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The Establishment's Obama Derangement Syndrome

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Here's Bob Woodward -- again! -- on MSNBC Wednsday morning arguing that Obama's decision not seize imperial powers but instead to follow the letter of the sequestration law amounts to a "kind of madness."

"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?'"

The obscure type of budget document Woodward's referring to is called a duly enacted law -- passed by Congress, signed by the President -- and the only ways around it are for Congress to change it (Obama's trip to Virginia on Tuesday was all about pushing Congress to do that) or for Obama to break it. Sequestration is bad policy, but not remotely unconstitutional, and if Obama decided to ignore it and just spend money as if the law didn't exist the howls of outrage we'd hear from Woodward and others would be entirely justified.

David Ignatius doesn't go quite as far as calling Obama's decision to obey the law insane, but his Wednesday Washington Post column typifies the "Obama's right on the merits, but this is somehow all his fault too" genre. In an overstretched metaphor he compares the U.S. political system to a drunk driver and Obama to a sober passenger who's too meek to comandeer the wheel.

"I'm no fan of the way President Obama has handled the fiscal crisis," Ignatius declares. "As I've written often, he needs to provide the presidential leadership that guides Congress and the country toward fiscal stability. In my analogy, he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination where most maps show we need to be heading: namely, a balanced program of cuts in Social Security and Medicare and modest increases in revenue."

As it happens, that's the precise mix of policies President Obama has been offering House Republicans for nearly two years.

Obama's press secretary Jay Carney confirmed recently that the president still supports re-indexing Social Security benefits to a less generous measurement of inflation called Chained CPI. And Obama himself recently declared that "the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms - otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations. But we can't ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful."

He even burrowed down to specifics: "We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital - they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement."

That's the "balanced program" of cuts and taxes Ignatius called for. But it's not quite good enough for him.

"Obama tries everything to gain control -- except a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn't -- that could get the country where it needs to go," Ignatius sighs.

At this point I should note that Obama's above remarks were delivered in the first few minutes of his State of the Union address -- the most high-profile statement a president makes in a normal year -- just two weeks ago.

I don't know how this sequestration fight will end, but I do know that it would end within a week if Republicans rethought their commitment to never increasing taxes, without something like the expiration of the Bush tax cuts forcing their hands. None of the commentariat's vague bromides about the need for leadership make any mention of this fact; or its direct corollary, that strong leaders will recognize sources of dysfunction and work to eliminate them.

And yet, breaking that anti-tax streak has been Obama's main political project for the past two years -- first attempted gently, in private negotiations with John Boehner; and ever since in a more bare-knuckled before the voters.

If nothing else, Obama's done a genuinely excellent job of fixing the broken link in the public's mind between taxes and popular spending priorities. Likewise, because asking nicely won't change their minds, he's done the yeoman's work -- at real political risk -- of flipping the politics of taxation to make the GOP's once bulletproof position a vulnerability.

It's been an ugly process. But if his only second term accomplishments are to temper Republicans' hostility to raising taxes when revenues are too low, and to diminish their enthusiasm for "starving the beast" the next time they come into power, it will be a real testament to leadership.