Obama returns from Hawaii to Washington for fiscal cliff finale

Well, what do you know?  It looks as if America’s most irresponsible President isn’t completely immune to “optics” after all.  Although his family will continue to enjoy their lavish Hawaiian holiday, Barack Obama has announced he’ll be flying back to Washington on Wednesday night, to attend the grand finale of the interminably long and childish blockbuster movie of the season, The Deficit: An “Unexpected” Journey.  He must have been getting some rather insistent invitations from his party’s Congressional leadership, who realized that their ludicrous narrative of the “fiscal cliff” as a product of Republican “intransigence” was difficult to sustain with the President lounging on the beach and sipping cocktails from a coconut.

The first few paragraphs of the Fox News report nicely summarize the absurdity of this manufactured drama:

Congress is used to working against a deadline.

But the task of averting more than $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts in less than a week is daunting even by Washington standards — though as usual, the predicament is the product of lawmakers’ failure to act sooner. 

Coming out of the Christmas holiday, all sides are voicing hope that the pressure of a Jan. 1 deadline will at last yield an agreement on the looming fiscal crisis. The White House confirmed that President Obama plans to fly Wednesday night out of Hawaii, where he’s been on vacation with his family, and arrive in Washington early Thursday.

Officials cited a “unanimous desire” on Capitol Hill, with a few exceptions, to avert the doomsday scenario of income tax hikes, investment tax hikes, defense cuts and a cut-off in long-term unemployment aid all at once.

But few are spelling out exactly how that might happen. Over the long holiday weekend, it seemed as if not a creature was stirring on the fiscal crisis front.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the president and the speaker did not talk over the weekend. Representatives for the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders both said Monday they had “nothing” to report.

(Emphases mine.)  Congress and the White House aren’t working to “avert” those tax hikes and spending cuts in less than a week.  They’ve know it was coming for years, and they’ve had ample time to propose and debate plans for dealing with it.  But instead of putting legislation on the table, the “debate” has been all about posturing and positioning, with a moratorium on effective action declared for the duration of the 2012 elections.  There is no “unanimous desire” for anything beyond escaping blame for the “fiscal cliff.”  Even that name is a distraction – the expiration of the Bush tax cuts was always better described as “Taxmageddon,” while the automatic sequestration spending cuts were a new complication added only last year, supposedly as an unthinkable punishment for the failure of Congress to reach exactly the sort of deficit-reduction deal they’re failing to reach right now.

Supposedly House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal – which would have extended the Bush tax rates for everyone except actual millionaires, while resolving no other issue of any substance – was a legislative outrage that short-circuited productive discussion.  That’s complete rubbish.  There’s no chance that Washington will produce anything other than some sort of “Plan B” that preserves middle-class tax rates, without doing anything significant about the federal deficit.  That’s why the can was kicked down the road until it landed under our Christmas trees.  The point is to generate an air of absolute panic and desperation, instead of reasoned debate and the consideration of long-term issues.

The “fiscal cliff” drama has degenerated into an entirely symbolic political discussion, rather like the frantic calls for symbolic gun-control legislation in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting.  We’re not really talking about effective action that would resolve the real issues; we’re talking about one side of the partisan debate looking to claim political and cultural victory over the other.  But not even the most draconian, economy-killing tax hikes proposed by the Democrats would alleviate more than five to seven percent of the annual budget deficit.  The biggest package of tax hikes and spending “cuts” on the table, including the “fiscal cliff” itself, might knock off ten to fifteen percent… and that’s assuming the new revenue from tax increases is actually used entirely for deficit reduction, which would be a dramatic departure from recent history.  In fact, Obama and the Democrats actually have more spending built right into their “fiscal cliff” proposals:

Obama aides and lawmakers are now talking about a scaled-down package as the most likely vehicle for solving the problem, something that could at least prevent most of the scheduled tax hikes and maybe extend jobless aid. Then lawmakers could renew the debate early next year over the most contentious issues of entitlement cuts and tax reform.

Democrats and Republicans still need to decide who, if anyone, would see a tax hike next year. And lawmakers still need a bill to work from. The administration official suggested there was a bit more contact in recent days between White House staff and Senate Democratic leadership staff — indicating that new legislation, if proposed, could come from the Senate side.

So Obama’s New Normal of grinding long-term unemployment will now justify perpetually elevated government spending, which will produce irresistible pressure for more tax increases (and not just on “millionaire” couples and small businesses that make over $250,000 per year), which will further aggravate unemployment and lead to demands for more social spending.  All talk of forcing the government to cut back on the irresponsible spending that produced 90 percent of our bloated national debt has ceased.  The hot topic of discussion in Washington is which blameless private citizens should surrender more of their income.  Never mind the fiscal cliff – look to your left, and take a glance at the death spiral we’re staggering into.