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No Happy Dances for the Tax Deal

Virtually every liberal analyst I've read today agrees that Obama's tentative deal on taxes is a little better than they had come to expect. Mainly that's because the compromise includes some modest fiscal stimulus, which the economy desperately needs but which majorities in Congress had seemed unwilling to endorse.

But none of these analysts are excited about the outcome and many remain angry at how things turned out. I can understand why.

One reason is that the stimulus is front-loaded, just like the last one. Paul Krugman explains the problem:

Both the payroll tax break and the unemployment extension are for the first year only. So, a bigger boost next year, fading out in 2012. Since all the evidence says that elections depend on the rate of change of unemployment, not its level, this is actually bad news for Obama: he’s setting himself up for an economic stall in the months leading into the 2012 election.

The bigger reason for disappointment, though, isn't with the deal itself so much as the conditions that led to it. Yes, this may be the best possible compromise at this point--better, in fact, than most of us thought possible. But how did the conversation get to this point? How did the Democrats botch an issue on which, at least nationally, most Americans seem to agree with them?

The White House says Congressional Democrats didn't hold the line--that they couldn't muster majorities, particularly in the filibustered Senate, to extend tax cuts without sops to the rich. Congressional Democrats say Obama didn't lead--that he didn't send the clear signals, or communicate the strong message in public, that might have fortified congressional will. 

Me? I think there's truth in both arguments. There was failure on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And that's pretty depressing.

Update: Brendan Nyhan offers a different take, suggesting Obama in particular had a weaker political hand than everybody realizes.