that there would be a backlash. And that backlash came, with the full benefit of the Left accomplices of the Right wing fundamentalists, in November 2010 as the Tea Party Republicans soared to big victories and the pony-politickers on the Left convinced a whole lot of Democratic voters to stay home.

Having accomplished the biggest reforms in the first two years with a Democratic majority though, the President, once the backlash came, turned to exposing the political Right for what it is - an arm of the multinational corporations invading American government. To do that, he had to first methodically and deliberately take from them their hostage-taking abilities. Right after the Tea Party victories of 2010, the President allowed the Republicans to get a temporary 2-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich in order to continue and expand the tax reliefs for the middle class and the poor under President Obama. One of those trades was the payroll tax cut, and another one was the extension of unemployment benefits.

Yes, plenty of self-proclaimed liberals put up a spirited defense of a flat tax and opposed the payroll-tax cut, but in the end, it was good policy both because it reduced the tax burden on the middle class and the working class, and also because it made the general fund - mostly filled with a progressive income tax revenue - chip in to fill the revenue gap in social security that would otherwise be created by the slashing of the flat FICA tax. The GOP was so interested in protecting the tax cuts for the rich, they were blind to this new political and policy reality a Democratic president was setting up at the wake of their own political victory party. While the Professional Left was whining about this deal a year ago, the Republicans unwittingly helped the president implant the seeds of progressive tax policy.

And then, the President went through fights with the Republicans to take away their other hostages. Most importantly, them holding the American economy hostage to the debt limit. Once again, the Left whined, but the President quietly set up a deal that transferred the burden of making a deficit reduction deal onto the Republicans, with little choice left but to use progressive tax policy to do so (as the President protected programs for the poor as well as Medicare benefits while the Republicans failed to secure any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich beyond next year).

Once those seeds were in the ground, the President pivoted to his jobs bill, challenging Congress to join him in his efforts to kick-start the economy, create jobs, and provide targeted tax cuts for the middle class. A big part of his jobs bill was in fact the extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut, along with extending long-term unemployment insurance. By this time, the GOP realized what was happening to them. But it was too late. Barack Obama had already pulled the rug out from under them, and put them in the indefensible position of wanting to raise taxes on the middle class and the working poor while they fight tooth and nail to protect tax breaks for trust fund babies. Even the failure of the Supercommittee, with cuts now looming hugely on Defense, has put Republicans between Barack and a hard place. And the payroll tax fight crushed them so badly that even the Wall Street Journal editorial page ran like the wind from them.

As much as the GOP and the right wing media despise the poor, no one was willing to be the grinch this Christmas with an election year looming over. So Boehner caved. He folded.

But unfortunately for him, this isn't the end of it. Had the Republicans not tied themselves into more knots during this debate and approved a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut funded by a surtax on income over $1 million, they would have deprived the President and the Democrats of having the pleasure of this same debate again in two months - a debate the President has obviously won. And so in two months, in the middle of Republican primary season dominated by Teabaggers, the Republicans in Congress will have to choose between oiling their base while facing the wrath of the larger electorate and caving again and facing the wrath of their base.

Frankly, I can't wait!

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