It may be that this proposal was simply an extreme negotiating position that will be dramatically reshaped over the next 27 days. Or it may be that the president is, for political reasons, happy to have us go over the cliff. The calculation would be that he’s confident he can pin blame on Republicans for this having happened, portraying them as willing to increase taxes on the middle class and wreck the economy in order to keep taxes on the richest 1 percent from going up to Clinton-era rates.
The president, fresh off his re-election victory, does have a strong hand to play. But I agree with those (like Keith Hennessey and Charles Krauthammer) who believe Mr. Obama may well over-reach and in the process severely injure his second term. Because if we go over the fiscal cliff, and as a result unemployment rises to above 9 percent and we go into another recession, there is no way the president escapes responsibility for that. We saw a version of this during the 44-day debt negotiations in the summer of 2011, an ugly and unsatisfying process that left everyone associated with it — including the president — diminished and damaged (for more, see Bob Woodard’s instructive book, The Price of Politics). If we go over the fiscal cliff, it will make that episode look like a model of good government. The public will be enraged at everyone who played a part in this failure — and the most conspicuous person of all will be Mr. Obama.