I Want To Play Poker Against President Obama

by Jonathan Chait | April 12, 2011

Democratic partisans, like all partisans, generally overestimate the possibilities of winning better policy outcomes by simply having their leaders adopt more strident positions. That said, it really seems to be the case that the Obama administration is horrendously weak at negotiating: 

White House officials have opened the door to a deal with Republicans that would allow the U.S. to increase its ability to borrow, potentially easing worries in financial markets that the country might default on its debt.
Softening the administration's earlier insistence that Congress raise the so-called debt ceiling without conditions, officials now say they won't rule out linking an increase of the borrowing cap with cuts aimed at reducing the deficit—even though they'd prefer to keep the issues separate.

What? Look, the out-party has always used the debt vote to embarrass the administration. But it's never really threatened to prevent raising the debt and has never tried, let alone succeeded, in using a vote to win policy concessions.

I really cannot believe the administration is preemptively conceding this. If the House Republicans are not only able to hold up as bargaining chips things that Obama wants but also things they want too, then the Obama administration will have vastly less power then normal presidents, even presidents without control of one house in Congress.

The pattern has been ongoing since last summer, when Republicans got to take the position that they favored an extension of the Bush tax cuts on income below $250,000, as did Obama, but they needed concessions in the form of rich people-only tax cuts , or else they'd block the tax cuts they claimed to favor. Democrats let them pull this off. Then they said they opposed a government shutdown, but needed concessions to keep from shutting down the government. Now the same with the debt ceiling.

There's a massive weakness in this position that Democrats have not tried to exploit. Republicans are winning leverage by communicating their willingness to do something really unpopular, but they are communicating this inside Washington without having to communicate it outside Washington. If Obama insists he will only sign a clean debt limit bill, and will negotiate budget changes as part of the budget, what do Republicans do? They become solely responsible for the consequences of refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Let them go explain that to their business backers.

Instead they can tell their business backers that the debt ceiling will get raised, and they're just using it to win spending cuts. And the administration is going to give it to them. It's pathetic.

Nate Silver noted the other day that the Republicans are running an obvious bluff on the debt ceiling. But Silver is an accomplished poker player. I suspect Obama and whoever is advising him on this issue would lose their shirts.

Update: Steve Benen points out that the Journal article, which is not being reported elsewhere, does not name any sources for its conclusions. So the story may be wrong. We'll see. In the context of the tax cuts vote and the government shutdown deal, it looks to me like a pattern of unwillingness to call bluffs. But if the story is wrong, the White House is going to forcefully deny it very quickly and demand a clean vote on the debt limit.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/86563/i-want-play-poker-against-president-obama