fiscal cliffWhat will Obama do with his (and our) electoral victory? The answer depends on understanding Obama. There are two possibilities.

One theory, widespread among progressives, is that Obama is one of them, perhaps a bit more “pragmatic” than they would like, but basically a person for whom social justice is the central value. According to this theory the many compromises of Obama’s first term reflected inexperience, excess caution, or structural (constitutional) limits; the expectation is that these will be less pressing in the second term. Those who hold this view of Obama hope that he will use his victory to impose a progressive deal on the Republicans (i.e., lower the tax cuts on the rich and minimal changes in entitlements.)

By contrast, my theory is that Obama is not a progressive at all, but a neo-liberal, “third-way” advocate or “new Democrat.” According to the neo-liberals and Clintonian new Democrats, the danger in American politics comes from “extremism.” Obama wants Boehner to control the tea-party and, correspondingly, Obama will make sure there is no “tea-party” on the left. The goal is to give the banks, and the other dominant forces in American life what they want.

The two theories lead to divergent expectations as to how Obama will handle the “fiscal cliff.” In the first, he will use his electoral victory and newly ramped-up followers to pressure the Republicans for a solution that favors the poor and the middle class. In the second, he will work to bring about a solution that responds to the wishes of the banks and the very rich, who have never accepted the need for entitlements. What Obama has to do is cut entitlements while preventing the left from exploding. This involves turning an argument over politics into an argument over which politicians are “mature” and “grown-up,” and which are immature. Which theory is correct can be tested by watching how the negotiations unfold.

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