Barack Obama has negotiated deals with the Republicans four times since they won the House in the 2010 midterms. In late 2010, he extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for extended unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states; in early 2011 they haggled over a threatened government shut-down; that summer we had the first round of debt ceiling shenanigans and this month over the phony “fiscal cliff” that came out of those earlier negotitations. We'll have another round – or rounds -- in the next few months as the budget resolution expires, the debt limit comes up again and the automatic budget cuts known as a sequester looms.
For the most part, progressives have not been terribly happy with the results of these negotiations. Few doubt the president's political acumen, but the conventional wisdom has become that while he can win elections, he tends to get rolled by the GOP. And there are a number of theories for why that is -- and there are also people who argue that it's simply not true. We rounded up some of the possibilities progressive analysts have offered to explain this dynamic.
1. Obama Hasn't Been Rolled Because He's Really a Closet Republican
According to this line of thinking, Obama has only been thwarted in the sense that he hasn't been able to realize his deeply held ambition of gutting the social safety net. FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher is one of the proponents of this theory, pleading last December for progressives to "please stop pretending Obama is 'capitulating' on Social Security.”
Everywhere you look, the media narrative is that President Obama is “capitulating” to Republicans by agreeing to cuts in Social Security benefits.
And I have to ask, where is this collective political amnesia coming from?
Obama has made a deliberate and concerted effort to cut Social Security benefits since the time he took office.
Hamsher offers into evidence a paper laying out possible cuts to “entitlements” that was co-authored by former OMB director Peter Orszag when he was at the Brookings Institution, Obama's creation of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and statements like this one, from a report in the Washington Post:
Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – should be made on his watch. “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,” he said.
But it’s clear that he did not arrive at the decision to “reform” Social Security and cut benefits because he is a poor negotiator, or because of Republican arm twisting. It defies all logic and reason to look at his actions over the years and think that the President is now “capitulating” on Social Security.
2. Say What You Like About the Tenets of National Socialism, Dude, At Least It's an Ethos
Another theory is that the White House recognizes that House Republicans aren't bound by ordinary usual political constraints. Many lawmakers in the Republican party's tea party wing come from safe districts and worry more about a primary from their right than what the polls say Americans want to see happen. Jonathan Chait likens it to the nihilists in the Coen brothers' classic film, The Big Lebowski. After the latest deal was struck, Chait wrote: “The big reveal from the negotiations is that, as the clock ticked down, the administration feared the consequences of a stalemate and feared the power of nihilistic House Republicans.”
The basic text for understanding this situation, as with so many situations, is The Big Lebowski. A woman has allegedly been taken hostage by nihilists (nihilists conveniently being a common point of comparison with the House Republican caucus.) Jeffrey Lebowski, the Jeff Bridges character, fears they will kill her. Walter, the John Goodman character, has already figured out that there is no hostage. Lebowski here is Obama, and Walter is Harry Reid.
Walter is right. There is no hostage. The Republican Party was actually terrified of the no-deal scenario...
Obama grasped the basic leverage over the Republicans. But he also fears the sheer nihilism of the crazy House wing, members so fanatical they cannot even seem to grasp their own political self-interest and vote coherently.
3. Obama Doesn't Seem to Grasp That Republicans Aren't Negotiating in Good Faith
Some hold the opposite view: that Obama simply doesn't realize his opponents across the aisle aren't negotiating in good faith.
In 2011, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas greeted a report that the White House believed Republicans would appoint moderates to the Simpson-Bowles commission in order to assure its success with disbelief. “The White House still has no idea what they face across the aisle,” he wrote. “None.”
At least in this instance, Kos was demonstrably right, as the Republicans did indeed pack the commission with movement conservatives and it did in fact fail to agree on a set of recommendations.
4. Obama Hasn't Been Rolled Because He Keeps Winning!
In this view, Obama is a master negotiator who keeps extracting concessions from the Republicans, but liberals are never satisfied and won't acknowledge the fact.
It's a popular view. In a piece titled, “The Myth of the Obama Cave-In,” David Corn noted that in the first negotiation over the Bush tax cuts in 2010, Obama “won $238 billion of stimulus in return for yielding on $114 billion in high-income tax cuts.”
After the most recent deal, Mike Tomasky of the Daily Beast wrote a column titled, “Dear Liberals: Stop Complaining,” in which he argued that dissatisfied progressives don't grasp that Obama has an obligation to govern, rather than champion liberal ideology. (Tomasky and I debated this topic here).
And Time magazine's Micheal Grunwald created a taxonomy of impossible-to-please liberals, which includes “Ivory Soap” liberals who aren't satisfied getting 99.44 percent of what they want; “Choose Your Own Adventure” liberals, who believe we'd be living in Sweden if only Obama had taken their preferred course of action; and “Heighten the Contradictions” liberals who are certain that if Obama called Republicans' bluffs and forced them to follow through on their threats to drive the economy over a cliff the American people would finally see their extremism and reject them once and for all.
5. Consensus-Building Is In His Blood
Another theory holds that Obama puts a great deal of emphasis on cutting deals at least in part because he learned to value consensus-building as a community organizer. My colleague Steve Rosenfeld came away with that impression after reading Obama's memoir, Dreams of My Father.
6. Clearing the Deck for Other Items on the Agenda
This theory holds that Obama desperately wants to cut a grand bargain in order to move the conversation beyond taxes and spending and deficits and tackle other issues like immigration reform and climate change.
And, as John Heileman argued in the New Yorker, the White House sees getting a big deficit reduction package passed as “essential to the country’s economic health, and not just in terms of taming our deficit, but in freeing up resources for the kinds of investment in human capital and infrastructure that are critical to America’s global competitiveness and domestic prosperity....”
7. Obama Wants a Big Deal to Assure His 'Legacy'
Last month, Ezra Klein reported that in the White House, “a big budget deal is seen as a key element of the president’s legacy.” He added that Obama's team “don’t want a deal so badly that they’ll accept one that doesn’t raise tax rates, or that leaves another debt-ceiling crisis around the corner,” which turned out to be half right.
So, who's right? Who knows! But it's worth noting that not all of these theories are mutually exclusive.