Obama’s “bad negotiating” is actually shrewd negotiating

Criticisms from liberal pundits falsely assume the president shares their policy outcome desires

Topics: Budget Showdown, Barack Obama,

Obama's "bad negotiating" is actually shrewd negotiatingPresident Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, during an event to launch the national initiative to support and honor America's service members and their families. Retired Gen Stanley McChrystal, the former top US general in Afghanistan who was relieved of his duty last year , has been chosen to help lead the new initiative. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)(Credit: AP)

(updated below = Update II [Thurs.])

In December, President Obama signed legislation to extend hundreds of billions of dollars in Bush tax cuts, benefiting the wealthiest Americans. Last week, Obama agreed to billions of dollars in cuts that will impose the greatest burden on the poorest Americans. And now, virtually everyone in Washington believes, the President is about to embark on a path that will ultimately lead to some type of reductions in Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits under the banner of “reform.” Tax cuts for the rich — budget cuts for the poor — “reform” of the Democratic Party’s signature safety net programs — a continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies and a new Middle East war launched without Congressional approval. That’s quite a legacy combination for a Democratic President.

All of that has led to a spate of negotiation advice from the liberal punditocracy advising the President how he can better defend progressive policy aims — as though the Obama White House deeply wishes for different results but just can’t figure out how to achieve them. Jon Chait, Josh Marshall, and Matt Yglesias all insist that the President is “losing” on these battles because of bad negotiating strategy, and will continue to lose unless it improves. Ezra Klein says “it makes absolutely no sense” that Democrats didn’t just raise the debt ceiling in December, when they had the majority and could have done it with no budget cuts. Once it became clear that the White House was not following their recommended action of demanding a “clean” vote on raising the debt ceiling — thus ensuring there will be another, probably larger round of budget cuts — Yglesias lamented that the White House had “flunked bargaining 101.” Their assumption is that Obama loathes these outcomes but is the victim of his own weak negotiating strategy.



I don’t understand that assumption at all. Does anyone believe that Obama and his army of veteran Washington advisers are incapable of discovering these tactics on their own or devising better strategies for trying to avoid these outcomes if that’s what they really wanted to do? What evidence is there that Obama has some inner, intense desire for more progressive outcomes? These are the results they’re getting because these are the results they want — for reasons that make perfectly rational political sense.

Conventional D.C. wisdom — that which Obama vowed to subvert but has done as much as any President to bolster — has held for decades that Democratic Presidents succeed politically by being as “centrist” or even as conservative as possible. That attracts independents, diffuses GOP enthusiasm, casts the President as a triangulating conciliator, and generates raves from the DC press corps — all while keeping more than enough Democrats and progressives in line through a combination of anti-GOP fear-mongering and partisan loyalty.

Isn’t that exactly the winning combination that will maximize the President’s re-election chances? Just consider the polling data on last week’s budget cuts, which most liberal commentators scorned. Americans support the “compromise” by a margin of 58-38%; that support includes a majority of independents, substantial GOP factions, and 2/3 of Democrats. Why would Democrats overwhelmingly support domestic budget cuts that burden the poor? Because, as Yglesias correctly observed, “just about anything Barack Obama does will be met with approval by most Democrats.” In other words, once Obama lends his support to a policy — no matter how much of a departure it is from ostensible Democratic beliefs — then most self-identified Democrats will support it because Obama supports it, because it then becomes the “Democratic policy,” by definition. Adopting “centrist” or even right-wing policies will always produce the same combination — approval of independents, dilution of GOP anger, media raves, and continued Democratic voter loyalty — that is ideal for the President’s re-election prospects.

That tactic in the context of economic policy has the added benefit of keeping corporate and banking money on Obama’s side (where it overwhelmingly was in 2008), or at least preventing a massive influx to GOP coffers. And just look at the team of economic advisers surrounding Obama from the start: does anyone think that Bill Daley, Tim Geithner and his army of Rubin acolytes and former Goldman Sachs executives are sitting around in rooms desperately trying to prevent budget cuts and entitlement “reforms”?

Why would Obama possibly want to do anything different? Why would he possibly want a major political war over the debt ceiling where he looks like a divisive figure and looks to be opposing budget cuts? Why would he possibly want to draw a line in the sand defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from any “reforms”? There would be only two reasons to do any of that: (1) fear that he would lose too much of his base if he compromised with the GOP in these areas, or (2) a genuine conviction that such compromises are morally or economically intolerable. Since he so plainly lacks both — a fear of losing the base or genuine convictions about this or anything else — there’s simply nothing to drive him to fight for those outcomes.

Like most first-term Presidents after two years, Obama is preoccupied with his re-election, and perceives — not unreasonably — that that goal is best accomplished by adopting GOP policies. The only factor that could subvert that political calculation — fear that he could go too far and cause Democratic voters not to support him — is a fear that he simply does not have: probably for good reason. In fact, not only does Obama not fear alienating progressive supporters, the White House seems to view that alienation as a positive, as it only serves to bolster Obama’s above-it-all, centrist credentials. Here’s what CNN’s White House Correspondent Ed Henry and Gloria Borger said last night about the upcoming fight over entitlements and the debt ceiling:

Henry: I was talking to a senior Democrat who advises the White House, outside the White House today who was saying look, every time this president sits down with Speaker Boehner, to Gloria’s point about negotiating skills, the president seems to give up another 5 billion dollars, 10 billion dollars, 20 billions dollars. It’ s like the spending cuts keep going up. If you think about where the congressional Democrats started a couple of months ago they were talking about no spending cuts on the table. It keeps going up.

But this president has a much different reality than congressional Democrats.

Borger (sagely): Right.

Henry: He’s going for re-election, him going to the middle and having liberal Democrats mad at him is not a bad thing.

Borger: Exactly.

That’s why I experience such cognitive dissonance when I read all of these laments from liberal pundits that Obama isn’t pursuing the right negotiating tactics, that he’s not being as shrewd as he should be. He’s pursuing exactly the right negotiating tactics and is being extremely shrewd — he just doesn’t want the same results that these liberal pundits want and which they like to imagine the President wants, too. He’s not trying to prevent budget cuts or entitlement reforms; he wants exactly those things because of how politically beneficial they are to him — to say nothing of whether he agrees with them on the merits.

When I first began blogging five years ago, I used to write posts like that all the time. I’d lament that Democrats weren’t more effectively opposing Bush/Cheney National Security State policies or defending civil liberties. I’d attribute those failures to poor strategizing or a lack of political courage and write post after post urging them to adopt better tactics to enable better outcomes or be more politically “strong.” But then I realized that they weren’t poor tacticians getting stuck with results they hated. They simply weren’t interested in generating the same outcomes as the ones I wanted.

It wasn’t that they eagerly wished to defeat these Bush policies but just couldn’t figure out how to do it. The opposite was true: they were content to acquiesce to those policies, if not outright supportive of them, because they perceived no political advantage in doing anything else. Many of them supported those policies on the merits while many others were perfectly content with their continuation. So I stopped trying to give them tactical advice on how to achieve outcomes they didn’t really want to achieve, and stopped attributing their failures to oppose these policies to bad strategizing or political cowardice. Instead, I simply accepted that these were the outcomes they most wanted, that Democratic Party officials on the whole — obviously with some exceptions — weren’t working toward the outcomes I had originally assumed (and which they often claimed). Once you accept that reality, events in Washington make far more sense.

That Obama’s agenda includes an affirmative desire for serious budget cuts and entitlement “reforms” has been glaringly obvious from the start; it’s not some unintended, recent by-product of Tea Party ascendancy. Since before Obama was even inaugurated, Digby has been repeatedly warning of his support for a so-called “Grand Bargain” that would include cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And Jane Hamsher and Ezra Klein had a fairly acrimonious exchange very early on in the Obama presidency over the former’s observation that Obama officials were expressly advocating cuts in Social Security while Klein insisted that this would never happen (yesterday, Klein reported that Obama would be supportive of Bowles-Simpson, which proposes deep cuts to Social Security, and boasted of his anticipation weeks ago that this would happen). Before Obama’s inauguration, I wrote that the most baffling thing to me about the enthusiasm of his hardest-core supporters was the belief that he was pioneering a “new form of politics” when, it seemed obvious, it was just a re-branded re-tread of Clintonian triangulation and the same “centrist”, scorn-the-base playbook Democratic politicians had used for decades.

What amazes me most is the brazen claims of presidential impotence necessary to excuse all of this. Atrios has written for weeks about the “can’t do” spirit that has overtaken the country generally, but that mindset pervades how the President’s supporters depict both him and the powers of his office: no bad outcomes are ever his fault because he’s just powerless in the face of circumstance. That claim is being made now by pointing to a GOP Congress, but the same claim was made when there was a Democratic Congress as well: recall the disagreements I had with his most loyal supporters in 2009 and 2010 over their claims that he was basically powerless even to influence his own party’s policy-making in Congress.

Such excuse-making stands in very sharp contrast to what we heard in 2008 and what we will hear again in 2012: that the only thing that matters is that Obama win the Presidency because of how powerful and influential an office it is, how disaster will befall us all if this vast power falls into Republican hands. It also contradicts the central promise of the Obama candidacy: that he would change, rather than bolster, the standard power dynamic in Washington. And it is especially inconsistent with Obama’s claimed desire to be a “transformational” President in much the way that Ronald Reagan was (but, Obama said to such controversy, Bill Clinton was not). Gaudy claims of Fundamental Change and Transformation and Yes, We Can! have given way to an endless parade of excuse-making that he’s powerless, weak and there’s nothing he can do.

Obama’s most loyal supporters often mock the notion that a President’s greatest power is his “bully pulpit,” but there’s no question that this is true. Reagan was able to transform how Americans perceived numerous political issues because he relentlessly argued for his ideological and especially economic world-view: a rising tide lifts all boats, government is not the solution but is the problem, etc. — a whole slew of platitudes and slogans that convinced Americans that conservative economic policy was optimal despite how much it undermined their own economic interests. Reagan was “transformational” because he changed conventional wisdom and those premises continue to pervade our political discourse.

When has Obama ever done any of that? When does he offer stirring, impassioned defenses of the Democrats’ vision on anything, or attempt to transform (rather than dutifully follow) how Americans think about anything? It’s not that he lacks the ability to do that. Americans responded to him as an inspirational figure and his skills of oratory are as effective as any politician in our lifetime. It’s that he evinces no interest in it. He doesn’t try because those aren’t his goals. It’s not that he or the office of the Presidency are powerless to engender other outcomes; it’s that he doesn’t use the power he has to achieve them because, quite obviously, achieving them is not his priority or even desire.

Whether in economic policy, national security, civil liberties, or the permanent consortium of corporate power that runs Washington, Obama, above all else, is content to be (one could even say eager to be) guardian of the status quo. And the forces of the status quo want tax cuts for the rich, serious cuts in government spending that don’t benefit them (social programs and progressive regulatory schemes), and entitlement “reform” — so that’s what Obama will do. He won’t advocate, and will actually oppose, steps as extreme as the ones Paul Ryan is proposing: that’s how he will retain his “centrist” political identity and keep the fear levels high among his voting base. He’ll pay lip service to some Democratic economic dogma and defend some financially inconsequential culture war positions: that’s how he will signal to the base that he’s still on their side. But the direction will be the same as the GOP desires and, most importantly, how the most powerful economic factions demand: not because he can’t figure out how to change that dynamic, but because that’s what benefits him and thus what he wants.

Ironically, Obama is turning out to be “transformational” in his own way — by taking what was once the defining GOP approach to numerous policy areas and converting them into Democratic ones, and thus ensconcing them in the invulnerable protective shield of “bipartisan consensus.” As Digby put it: “Reagan was a hard-core ideologue who didn’t just tweak some processes but radically changed the prevailing conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Obama is actually extending the Reagan consensus, even as he pursues his own agenda of creating a Grand Bargain that will bring peace among the dueling parties (a dubious goal in itself.)” That has been one of the most consequential outcomes of the first two years of his presidency in terms of Terrorism and civil liberties, and is now being consecrated in the realm of economic policy as well.

 

UPDATE: Obama gave a speech today on the budget that many liberals seemed to like — some more than others.  It was a fine speech as far as it goes — advocating, among other things, defense cuts and a repeal of the Bush tax cuts and vowing to protect the poor from the pain of deep entitlement reductions — but I’ve long ago ceased caring about what Obama says in individual, isolated speeches: especially an Obama now formally in re-election mode.  As I said above, he can be expected to oppose Paul Ryan’s plan and ”pay lip service to some Democratic economic dogma.”  If this becomes a sustained bully pulpit campaign to rhetorically sell these principles to the citizenry accompanied by real action to defend them, that will be one thing:  I’ll be pleasantly surprised and will be happy to say so.  But what matters is actions and outcomes.

 

UPDATE II [Thurs.]:  As I noted, most liberals, at least that I’ve heard, had a quite favorable response to Obama’s speech, chief among them (as the above links show) Paul Krugman.  Yet by the end of the day, Krugman was quoting Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who argued that Obama’s “plan is a rather conservative one, significantly to the right of the Rivlin-Domenici plan“ and that it “could produce an outcome that is well to the right of the already centrist-to-moderately-conservative Obama proposal.”  Krugman himself added that “it’s a center-right plan already; if it’s the starting point for negotiations that move the solution toward lower taxes for the rich and even harsher cuts for the poor, just say no.”

That highlights two key points.  One is that the expectation level of liberals is now so low that they cheer for a pretty speech that introduces a “rather conservative, center-right plan” – one that is almost certainly the mere starting point that will lead to a still more rightward economic policy.  And the second is that Obama always has been able to deliver nice speeches, especially ones that trigger the desired response among progressives; the test for Obama is what he does, not what he says in a single speech.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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