Debating Obama's Ransom

by Jonathan Chait | August 1, 2011

My evaluation of the debt ceiling deal is decidedly mixed, and many liberals are deeply unhappy. Dave Weigel wittily captures the spirit in his liberal denunciation mad lib:

I am [outraged/fed up/fixin’ to vomit] at the news of this [sellout/betrayal/Chekovian drama of political adultery]. While I have yet to see all the details of this plan, it may be the worst piece of legislation since [the Kansas/Nebraska compromise/the Enabling Act/the one that renamed a rest stop in New Jersey after Howard Stern]. We all agree that the deficit needs to be reduced, but it should not be done [on the backs of our seniors/in the dead of night/until we reach 4 percent unemployment again]. Instead, we Democrats are being asked to support a [Satan sandwich/Hitler hoagie/bin Laden banh mi], with a [mayonnaise of betrayal/chipotle glaze of mistrust/pesto of austerity]. If this is passed, our president – whom I [supported/strongly supported/had to suck it up and support, even though I liked Hillary Clinton and saw all this crap coming, because if I didn’t the Daily Kos comment section would have made me out to be a racist, and I’m totally not] – risks becoming a new [Jimmy Carter/Grover Cleveland/Emperor Palpatine]. Let’s [go back to the drawing board/head back to the table/find some new sand, draw a line in it, and borrow a can from my friend Bruce that we can kick around]. America can do [better than/slightly better than/not quite as terrible as] this.

Political scientist Matthew Dickinson, in the same general spirit, argues that disappointed liberals fail to understand the constraints Obama has been operating under:

Predictably,  although the ink is not yet dry on the debt agreement – indeed, there’s no ink even on the legislation – Obama is getting crucified on left-leaning blogs, amid headlines suggesting the Right won (see also comments here), with charges that he was outmaneuvered – that he caved.  I will have much more to say about these criticisms in a lengthier post tomorrow, but for now let me briefly take issue with the prevailing political sentiment among Obama’s Democratic base. Since the day Obama was elected (indeed, even before he was elected!)  I’ve detected what I believe to be a completely unrealistic, emotion-driven faith among his hard-core supporters that he was different from other politicians – that he could somehow overcome the political constraints and institutional barriers that have limited the power of all his presidential predecessors.  I saw it in the debate regarding Guantanamo, military commissions, the public option, Afghanistan,  extending the Bush tax hikes and now this. This sentiment was perhaps never more manifest than in the fervent belief among some that he was playing a “deep” game during these negotiations, maneuvering to a position where he could cut the Gordian knot of budget impasse with a master stroke (14th amendment anyone?)  And in this latest occurrence, when he failed to fulfill these outlandish expectations, his erstwhile supporters proceeded to blame it on a character defect – a lack of fortitude, an absence of courage, or perhaps simple political naivety.
The reality is that this budget outcome had nothing to do with personal weakness, and everything to do with political weakness. ...
maybe some of you can tell me why so many very smart people have, since the day Obama was inaugurated, deluded themselves into thinking that this admittedly very smart man, albeit one with limited political experience at the national level, was somehow going to step into office and proceed to rewrite the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries?

I agree that this dynamic has been generally true, especially of Obama's wildly under-appreciated achievements from his first two years. I also think it's mostly true of the current debt ceiling deal, but I think Dickinson offers Obama a bit too much slack here. He argues that the deal had nothing to do with Obama's personal weakness. I certainly understand that Obama was not going to force republicans to accept revenue increases on the rich when the party is organized around preventing such an outcome. I also understand that making the Republicans swallow more stimulus, which would run directly counter to both its political interests and recently-adopted inflation-phobia, would be tricky.

But if you think Obama's negotiating strength played zero role here, ask yourself why no previous president has ever been jacked up over a debt ceiling hike before. Indeed, why have Republicans successfully adopted a tactic I don't believe either party has ever used before -- forcing concessions by threatening consequences that they themselves agree would be disastrous to the country? It's common for parties to support policy changes the opposition thinks will destroy the economy, but it's highly unusual to threaten to do something your own side says would have such a result. That's a negotiating tactic used by kidnappers and terrorists but rarely by political parties vying for the support of the public they are threatening to harm.

Now, you might say no president has been jacked up this way before because no other president faced an opposition party quite as crazy as the current Republican Party. Possibly so. But it seems to me that the stronger play would have been to sue the threat to expose the GOP's craziness, and drive a wedge between it and its business base. Dickinson invokes "the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries," but those rules tell us little about the domestic use of hostage tactics. Indeed, while the public might not have supported raising the debt ceiling, this opinion seems to derive from a lack of understanding. Obama had an opportunity to frame the issue in such a way as to eliminate the GOP's leverage, or even to force the gambit to blow up in the opposition's face. I think it's fair to consider his failure to do so a failure of nerve.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/93001/debating-obamas-ransom