Obama on the fiscal cliff: We can still get this done if everyone just gives a little bit

I thought he might go out there and twist the knife on Boehner’s humiliation last night, claiming that the GOP can’t stop protecting millionaires from tax hikes even when their own Speaker is begging them to do it. Nope. He took the old, trusty above-the-fray approach, which makes sense under the circumstances. As wounded as Boehner is, O still needs him to get something passed, even if it’s a simple matter of convincing him to bring a compromise bill to the floor next week that the GOP hates in hopes that the Democrats plus 30 or so centrist Republicans can push it through. If Obama had seized the opportunity today to gloat over Plan B’s failure, it might have rallied the fractured GOP caucus behind Boehner, which in turn would have cost O his newfound leverage. By spooning out oatmeal about compromise and tax cuts for the middle class instead, he leaves Boehner alone to clean up his own mess.

Anyway. Someone explain to me what was gained last night by blocking Plan B. I realize the bill was never going to pass the Senate. So what? The point was to show Obama that House Democrats are irrelevant to this process because Boehner could muster a majority on his own. That would have forced O to move towards the GOP’s numbers on taxes to find a compromise; as it is, now that Boehner’s shown that he does need Democrats to pass something, O’s going to move in the opposite direction to make life easier for Pelosi. Case in point, he’s reportedly now weighing a bill that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on everyone who makes $250,000 or more, which will draw plenty of Democratic votes and a few from the Tom Cole wing of the GOP caucus. That threshold is lower than his previous compromise offer to Boehner, which limited the new tax hikes to people who earn $400,000 and up. If you make between $250K and $400K, last night’s fiasco may end up costing you a lot in extra taxes. As Conn Carroll put it, by thwarting Boehner, House conservatives essentially chose irrelevance by ensuring that their policy concerns are replaced by Democratic ones in the final bill. I could understand that if this was all part of a “let it burn” strategy, where the GOP decides to give the Democrats everything they want and then vote present in the interest of letting Dems take full responsibility for the economy, but they’re not letting it burn. Whatever finally passes will do so with a few dozen Republican votes. In which case, what’s been achieved by weakening Boehner’s hand? Is Philip Klein right that this all boils down essentially to a semantic distinction? I.e. in order for the GOP to keep its “no tax hikes” pledge, we first have to let those tax hikes take effect automatically on January 1 so that we can then vote to lower them rather than vote now to extend the current rates for everyone except a small class of millionaires? In other words, it’s better to have taxes go up on everyone who makes $250K+ next year than it is to ensure that they only go up for people who $400K+ (or even more) by making a deal right now? That can’t be what this is about, can it?

To some extent, I think Obama now holds Boehner’s Speakership in his hands. If he insists on lowering the income threshold for new taxes to $250,000 and refuses to budge, to the point where Boehner feels obliged to bring O’s plan to the floor and let Democrats pass it with a bit of Republican help, then he’s likely done as Speaker. There’ll be too much unhappiness among the GOP caucus over a deal like that for him to survive. The question for Obama is, would he prefer to deal with Boehner in the future or would he prefer a more conservative Speaker who’s likely to drive a harder bargain? It’s risky for him and the Dems to do anything that might lead to further budget standoffs with the GOP because, as president, O may ultimately be held responsible for the ensuing economic damage from those standoffs. If he wants to roll the dice on a more conservative Speaker, he needs to be very sure that the left’s message machine can successfully frame Republican congressmen as responsible for that damage ahead of 2014. If they can’t, then he’ll be stuck with a sluggish economy and a House that’s even more intractably opposed to his agenda with little relief to come at the polls two years from now.

Oh well. At least we know he’s taking this very, very seriously: