With the fiscal cliff deal, Obama could certainly claim more victories than in 2010. Taxes for the wealthiest Americans will go up. Congress also agreed to extend unemployment compensation and continue higher payments to Medicare providers.
But beneath all the sound and fury is the fact that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, for most Americans, are now a permanent part of the legislative landscape. (In addition, middle class Americans will breathe a sigh of relief that Congress has permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have hit many of them with a provision once designed to make sure that the wealthy paid their fair share.)
As Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp remarked, "After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent." Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new legislation will increase the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.
The tax cuts have significant consequences on all of American policy.
Most important, the fact that a Democratic president has now legitimated the moves of a Republican administration gives a bipartisan imprimatur to the legitimacy of the current tax rates.
Although some Republicans signed on to raising taxes for the first time in two decades, the fact is that Democrats have agreed to tax rates which, compared to much of the 20th century, are extraordinarily low. Public perception of a new status quo makes it harder for presidents to ever raise taxes on most Americans to satisfy the revenue needs for the federal government.
At the same time, the continuation of reduced taxes keeps the federal government in a fiscal straitjacket. As a result, politicians are left to focus on finding the money to pay for existing programs or making cuts wherever possible.
New innovations in federal policy that require substantial revenue are just about impossible. To be sure, there have been significant exceptions, such as the Affordable Care Act. But overall, bold policy departures that require significant amounts of general revenue are harder to come by than in the 1930s or 1960s.
Republicans thus succeed with what some have called the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting government by taking away its resources. Since the long-term deficit only becomes worse, Republicans will continue to have ample opportunity to pressure Democrats into accepting spending cuts and keep them on the defense with regards to new government programs.
With his income tax cuts enshrined, Bush can rest comfortably that much of the policy world he designed will remain intact and continue to define American politics. Obama has struggled to work within the world that Bush created, and with this legislation, even with his victories, he has demonstrated that the possibilities for change have been much more limited than he imagined when he ran in 2008 or even in 2012.