Did Obama Cave?

In his first public comments  since the budget agreement (at least the first that I have heard or read), a somber President Obama went on national television earlier tonight to issue a short statement in which he urged Republicans and Democrats to sign off on the debt deal under consideration in both congressional chambers.  The question now is whether Reid and Boehner can rally their party caucuses to support this – already there are signs that some Republicans are worrying about the impact on defense if the Congress can’t support the joint committee’s recommendations next November.  That failure will activate the debt “trigger”, including automatic cuts in defense spending.  We’ll know more tomorrow about whether the agreement will hold, after both caucuses are briefed and, presumably, a vote will follow.

In his televised remarks Obama looked, in a word, beaten – understandably so. He was quite candid in admitting that this was not the deal he wanted – indeed, it may not be the deal anyone wanted, but it does avert a debt shutdown, and, as he noted, it leaves open the faint possibility that further refinements can happen between now and November.   But make no mistake about it: in terms of budget policy, Obama won almost nothing here. Most significantly, there was nothing gained on the revenue side – not even a closing of tax loopholes favoring the “oil companies” and “CEOs flying corporate jets” that figured so prominently in his call for a “balanced” solution to the debt crisis. (Hint: those “refinements” will not include tax hikes in the 14 months before  a presidential election.)

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. Obama is fighting for his political life. Right now he’s in Jimmy Carter territory – his approval rating is the lowest it has ever been, the economy shows no signs of recovery (indeed, it may be getting worse), the House is occupied by an opposing party energized by newly-elected representatives convinced they have been sent to Washington to do God’s work by cutting spending, and I haven’t even begun discussing foreign affairs.  And, given that he has less than 14 months to turn it around, and that presidents are held responsible for the nation’s economy, he wasn’t going to start that political recovery by watching the government default on its loan obligations.  Given this context, the idea that this president was in a position of political strength during these budget negotiations is pure fantasy.  Indeed, it should be the Tea Party members who are mad – in all likelihood they could have forced a balanced budget vote as part of the package.  Where’s the outrage at Boehner?  Isn’t he the one who caved?

My point is simple. Obama had two imperatives during this fight: prevent a default and get this issue off the table until after 2012.  Period. To achieve that he would have gone as far Right as the Democratic Left would allow. And, in the end, he pretty much did and he accomplished his two objectives.

In short, this is probably the best deal Obama was going to negotiate.  It’s not like he didn’t try to get revenue increases on the table – in fact, he rejected the original Boehner deal because it didn’t have enough revenues. In the end, Obama didn’t have the political capital to leverage anything else from the House Republicans.  (Amazingly, there is a cadre of hard-core activists including Democratic legislators who are, tonight, still urging him to invoke the 14th amendment!)  I’m not saying Obama handled this flawlessly, although I’m hard pressed to point out obvious specific errors.  But the result was always likely to come out pretty much where it did, when it did.  I said as much, weeks ago.

I’ll be on tomorrow.  Meanwhile, 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’m listening.

Addendum (August 2).  Sorry about the delay, but I finally finished responding to each of your very good questions – see my remarks at the bottom of the comments section below.  I take some pride in giving everyone an answer, so  again, please accept my slower than normal response rate.


  1. Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the response and interesting debate. I will ask this in all sincerity. Why wouldn’t the 14th amendment work? Harry Truman used it during his presidency but I’ve yet to go back and compare the scenarios so I’m not sure if the precedent Truman set would apply to this debate. Secondly, what about 31 USC 3102? http://t.co/7occROi
    I’m just curious as to why neither of these solutions would work for us. Thanks again!


  2. Truth – I’m sure one can find some very smart (and expensive) lawyers to argue both sides of these issues. But, in the end, this isn’t a legal issue – it’s a political one. Proponents of utilizing the 14th amendment, or coining platinum, or the various other scenarios that have been floated in recent weeks, were fixated on ways to end the debt crisis without having to negotiate with Republicans regarding spending cuts. But Obama cannot afford to look at it only in the immediate context of the debt debate. He needs to ask: what are the repercussions down the road, for me, politically. People forget that although Clinton survived impeachment, and even gained popularity during the trial, his White House was essentially gridlocked during this entire period dealing with this one issue. In my view, the political repercussions, in the form of pushback from Republicans, including possible impeachment, outweigh any short-term gain in using these scenarios to “solve” the debt crisis. Remember not to lose site of the forest by fixing on trees: under the Constitution, it is eminently clear that Congress is in primary charge of the nation’s finances. Any effort by a President to seem to usurp that power would, therefore, in all likelihood not end well for him.

  3. Understood, but honestly I think Obama needs to worry less about Republican push-back and more about what’s morally right and what the majority of the country wants. That’s what is so frustrating.

    Obama is that idiot parent whose kids run around the grocery store knocking down displays and screaming and yelling and acting a fool. The Republicans are the kids and he never disciplines them. He gives them a firm talking-to, expecting that to work. Uh, news flash, it’s not working. As with tax cuts for the wealthy, trying to work with them didn’t work the first 50 times he did it and it’s not going to work going forward. It’s the definition of insanity, trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. He needs to use his brain to formulate political strategies that will short circuit these petulant brats on the right.

    Since that is a fantasy, I guess it’s up to us. Somehow, all of the sane people need to figure out a way to pound the message into the Republicants’ skulls that their agenda IS NOT what this country wants or needs. I won’t hold my breath though, how do you reason with unreasonable people? That’s the question I’m sure Obama asks himself many times each day but has yet to find the answer to.

    All I know is I voted for a Progressive Champion and I didn’t get one.


  4. You are right that for all intents and purposes every legal dispute only has the law as a background, it’s all about the negotiations. And there’s the rub. Obama could have threatened to call the professional Right’s bluff. He could even have done it for real. With the real President Clinton (husband, not wife) they would have known it would be done as he publicly stated recently and in keeping with his real actions in 1995. The Right was right that the mediated impact would have been lessen by sufficient Federal cash flow to cover interest payments – ironically Social Security is so revenue positive it would have been easy and will be for 30 years! But…the howls of outrage would have landed on the Tea Party as economic terrorists and ransom demanders. Obama caved as he always has under pressure and now they know they can do it again and again. McConnell has pronounced a “McConnell doctrine” to this effect regarding the debt ceiling, and apparently the FAA. There is no denying the triumph of Clinton 1995 over Gingrich, and now the defeat of Obama by McConnell will haunt his presidency. I believe it has destroyed it. Who, Right or Left,will vote for someone so clearly not in charge and clearly not committed to their goals? Lacking confidence that Obama is trustworthy or competent under difficult circumstancs the majority of voters will automatically reject Obama. Thus, McConnell has achieved his number one goal – ensured defeat of Barack Obama.

  5. Truth – There are thousands of Progressives out there who are feeling exactly as you do right now. Here’s a question for you – and them: does your feeling of betrayal mean that you won’t vote for Obama in 2012? If not, does that mean you will sit out the election? (I’m assuming you won’t support the Republican Nominee).. Or, do you think someone needs to run against Obama in the primary?

  6. Greenspeak – A comment and related question. I disagree that Obama could have invoked the 14th “for real”; for reasons I’ve cited many times, I think it was too politically risky. For that reason, I don’t believe bluffing in this regard was very useful, since the Republicans almost certainly would have called his bluff and then we’d have a real crisis: default and impeachment. I also don’t think the debt debate will have “legs” – Obama’s presidency will stand or fall on jobs, jobs, and jobs.

    But here’s the question: will you still support him in 2012, or are you going to sit it out (or try to get him primaried)?

  7. I’ll hold my nose and vote for him in 2012. There is still a glimmer of hope that he’ll find his mojo, especially during campaign season. He talks the talk but walking the walk? Not so much. At least I can vent. He’s still better than the alternative but that gap is slowly narrowing. I have never sat out an election since I’ve been able to vote (1988) and I won’t sit this one out. In fact, the reason I created our website was to try and make a difference in 2012 and beyond. There are alot of people in this country (myself included) that need to make the jump from armchair activist to difference maker. I just feel the need to vent as do many others.

  8. One problem with this analysis is that it seems to assume that political weakness is unrelated to personal weakness. Obama’s predilection for “compromise” and “bi-partisanship” is both a personal weakness and a source of his political weakness.

    As to your question about progressive electoral behavior in 2012, my honest answer is that I don’t know what I will do in the voting booth, but I do know I will be giving neither donations nor volunteer time to Obama and that I would welcome a primary challenge.

  9. “Obama is going to come out much more aggressively in the next 14 months and saddle much of the nation’s ills on the Republicans. ”

    Since his entire political career has been about bi-partisanship, that’s likely to go over well ‘Re-elect me because I’ve discovered that I was wrong about everything and promise to change.”

    #1, It wouldn’t work. #2 Obama won’t do it, even at his announcement of the deal, he continually used the word “we,” refusing an opportunity to begin redefining the source of the problem.

  10. Thomas – Thanks for the comment. I’m trying to gauge the depth of the opposition to Obama, particularly among his base, since the deal went down.

    You are right that personal weakness can contribute to political weakness. What I think most observers are missing, however, is the relative importance of personal versus contextual factors in explaining that political weakness. Journalists – and many of Obama’s critics – tend to overestimate the impact of personal weakness relative to more fundamental factors – starting with the size and intensity of the opposition and public’s tendency to evaluate the president by what is happening, rather than what he says or even does. I’ll develop this point in subsequent posts.

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