One website I follow regularly is The American Prospect, a left-wing publication. Today, Robert Kuttner posted on his fears about coming budget cuts. The facts he cited made me somewhat optimistic.
In the infamous fiscal cliff deal of 2012 that led to a permanent extension of most of the Bush tax cuts and an automatic formula of more than a trillion dollars in spending cuts over a decade, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was hanging tough. Democrats held the stronger hand because the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were expiring. Not reaching a deal would have resulted in massive tax increases for the wealthy. And Reid wanted to go over the cliff and then negotiate a new tax plan.
But Barack Obama sent his vice president, Joe Biden, to negotiate a deal with his old colleague Mitch McConnell behind Reid’s back. Biden and the Democrats got rolled. Reid was so mad that he threw the White House’s proposed list of concessions into his office fireplace. In 2013, at the insistence of an outraged Reid, Obama barred Biden from that year’s budget negotiations, which led to a government shutdown, but ultimately a deal with no giveaways to Republicans.
I well remember Biden’s negotiations with McConnell. That was one of the few times Biden impressed me. I wrote about it here.
Of course, that’s not Kuttner’s view.
It gets better. Kuttner writes:
According to my sources, the current White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, was far too eager to make concessions in order to get a deal, despite the fact that Democrats in Congress had the discipline and the votes. And his successor, Jeff Zients, is likely to be worse.
Kuttner cites a few relevant facts about Zients:
In the Obama administration, Zients did two stints as acting OMB chief, where he was allied with other fiscal hawks such as Bruce Reed, now another Biden senior staffer. Zients then became head of Obama’s National Economic Council. After Biden was sidelined as White House negotiator following the disastrous fiscal cliff deal, it was Zients who took over.
He reveled in the age of austerity. In an April 2013 press conference, Zients went on and on about how many cuts the White House was imposing on the American people. “Democrats and Republicans have worked together to cut the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion,” Zients said. This was a time of slow economic and job growth, and austerity made it worse.
Zients is likely to reinforce Biden’s own propensity to make a bad deal. This is not because Zients is a lousy negotiator, but because he is a committed budgetary conservative.
I hope he’s right.
Note that this doesn’t mean I’m a fan of Zients. I’m not. For one thing, he is thought to be the person in the White House who resisted lifting the travel bans between the United States and a lot of other countries. If you forcibly prevent people from traveling, I won’t be your fan.
Postscript: I tangled with Robert Kuttner on KQED-FM in February 2011. I don’t think he liked me.