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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

On tax cuts, pragmatism vs. principle

Question: In a high-stakes game of political chicken, President Obama appears to have bowed to Republican threats to block the extension of tax cuts to the middle class--and all other legislation--unless a similar tax cut for high-income households was also included. Is this realistic bipartisan compromise after a sobering election, or is it a sign of weak leadership?

The following responses come from six of the fellows that make up the Coro San Francisco 2011 class.

Eat your vegetables

I wouldn't call President Obama's leadership weak, I think its more akin to bad parenting. The president promised change in Washington; and to his credit, he tried to build bipartisan support even when Democrats could have forced through a lot more legislation than they did. Unfortunately, like a parent with the noble intention of getting their child to eat vegetables, the president conceded way to much power as he begged and pleaded with Republicans to eat his 'healthy' vegetables. Republicans learned the wrong message and have begun to refuse to eat anything, even delicious nuclear arms treaties that usually have been easy bipartisan morsels that everyone could swallow.

Now that Republicans have grown up and become rebelling teenagers (by taking control of the House), it remains to be seen if the president can firm up his parenting skills and get Washington back on track. What the Republicans seem to forget is that the president can take away their car keys and ground them with his veto pen. If you thought we were playing political "chicken" before, the president's veto pen could force Republicans to show their hand and either start cooperating a little more or see how long the president can hold out. I still have faith that the president is not a weak leader and that, once he stops trying to be the bipartisan peacemaker, he will hit his stride. Another serving of vegetables for me, please! -- Galen Wilson

A pragmatic compromise

Democrats will continue to argue that President Obama's willingness to compromise with Republicans over the Bush-era tax cuts demonstrates timid leadership and surrender. What they fail to take into account, however, is the full scope of what this compromise might mean. Yes, tax cuts will likely be temporarily extended for the wealthy, contradicting traditional liberal ideology. Yes, it will signal a victory for Republicans right after a major win in the November elections. But no, it doesn't necessarily mean that the president is a weak leader.

Let's consider why. First, the compromise currently being worked out will avoid comprehensive tax increases for all Americans and the expiration of long-term unemployment insurance for more than 2 million individuals at year's end. While Democratic politicians might have applauded President Obama if he chose not to compromise, the president would have to explain to millions of middle-class and unemployed Americans why he chose not to compromise for their sake. For these individuals, the president's penchant for compromise (and for protecting their wallets) certainly won't seem like weakness.

Second, there are two other major pieces of legislation on the table during this lame-duck session of Congress: the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the ratification of the new START treaty. With little time left in this session, quick passage of tax-cut legislation will give legislators more time to negotiate on these issues. It will also give Democrats more room to ask for compromise from their fellows across the aisle. If these pieces of legislation fail to get the necessary attention now, Democrats will have a much tougher time getting them passed once the newly elected Republicans take their seats next year. But if the president manages to get them through before January, they will represent two significant victories, and perhaps a net overall victory for the Democrats despite unforgiving circumstances.

Ultimately, the president must ask himself if he is willing to allow the Democrats' principled intransigence to trump pragmatic legislative decisions. In this case, he seems to have answered no. -- Amir Badat

Facing reality

With the economy in the state that it is currently, the reality is that Americans are in need of immediate relief--not partisan balking. The president has a broad legislative agenda and Republicans have expressed a vitriolic distaste for cooperating with his administration since he took office. Now that Republicans will overtake the House in the upcoming session, there will be even less room for compromise and cooperation. That is another reality. In light of this situation, much like Amir notes, it's imperative that he take advantage of the remaining days in this session to push as much of his agenda through as possible. There simply is not enough time to engage Republicans in rhetorical grandstanding.

This also could serve to the Democratic Party's advantage in the long run. If Democrats can muster the discipline to develop a solid communications infrastructure by 2012, they can capitalize on this opportunity to label Republicans as fervent defenders of the rich. -- Eric Sanabria

Leading beyond survival

When politics is described as a "game of chicken", we identify it as shallowly confrontational and focused on leveraging advantage in the interest of power-building for its own sake. There is no demand for constructive policy-making or even good governance, just winning. After all, those who "win" a game of chicken have done little more than survive and often at the expense of spectators and participants alike. Under such a regime, "realistic bipartisan compromise" on anything beyond bills appealing to platitudes is perhaps impossible, but only because we have made it so.

Former Republican Congressman Jim Walsh, among others, recently called into question the leadership abilities of President Obama. "He didn't have to do the negotiating, the horse-trading, that a Mitch McConnell would have grown up on, or a Harry Reid would have grown up on." It is an argument that strongly identifies with the idea that President Obama's lack of political experience has contributed to him bowing to Republican threats, and it suggests that his hesitance to use political power to "negotiate" more favorable terms is a sign of weak leadership. The problem with this way of thinking is that it is as hypocritical of those who lament "politics as usual" as it is representative of the kind of one-dimensional figure that has come to dominate the American political scene. Sadly, I suspect it is a lesson Obama will learn despite his best efforts to the contrary. -- Edit Ruano

Speak up and compromise

Obama's leadership weakness is not in his willingness to compromise. Rather, it is his apparent inability to help the Democrats find strong voice with which to frame policy discussions. The Democrats had an opportunity to tell a story about the tremendous pain that withholding the unemployment extensions could cause to millions, pain which the Republicans were willing to inflict it in order to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy. Yet the debate about this policy largely became centered on tax policy and the deficit, minimizing the potential political risk to Republicans who took an absolutist position to force Obama to capitulate.

Obama has an unparalleled communication platform and exceptional oratory skills. He proved on the campaign trail that, armed with a clear message, he can drive a national narrative. The Democrats desperately need his leadership in this area. Even without the presidency, Republicans often still guide the debate on major policy questions. To be an effective leader, Obama needs to help his party clearly share their views with the American people, and he should begin by using the power of his own voice. Doing so does not eliminate the possibility of bipartisan compromise. It means that one side would no longer be able to hold the other hostage while still framing the terms of the negotiation. -- Matthew Podolin

By Coro Fellows

 |  December 7, 2010; 8:22 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Compromise is king | Next: Obama needs to take a stand


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I am not happy with this tax agreement. It has now been filled with pork (ethanol subsidies, etc., give me a break) and is not what we voted for in November. The tax breaks should expire and then in January the new members should immediately get an up or down vote on just the tax extensions and the jobless benefits. That is all. They should then get to work on massively cutting spending which will pay for any tax extensions for those who pay most of the taxes and give business some stability. These are the ones who provide venture capital for new businesses and hire people.

Posted by: katie6 | December 12, 2010 11:15 AM
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The rich who pay 50% of taxes have 87% of household wealth and are nowhere near paying their fair share. "Carried interest" definition needs to change since it allows hedge fund mangers to pay only 15%tax on their multi-million dollar earnings. Financial institutions should pay windfall profits tax since they are the only ones of us who have access to the Fed discount window and can borrow at.05% interest and lend back to the Treasury through bonds that yield 4.00%The problem is the campaigns of law makers run on montains of cash that come from uber-wealthy donors(top1% of population has seen their share of hosuehold assets go from 7% to 24% in the last 20 yrs.)The tax laws they want are the ones we are getting and will continue this trend of more and more money staying at the top.

Posted by: clary916 | December 10, 2010 2:49 PM
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Hate to compare two president's, Butg Bush ahd the same problem , He stood up an made the house accept his plans, or he vetoed, The Republicans will be held responsible for the failure, if another recession hits,

Posted by: Jimmie5 | December 9, 2010 2:01 PM
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Matthew Podolin wrote:

«The Democrats had an opportunity to tell a story about the tremendous pain that withholding the unemployment extensions could cause to millions, pain which the Republicans were willing to inflict it in order to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy.»

O Matthew, there is the Democratic credo, the Democratic slogan, it is that government should redistribute «from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs». Republicans, they do not believe in either part of this slogan, the Founding Fathers, Republicans do not believe that the Founding Fathers had any such redistribution in mind when they set up USA government in Year 1787 of the Christian Era.

Our President Obama, he and the Republicans, each of them gave in on one half of the Democratic slogan. President Obama, he did not give in on the part that says, «to each according to his needs», the unemployed, their need for extended benefits, that need will be met, they will not suffer any more «tremendous pain» than they already suffer from seeing their former jobs go to the interior of Red China where workers make from $150 to $300 a month. Republicans, they did not give in on the part that says, «from each according to his abilities», they did not buy the nonsense that says that any single person earning more than $200,000 a year is a «billionaire» who owns a yacht and a mansion.

The giving in, ¿where was it? Our President Obama, he gave in to the Republicans on «from each according to his abilities», President Obama's compromise, it lets the individual earning more than $200,000 a year or the married couple earning more than $250,000 a year, such as maybe two college professors or a doctor and his accountant wife, keep maybe 4% more of what they earn, even though they have the «ability» to pay more into the government's wasteful programs such as $3,600,000,000.00 in the President's May 2010 budget summary for «drug treatment and rehabilitation».

The Republicans, they gave in on «to each according to his needs», as well they should give in, because Republicans (like GWBush and Newt Gingrich), they are just as guilty as Democrats (like Bill Clinton and President Obama) for their NAFTA, GATT, WTO, PNTR, outsourcing and offshoring American jobs to Red China, India, go to Jos. S. Bank and see all the suits made in Bangladesh, all the cashmere sweaters Made in China, free trade has indeed caused «tremendous pain» to USA workers, and now our President Obama is pushing a «free trade» agreement with the Republic of Korea that our own International Trade Commission says will cost USA a net loss of 159,000 jobs, those 159,000 displaced workers whose jobs move to ROK, they will need extended unemployment payments, so it is good that the Republicans gave in on «to each according to his needs».

Compromise, this is a true compromise, both parties, each gave in on half of the Democratic slogan.

Posted by: abu_ibrahim | December 9, 2010 9:01 AM
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Maybe I'm missing something here but the Democrats had control of Congress for the last two years. Why did they wait until the lame-duck session to take up this issue. They could have started working on thsi in the spring or summer and had plenty of time to fight. The Democrats in Congress are being let off the hook for not putting forward sooned and Obama is taking all of the heat.

Posted by: Tim32 | December 9, 2010 8:05 AM
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I'm more interested in the broader theme posed this week by the Fellows surrounding pragmatic solutions vs. strong principles. This issue was addressed by each post in different ways. However a few stood out to me.

Galen spoke of Obama's attempt to be pragmatic by compromising and attempting to build bipartisan support in the beginning of his presidency, but characterized it as "bad parenting." I took this to mean that Obama was practical but not effective enough because he failed to recognize the power he holds as the "parent." Good parents make children do what's good for them until they grow up and recognize it themselves. So in that framework, isn't "bad parenting" the same as weak leadership?

Edit questioned how politics is framed in this country, saying that politics being described as a "game of chicken" is the problem, because strength should be described as someone willing to move outside the current structure of "politics as usual." But a strong leader recognizes the nature of the game and strategically works to change it by creating a new framework for us to operate in. So since Obama did not change the "game of chicken" in this instance, does that not show weak leadership?

I tend to agree more with Matt. Being able to compromise is not better or worse than holding tightly to principles. A strong leader is the one who has the courage to be first to frame the conversation in order to accomplish what is best for the people. This occurs if the leader is able to frame issues in a way that make some feel like he is compromising and others feel like he's holding strongly to principles. These two things are not mutually exclusive and both feelings can be achieved.

Obama failed to frame the conversation in a way that would move the country in the direction that he wanted, and as a result in this instance, he was weak.

Posted by: iachol01 | December 8, 2010 4:55 PM
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Bystander, the Democrats were successful in communicating their case to voters in 2006. They delivered a solid, simple message, while capitalizing on American's dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. They will need to employ a communications strategy similar to four years ago. I attribute this year's mid-term losses to the their inability to control their message (not that they really had one).

Posted by: esanabria20 | December 8, 2010 4:13 PM
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I support President Obama's deal with Republicans now that I know more of the benefits for all Americans. At least with this plan, both the Unemployment rate and the Deficit as a percentage of GDP are projected to go down. At the end of the day, that is more important and beneficial to all Americans.


I am/was angry too, but it’s at the GOP for holding nuclear proliferation hostage to tax cuts for Billionaires and their ability to buy more Mansions, Villas and Yachts. In the end, it's about getting things done and most certainly about not throwing another six million long term unemployed people under the GOP Billionaire bus.

Both Cash and COBRA subsidies for the unemployed should be renewed as COBRA payments increase by 300% for Millions of American families on Jan 1st. You may as well go all in for COBRA subsidies, Immigration reform, the DREAM act, DADT repeal, Renewable Energy Tax Credits, Home Star/Cash for Caulkers, Building Star, the START treaty to resume nuclear inspection and prevent nuclear proliferation, accountability for border state gun dealers, the elimination of tax breaks for highly profitable Oil companies and Cotton and Feed-stock agricultural subsidies, and free but equal trade with China, Korea, Columbia and Brazil balanced with tariffs.

Deficit?? That was just a smoke screen/ruse to get elected. The Tea Party Caucus has already taken 764 earmarks valued at $1,049,783,150.00


Deficit Smeficit; it's all about getting paid and in this case, everybody; including the troops, are getting paid.

Posted by: Airborne82 | December 8, 2010 1:22 PM
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Obama didn't blink , he closed his eyes and gave up! This is just plain stupid, a disaster, and an unconscionable capitulation to the most reactionary elements of our society! This is not a stimulus in any way; is a first step in ending Social Security, does nothing to create economic growth, end the unfunded expenditures for wars, military toys, corporate welfare, foreign military aid, or any infrastructure improvements or even maintenance! This continues basic consumption at a minimal level for the likes of walmart!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | December 8, 2010 9:06 AM
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To the 'innocent' BYSTANDER: Your points are well taken. I'll defend my characterization by saying that like myself as a teenager the new Congress is young, naive, and thinks it knows everything.

Posted by: galenwilson | December 7, 2010 5:58 PM
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Galen - Suggesting that our Congress is in their teenage years is generous; with so many freshman members of Congress, it's more like going back to infancy every single election cycle.

Amir - I hope there's more on our Congress' table than just START and DADT. I guess things like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation are hopelessly off the table?

Eric, Matt - Democrats will not "fall in line" like the Republicans do, acting as mere mouthpieces of Rove's daily messages. How can the party be just as effective while retaining their independent and critical spirit?

Edit - Agreed, politics has become a game of chicken, but only because voters have allowed it to become that way. Where do we go from here? I hope Coro doesn't just have its fellows point out problems, encouraging them instead to find viable solutions...

Posted by: bystander1344 | December 7, 2010 1:06 PM
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Spare me the "wealthy pay too much in taxes." We need to get practical about this. How are we going to create jobs? Any policy that puts on a path to giving a job to everyone who seeks one helps us reduce our deficit and grow our economy.

1. Wealthy pay too much: Our economy is 2/3 driven by spending/consumption. Giving the wealthy more money though does not change the calculus at all on consumption. The elasticity of spending is different at different income levels. Giving a wealthy person more money doesn't change their spending habits whereas giving a poorer person more money changes it dramatically. More spending means more demand which means more growth which means more jobs.

2. What about investment... the wealthy invest that money and this helps spur growth: This I agree with. What I don't agree with is that the wealthy need more capital and that is what is holding them back from investing in American businesses. I think that if you really want to re-draw the tax code to encourage investment in American business, this is NOT the tax cut the wealthy really seek. Replace it with a tax cut on corporations and capital gains and now they have an incentive to invest in American companies. In fact, if you also RAISE the tax on dividend income while you're at it (or better yet, tie it to the unemployment rate), then you will encourage them to invest in companies who are poised to expand versus companies that are "cash cows" and have no growth plans.

Posted by: porkbellies37 | December 7, 2010 12:56 PM
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LOOK FOLKS!! The "Rich" already pay the vast vast majority of the "taxes".
What is needed for all "joe n josi" average tax payers", is a -50% CUT in Gas Taxes, a -50% cut in Income and FICA Tax, and 50% Cuts to all Federal Taxes, on phone bills,utility bills, etc.etc.etc.
This puts immediate money into our pockets.
The Government can then CUT -50% of ALL Federal Spending to match. Even the military can use a "haircut" on their payrolls, and benefits. EVERYONE has to sacrifice; Not Just the Private Sector employers and employees. The Public Sector has not yet even begun to make cuts!! It's Time for them to make all the cuts that the private sector have made this past year. Big Time!.

Posted by: stormpost | December 7, 2010 11:27 AM
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Reducing police, fire, and emergency services is the most sensible way to cut government payrolls. Most crime and firefighting can be handled by civilian volunteers, and those needing emergency services will have to find an alternate way to get to the hospital. These drastic steps can be avoided but it will take a few years of chaos before the public will be happy to pay more taxes and have their services restored.

Posted by: morristhewise | December 7, 2010 11:05 AM
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