I'm a sap, a specific kind of sap. I'm a Barack Obama Sap.
When the president said the unemployed can't wait 14 more months for help and we had to do something right away, I believed him. When administration officials called around saying that the possibility of a double-dip recession was horrifyingly real and that it would be irresponsible not to come up with a package that could pass right away, I believed them.
I liked Obama's payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I'm a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.
It recycles ideas that couldn't get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn't try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals, but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.
He claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the IRS. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent,
This wasn't a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I'm a sap for thinking it was possible.
Yes, I'm a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
But remember, I'm a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.
It has gone back, as an appreciative Ezra Klein of The Washington Post conceded, to politics as usual. The president is sounding like the Al Gore for President campaign, but without the earth tones. Tax increases for the rich! Protect entitlements! People versus the powerful! I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I'm a sap.
Being a sap, I still believe that the president's soul would like to do something about the country's structural problems. I keep thinking he's a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform.
But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.
That means when he talks about raising revenue, which he is right to do, he can't really talk about anything substantive.
He can't tax gasoline. He can't tax consumption. He can't do a comprehensive tax reform. He has to restrict his tax policy changes to the top 2 percent, and to get any real revenue he's got to hit them in every which way. We're not going to simplify the tax code, but by God Obama's going to raise taxes on rich people who give to charity! We've got to do something to reduce the awful philanthropy surplus plaguing this country!
The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There's a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths.
To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.
The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I'm a sap.
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times.