Today, as White House officials fan out in an effort to tamp down liberal criticism of the budget deal, the Senate is poised to pass the measure and send it on to President Obama’s desk for his signature. Yesterday the House, in a bipartisan 269-to-161 vote, easily approved the measure. The nay votes included 66 Republicans and 95 Democrats, most of them from their party’s ideologically extreme wings. Once signed into law by Obama, the legislation will immediately grant the Treasury $400 billion in borrowing authority, preventing a government default. It is the first of three increases in the debt ceiling that should extend borrowing authority through the 2012 election.
I will spend time dissecting the elements of the legislation in the next several posts, but keep in mind that, as with the health care legislation, the full impact of the debt agreement will not be known for months. For starters, no one knows what the joint congressional debt committee will report back in November – heck, we don’t even know who is on the debt committee as yet. Similarly, the details of the spending cuts must still be worked out through the appropriations process. So it is somewhat premature to gauge the merits of this bill, although that won’t stop many from doing so.
But, since so many of you took the time to weigh in in response to my last post, cross listed at Salon, that argued Obama did not cave but instead made a perfectly predictable strategic calculation in agreeing to a debt deal, I want to at least give you the courtesy of a response. The prevailing tone of your comments is nicely captured in this response: “Does anyone really have an answer for such a pile of garbage? What a bunch of horseshit. Dickinson, to be blunt — you are an idiot.”
To be sure, most of you made more nuanced comments, but the tone was similar. After looking through these, I can safely say:
I am still right. You are still wrong.
Now, having said that, I realize it will change nobody’s mind. Nor should it. That’s an assertion backed with no evidence. But, let me ask you, before engaging in a point by point rebuttal of your arguments – is there really anything I can say that will persuade you that Obama actually made a very rational choice to negotiate a debt deal on the terms he did, when he did? I suspect not – and that’s my point. The reason is because you disagree with the outcome. And because you disagree, you believe there must have been an alternative strategy he could have embraced that would have achieved your preferred outcome.
I understand the sentiment that is driving that belief. To quote a former president, “I feel your pain”. I know that many of you feel sincerely, passionately betrayed by this president for his evident failure to fulfill what you saw as the central tenet of his presidential campaign: to transform American politics in a more progressive direction.
To that, I have two responses. First, there was never any real possibility that Obama was going to move politics significantly in the direction you anticipated. I said as much in my posts immediately after his election. Heck, I said it on election night (several hundred students can attest to that!) – and many times before that. Don’t take my word for it – read my back posts on this site.
Second, I told you what the outcome of the debt negotiations would be, and when it would occur: not before both sides were on the brink of the abyss. We can quibble with how accurate my prediction was, but I think it was darn close to what we got.
Now, how was I able to do that? It’s not clairvoyance. It’s not even rocket science. It’s political science. The fact is, presidents operate in an environment that, although fluid, is nonetheless somewhat predictable because of the laws and institutions that largely determine what presidents can do, and how. The key is to look dispassionately at these fundamentals first, rather than starting with your preferred outcome and then trying to divine ways that presidents could have avoided the fundamentals to get to that point. That’s what I try to do here. Note that this is a different goal than what you find on many blog sites: they are designed to allow like minded people who worship from the same hymnal to gather together and react to political events. They are led by the High Priests of their particular congregation – the Krugmans and Limbaughs. I get that. But it’s not what I do.
So, you have a choice: stick to your belief that Obama’s fooled everyone, and that, metaphorically, he lacks the proverbial stones to lead. Or, perhaps gain a better appreciation of the rules, norms, laws and institutional constraints and incentives that largely determine how much power presidents have.
Note that I’m not discounting Obama’s individual traits as a causal factor here. But critics are acting like they were duped – that he’s now revealing his true stripes. In fact, as I’ve posted many, many, many times here since before his election, Obama is not a risk taker. He is a mediator by nature, a man focused on getting to yes, but not one who is focused on a particular version of yes. He has always been this way, dating back to his time on the Harvard Law Review. His behavior these past few days is vintage Obama. You may rail against his evident lack of core convictions, but you should not be surprised.
Look, I’m not asking you to give up on your progressive principles. But don’t let your commitment to them blind you to the realities that dictate what presidents can and cannot do in the American political system. Except in rare circumstances, presidents are weak. They have always been weak. Barring a fundamental change to our system of shared powers, they always will be weak.
Ok, enough of the preaching. Back to analysis. If I can clear time, I’ll try to respond more directly to some of the more detailed criticisms and questions you’ve raised.
In the meantime, keep those comments coming….I think I responded to every one from the Salon/Did Obama Cave posting, but if I missed yours resend it and I’ll try to get back to you. (Note, since I was late in getting to your comments to the “Did Obama Cave?” post, my responses are stacked up at the bottom. But don’t worry I did read and respond to you.)