Obama's "Bad Negotiating" is Actually Shrewd Negotiating
Why Do We Assume Obama’s Actually Trying to Enact a Progressive Agenda?
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.
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.
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