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. He promised change, and has really failed to deliver. I predict a massive loss in 2012 at this point anyway, so he should be at least holding firm to the principles he was elected on even if they are unrealistic. My family raised and gave money to his campaign in 2008, we hit the streets for him. Not this time around. A once optimistic voter, I am no longer. I’ll probably just stop voting, since it seems to make no difference, and the Democrats have again shown themselves to be spineless. The forces of intolerance and ignorance are winning, and emotionally I can’t afford to play the game any more and continue to be so deeply disappointed.

    In 2010 he’s going to be beaten over the head for failing to bring “Change”, and justifiably so.

  2. Matt, two comments. Nobody tried to repeal the 14th amendment and we should all be grateful for that.

    Second, I’ve read nothing on the foreign policy implications of the deal. It may be that the military is the biggest looser here. If you read the polls, that is what Americans will most easily concede.

    See also today’s WSJ comparing the Canadian and American budgets. And they have no military to speak of.


  3. Chris — go ahead and fulfill your role in defeating the Democrats next year. Give up. Just don’t pretend that yours is a new dilemma. You are just one of the latest exemplars of an old model citizen. The citizen who has unrealistic ideas about politics, the one who wrongly believes what he hears during campaigns. The one whose ideology, no matter how right-minded, blinds him to the realities of our unruly democracy. The one who abandons his elected representative, whom he invested with too much false hope, after despairing that he isn’t getting all he wanted and expected. Finally, you will be the one that walks away, taking your support with you, leaving the field to the other side. And you call your Democratic representatives spineless!

    My question to you is: what happens when you and other like minded citizens decide to take your toys and go home? Who will we get to run the country instead of the people you’ve abandoned? Good luck with that outcome. But you have an alternative. Abandon your unrealistic fantasies and accept this reality: politics is the art of the possible. Support your representatives, warts and all, with your caveats intact, because — yes — they are the ones you have; and because they need your support to get stronger, and because your support increases the likelihood that they will represent YOUR ideals.

    Or you could just continue the classic mistake our side has perpetuated for the last 30+ years. Your choice.

  4. I view the outrage of liberal elites against the Obama negotiating position slightly differently. Certainly there are progressive activists and media figures who would like the Obama administration to have either (1) unilaterally declared the debt limit unconstitutional pursuant to section 4 of the 14th amendment and awaited someone with standing to challenge his interpretation in court, or (2) used the “platinum coin option” (http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/07/28/282471/the-platinum-coin-option/) to get around the debt limit. Either had the potential to, as you write, “prevent a default and get this issue off the table until after 2012”

    However, another group of progressives would see these as undesirable options, but still would have liked the Obama administration to seriously float one or the other in order to gain more leverage in the policy debate and obtain a deal with more revenue enhancements and fewer spending cuts.

    Your critique seems to be aimed at the former group. However, I think that a fairer critique of Obama’s negotiating tactics is leveled by this latter group, who may not want to see the expansion of presidential powers or inflationary consequences that either of these options may entail, but who would liked to have seen the President gain greater negotiating leverage in the end deal by floating these options that would have raised the costs to conservative legislators to failing to go along with his proposals.

  5. @Chris What should he have done differently? Griping about results is fine, but only if you feel those results could have been different. Where did Obama fail here where he could and should have succeeded?

  6. Sorry for the length, but I wrote this as a post for my blog and don’t want to appear a link troll or to shy away from clash. -best.

    To be somewhat more patient with Prof. Dickinson, I’ll take his more interesting question more seriously.

    “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.”

    This very very obvious straw-person argument has a number of, what should be equally obvious, responses:

    > Uhm, there are no “political laws”… you may mean “norms”
    > Among these norms has been a consensus that the debt ceiling is not a toy. This apparently changed oh so very quickly… with the admission of some very Green Tea (see what I did there) Party recruits, who’s personal and political experience is far more limited that our Presidents
    > Obama’s numbers are getting worse, but he HAS been able to defy supposed “laws” of politics by dodging a good deal of the blame for our economic situation, with a solid majority (54%) still believing (for good reasons) that Bush got this mess started
    > Prof Dickinson’s post relies on freezing frame at the moment the hostage crisis took full form… but the debt ceiling could have been raised earlier and Obama could have established credibility as a tough negotiator well before the crisis. He begins with Obama’s political weakness without tending to his opponents’ explanation for how he became so weak
    > The “liberal blogs” bemoaning his failure have been MUCH more specific about what could have been done differently that the good Prof. has been. His clumsy Straw argument covers this over. I’d take a few minutes to stack up examples if I thought Dickinson’s view was a thoughtful response… if he didn’t see such posts, his problems are worse than I can fix for free (though I’m open to contract work- [call me]). Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman are not bad places to start.
    > This blog has been very patient with this president, so I’m not super sensitive to his sweeping characterization of liberal hostility to this deal as growing from irrational demands. I get that politics are constrained by context. But that’s a stunningly shallow assessment of what’s going on here.
    > Dickinson himself knows as much:
    “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.”
    He seems aware that “the Democratic Left” has some agency, but treats us like Nutters for exercising it. Like it or not, Professor, the blog posts you bemoan are a part of the PROCESS by which “the Democratic Left” decides what ‘it’ “will allow.”
    Basically, it’s a case study in how stereotyping political cliques can rob someone of the intellectual precision they worked hard to acquire.

  7. The point is that Obama had no leverage whatever with the Tea Party. The only folks with such leverage are those further to their RIGHT, who might run against them in a primary if they “cave.” We have a group in the GOP that is more worried about not being renominated than anything else; they are largely immune from penalty from default or even not being re-elected. While it is true that in some “swing” TP districts, a default might have gotten rid of them in 2012, a default would also have gotten rid of President Obama, too. In sum, Obama had a hostage situation and did about as well as he could have done. The revenue issue has not gone away, if for no other reason than because the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 regardless of who wins the election. Obama can campaign on “do you want tax cuts for the rich or do you want to lose Medicare to Paul Ryan?” The economy may yet get somewhat better. Defense cuts are a distinct possibility. Liberals: Cheer up; this is a battle, not the whole war.

  8. It will be interesting to see how the White House plays the resolution of the debt crisis on the campaign trail. As this recap of the winners and losers of the debt ceiling debate acknowledges (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-debt-ceiling-deal-winners-and-losers/2011/07/31/gIQAHl7FmI_story.html?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost), Obama needs to appeal to independents in order to win in 2012, and these people may be the only ones impressed by the end of this long and wonky debate (but even that outcome may be a bit too sunny to hope for at this point it seems). Also, these people who the fate of the upcoming election swings on are perhaps the only people left who are not swayed by the emotional evaluations of Obama conducted by his liberal base and most vocal conservative opponents — whether they fall on the messiah or anti-Christ ends of the spectrum depends on the commentators intractable political values. At this point, what do you think are Obama’s strongest things to run on? Obama has not had the best political climate to work with, and most of his “victories” are in fact compromises of this sort where the day was saved, but at the expense of every single supporter and pundit’s happiness. Their best option maybe simply offering more of these dinners with Barry and Joe, the first of which I am still unrealistically hoping I can win a seat at. They might be able to swing enough states if they prove Obama is actually someone every supporter has had a beer with.

    As you state, Obama probably finangled the best deal he could out of what can best be described as a ratatouille of components palatable to no one. Hardly anyone will paint the compromise this way, based on the emotional reasoning that has been guiding pundits, supporters, and opponents since Obama was elected. The recaps and final analysis of decisions and compromises like these are always interesting, and somewhat terrifying because of their influence (and are always my favorite part of these type of political situations to obsess over). These portraits of politics, painted in wide, imprecise, and monochromatic strokes, often become the definite estimations of complex issues, and it seems Obama has made no friends this time around the political ring. New York Magazine’s blog Daily Intel summed it up best I think — “It’s often said that a good compromise is one in which neither side is happy. By such a measure, the debt-ceiling agreement reached by President Obama and GOP congressional leaders, while clearly friendlier to the right than to the left, has to be considered a pretty great compromise.” In the New York Times’ climate-controlled political spectrum, the same results prevail — as Mother Jones editor Clara Jones tweeted, “Obama gets shellacked by Krugman AND Douthat. That takes some doing.” Daily Intel has the best collection of these analyses, so far (http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/07/obama_announces_debt-ceiling_d.html?mid=twitter_DailyIntel).

    As for your last question, it’s probably due to the fact that Will.I.Am made a YouTube video about him during the 2008 election. This magazine cover didn’t help either I’m guessing: http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2009/04/president-beefc.html.

    Might be a good idea to post your question on Quora though — I first tried to use it for my thesis, but not surprisingly perhaps, my question (Has President Barack Obama been a successful communicator while in the White House?: http://www.quora.com/Has-President-Barack-Obama-been-a-successful-communicator-while-in-the-White-House) has only received much attention in the last few months. I’m not entirely sure the website moderators would let you ask “Why have so many very smart people, 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,” but I bet there would be some entertaining, and perhaps useful, responses.

  9. Here is how I would sell the deal to Democrats. The majority of the deficit reduction that will result from this measure is going to be the responsibility of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. This panel will include 12 members: 3 each to be named by the leadership of each party in each chamber. This means the House Republicans on this panel could get steamrolled by the Democrats, plus one Republican senator. And each House of Congress then must give an up-or-down vote to whatever plan the committee comes up with. The “Gang of Six” proposal of a few weeks back or something similar that included tax increases could very well pass this panel, pass the Senate with no problem, and pass the House with a coalition of Democrats and hawkish Republicans worried about automatic cuts to the military. It all hinges on which Republican senators are appointed to this panel. Mitch McConnell’s got two weeks to make his choices.

  10. Some folks here have a very bad case of Stockholm syndrome. The only thing Obama seems to have truly convinced you of is to lower your expectations — the whole “politics is the art of the possible” bull. That is a loser’s mentality.

    It is possible to get what you want in politics if you fight for it. The proof is right in front of you — look the Republicans. They got spending cuts, promises of more cuts to come AND gave up nothing in return despite controlling only the House. That is a massive political victory.

    The mistake progressives have made in the past 30 years stems not from a lack of support but a lack of nerve. Being high-minded and reasonable while the other side repeatedly punches you in the face is not a winning strategy. You need to punch back.

    Regardless, I’m not someone who thinks Obama “caved” on this. As with the health care bill and the inadequate stimulus, the deal we have pretty much represents the deal Obama wanted all along. He didn’t get the revenue increases, but don’t forget that it was Obama who put Social Security on the table and was willing to deal on Medicare. He could have taken McConnell’s deal, which was the closet thing to a clean vote, but instead he wanted to do something “big.”

    What I would have done differently? I wouldn’t have got to this point in the first place because I would have forced a raise in the debt ceiling to extend the Bush tax cuts. Barring that, I would have raised the debt ceiling unilaterally and forced the GOP to take me to court. But that’s because I believe our social safety net and the millions of Americans who depend on it are worth fighting for. Obama, by contrast, does not.

  11. Just wanted to commend Paul on an excellent and spot on post. I would elaborate, but I would just be repeating what Paul said. Hopefully Chris and like minded liberals read it.

  12. Holy cow! Matt says:

    “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.”

    And then goes on to argue that the true believers didn’t understand the politics at play.

    Psst, Matt. There were a few other voices from the beginning, who were reliable progressives but never in the thrall of Obamamania, and who pointed out that this guy would get rolled because of a combination of his narcissism and naiveté.

    I realize that no one who preens himself on being an intelligent blogger — as Matt surely does — likes to hear someone say: “Matt, have you ever heard of a guy named Krugman?” But what the heck: “Matt, have you ever heard of a guy named Krugman?” You know, the one who has long since seen a “pattern” rooted in Obama’s character — and not just partisan politics — a pattern that Matt has apparently somehow missed.




    Look, when even Grover Norquist can be quoted in WaPo as saying:


    “Norquist added that he was ‘pleasantly shocked’ that Obama had not sought a debt-ceiling increase last year, when the president struck another deal with the GOP extending the Bush tax cuts — given that the president had far more leverage at that point.’

    not to mention the fact that Obama actually had strong Democratic majorities in both Houses at the time, something Gene Sperling has all of a sudden gone all amnesiac on


    and all he had to do was precisely nothing, and let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, and then rely on the Senate to keep them expired through 2012;

    and John Boehner had gone on television to say that he would vote to let the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire if push came to shove, i.e., he would simultaneously vote to extend the middle class tax cuts;

    then the instant revisionist fantasy that Matt is promoting there was not much that Obama could have done is off in the territory of the Pauli principle, the other one, the one which says: “That argument — in this case Matt’s — is not even wrong.”

  13. I’m with Kevin, more or less. I’ll agree the political landscape is toxic, but what I don’t believe is that the president has no options. Throughout his time in office I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt, but he’s somehow failed to make his basic points to me, an ordinary American, instead allowing the debate to be framed by the media or the blogosphere. On healthcare for instance, I was waiting for the speech on “here’s why the HRA matters to pretty much every American no matter how healthy or wealthy you are right now.” Never heard it. Instead Sarah Palin screams “SOCIALIST OBAMA WANTS TO KILL YOUR GRANDMA,” and we all run for cover.

    It was a vocal MINORITY — one that seems not to understand or care about economic reality — that’s held the entire country hostage since the 2010 elections. I get the need to be conciliatory and not go “scorched earth,” but Obama seems to be holed up in the bubble and not listening to anyone but his tiny circle of Beltway advisers. FDR showed his base how to help him help them get what they wanted, and they did. Johnson passed civil rights legislation without giving the farm away. W said screw the law, I’m going to do whatever the heck I want because I’m the decider. Obama just give me SOME of this, something to hold on to, something to believe in.

  14. “Chris — go ahead and fulfill your role in defeating the Democrats next year. Give up…. Finally, you will be the one that walks away, taking your support with you, leaving the field to the other side. And you call your Democratic representatives spineless!”

    It’s called turning off your base. As opposed to firing it up. Obama turned off his base in 2010 — thus the election of these crazies. He keeps turning off his base, he doesn’t get re-elected.

    As Nate Silver said:

    “Overall, the deal served to confirm the worst suspicions held by some Democrats: first, that the White House is unwilling to drive a hard bargain or is poor at negotiation. And second, that it is loath to stand up for liberal values or has inherently conservative policy preferences.

    “These critiques are more common among those Democrats who criticize the White House frequently. But I have also heard them in recent days from Democrats who tend toward the center-left and who tend to defend the White House, some of whom cite the poor precedent that the deal has established.”

    Yeah. I have NEVER BEFORE criticized the Obama White House. NEVER. But now…

  15. “I predict a massive loss in 2012 at this point anyway, so he should be at least holding firm to the principles he was elected on even if they are unrealistic.”

    That. That right there. The confusion our side has over how actually democracy works, distilled.

  16. You got all that, Chris? No matter what this president does, no matter how much of FDR’s legacy he’s willing to abandon to the neoliberals and party of Ayn Rand, you must keep clapping! (and donating!) Afghanistan? Guantanamo? Wall St.? Libya? Gay rights? Sorry, can’t help you there, but here’s a picture of Obama playing with his dog! Yours as a “thank you” for another $50 donation!

    Honestly, the belief that all this is a product of Obama’s “weakness” is wrongheaded. Liberals love indulging in this fantasy that congressional democrats are just as liberal as they are, and if they’d only screw their courage to the sticking place we’d have universal healthcare and an army out of the middle east. Liberals lie to themselves in this way in order to convince themselves that they actually have representation in congress. That the debt ceiling agreement didn’t contain a dime in increased revenues, and in fact another corporate tax holiday, should

    “What should he have done differently?” Assuming, against all evidence, the president actually wanted a better deal and isn’t just allowing the Republicans to play bad cop, Obama could have started from a stronger negotiating position by publicly entertaining the 14th amendment option. Congress voted for a budget, ergo congress voted to spend more money. Tell the Republicans that the debt ceiling was effectively raised with the budget vote, and dare them to sue the country into default. Republicans would have screamed, tri-corner hats would be doffed in anger, and the American people as a whole would not give a damn. Hell, they respect strength. They hate “gridlock” and want someone in office who will, in the words of Machiavelli, “Git ‘r done.”

  17. Yes, he caved, because Obama has done nearly nothing but bend over and caress the Republican phalli since he took the oath of office. He’s backtracked on every single important campaign promise that got him elected. I’m gay and could not care less about imitating straight people christer crap like marriage. I certainly don’t have any desire to fight in some corporate-sponsored petro-war, so now my only “out” is gone there. We did not vote for some centrist turncoat. (Centrist political position in America is defined [by me] as “the ever-dwindling middle of the far right fringe”). I would not vote for him again and have abandoned the alleged Democratic party, for they all seem to be willing hasten the Republicans’ nostalgic desire to return us to the Dark Ages, where the rich and the church rule over the poverty-stricken illiterate, ignorant majority.

  18. I have to offer the rather obvious thought that Obama’s political weakness was self-inflicted. Everytime he’s capitulated he seems have gotten less, due in part, no doubt, to the fact that when people know you would rather fold than bluff, they’re going to push you to the edge as frequently as possible. His political naivete is frankly shocking. When questioned why he didn’t involve the debt increase in his discussion for the extension of the Bush tax cuts it was because he believed that Republicans would bargain in good faith. Huh? (I’ve got a bridge…)

    Whether or not the health care act could’ve passed otherwise, I think there’s ample room to question the backroom deals made with health care companies who were getting something they craved in new, mandatory sign-ups. Let them object at their own peril, might’ve been his approach. Instead he capitulated before he even started. The idea that he took a small stimulus bill FRESH from a big election win, also seems to speak to his lack of vision, and of course only hurt himself. The Republicans were going to complain whatever its size, why not try to give the economy as much chance as possible. (One might quibble here with his choice of Clintonistas for his cabinet, as well.) His political maneuvering? Well, perhaps we were spoiled by Bill Clinton,
    but even he was no LBJ, and Obama looks less stable than a deck chair on the titanic.

    I think we saw with George Bush that it’s possible to deal, even with a adversarial congress/questioning public by having a steadfastness to your principles. People often seem to appreciate someone who full-heartedly believes what he says, even if they don’t. By the corollary, I think Obama says many of the right things (certainly judging from the polls) but lacks the conviction or, maybe he just talks pretty and doesn’t believe what he says, but whichever the case,
    doesn’t project much presidential authority which results in even greater weakness than you’d expect from someone leading a party that controls two of the three elected bodies involved in legislation. So political weakness? Sure. But isn’t a lot of that how you play your hand and not the shit luck of the cards?

  19. I think the president is fighting a very hard battle for which he is ill equipped to win.
    He seems to have too little to fight with. It is no secret that whatever President Obama attemps
    he will be fighting for whatever he attempts. It is a pitiful time of life in these so
    called United States. It is a shame that in these United States of America that the Public Servants
    whom were duly elected to represent the people of their district with nothing at stake but their welfare, and a fare share of all that the Federal Government is able to supply to all of it’s
    citizenry. All Americans are entitled to their fare share of the American dream be it too large for belief or too small for any understanding.

  20. i’m interested in your analysis of why obama needn’t do better than he did with the outcome of the “Negotiations” (“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.”)

    Here are some observations from an alternative view that might inspire a reaction:
    1. Obama broke the first rule of negotiations. he showed he wanted an agreement more than his opponents wanted an agreement. once you’ve done so the opponent is able to continually raise new demands until the time for negotiations expires. with each new demand one is left with the choice of accepting the new demands or not having an agreement.

    2. but why did Obama want an agreement more than the Republicans. Sure, its the responsible thing to do – avoid default on the debt. but consider the consequence of obama allowing the default. the polls demonstrate the public would have blamed the republicans and the pressure would have built on that side of the aisle to either pass a clean bill or the tax-and-cut “balanced approach” viewed favorable by a majoroity of the country. Basically, Obama’s cave saved republicans from the political consequences of causing a default, the positioning them as radical in the popular perception, and, as mcconnel said, “making the republicans co-owners of the poor economy.” seems to me the republicans had more to lose at the default than Obama, who positioned himself as the adult in the room.

    3. the economy is going to be bad going into the next election. there will not be a turn around in the remaining months that is noticable to the American people. yes, a deafult would make it worse. but it’s hard to see an upside for the president in preventing one. obama prevents default and the economy is bad during the election. obama allows default and the economy is bad during the election. only, with the latter decision the republicans receive scorn for their intransigence and share some burden for the state of affairs.

    4. republicans effectively identified obama as the cause of the debt, which is factually incorrect. the debt results from irresponsible fiscal policy from republican wars, pharmacy benefits, and tax cuts. but by arguing that more debt is what obama benefits from the agreement and budget cuts are what republicans want from the agreement he’s taken ownership of more debt than he’s caused – in the public perception.

    5. obama’s promise to change the tone in washington is easily sabotagued by republicans. and they have done it. i don’t see how he now campaigns on the idea of making washington less partisan – he’s lost a campaign theme. and i can’t see how he campaigns against a “do nothing” congress, having promised to bring parties together. washington still requires “change” in the american mind, perhaps more than ever. and that’s not a justification for voting incumbent.

    lastly, house democrats need only 27 republicans to pass a bill. it seems to me that to prevent default boehner would allow, and 27 republicans would support, an agreement that would prevent default of the nation. – or they would bear the responsibility for the default and it’s economic consequence.

  21. Uh, because that’s what he told us in the campaign. I understood, especially given his inexperience, that compared to Hillary he likely wouldn’t be familiar with how to pull the levers of power to get things done in Washington. That’s why I was such a Hillary supporter but once she was out of it, I put my support into Candidate Obama. I am not unrealistic in my expectations. I give Obama credit for his achievements as well as his constant tendency to bend over and grab his ankles at the first sign of Republican / Teabagger pressure.

    I thought with the passion and fire he showed in the 2008 campaign that he had an inner FDR/Truman or even Clinton but alas I was wrong. Unfortunately, for the country, that is not the case. The people who worked so hard to get him elected should be rewarded by a champion that will fight tooth and nail for the Progressive values that are supported by a big majority of the country.

    Many of the issues we’ve been confronted with during this debt ceiling debate poll overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats yet Obama wouldn’t act as if he had the support of the people. The Republicans act as if they have the support of the people when they absolutely DO NOT! That’s where the frustration comes in.

    Having said all that, I will hold my nose and vote for him simply because the alternative is off the rails and not possible for me to imagine. There is no DAMN way I’m going to endure watching a Republicant celebrate winning the presidency. Thanks for the insight and for making me soften my stance ever so slightly from where it was yesterday. If it’s OK, I’d like to post your analysis on my website. Thanks Matt.


  22. RE: ARE YOU LISTENING????? My turn,

    I wanted Hillary as my President. I didn´t get her so we can´t talk about how she would have handled this.

    I was a skeptic, but remember CHANGE? For a nation that elected Bush to two terms are you surprised that the Democrats and Independants wanted to believe what he was dishing out? We knew he had no CV, we expected his personality to get it done! We expected finesse and a modicum of political smarts…I knew the minute he took office and invited the Republicans over for cookies that he was deluded…..but we were stuck.

    We can agree to disagree and I am sure you have many more degrees than I, but I have been active politically all my life and I feel I have been defrauded.

    Also, I am not a Constitutional Lawyer, but how do you know so much about the 14th Amendment please.

    Now, are you answering?

  23. Sally,

    I get that you and many others wanted change from the Bush-era policies, and in Obama you saw a vehicle for that change. But change does not come through personality alone – it requires political capital too. And, in Obama’s defense, he did make major changes, although they perhaps did not go as far as you and other progressives might have wanted. Remember health care and the banking bill. The other imiportant point to remember is that he inherited problems whose scope made it difficult to bring the type of change about that perhaps he wanted.

    If I may, I want to address the 14th amendment issue in a separate post. (And no, I am not a constitution lawyer either.)

  24. Wahoo – I think I responded to most of the points in my earlier post, but I do agree that 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. Keep in mind, however, that he needs independents votes – so he’s more concerned with making the case to them. That means a willingness to slight the left wing of his party in the hope that they share Truthteller’s attitude (see above).

  25. Chris – How one plays one hand is important – but less important than the hand itself. Bush’s “steadfastness” was enabled for most of his presidency by unified majority support in both chambers of Congress. When Obama had that support, he got legislation through – let’s not forget health care, the banking bill and the stimulus package. These are major pieces of legislation.

    I’m not sure I buy your suggestion that Republicans are pushing him because he has a record of folding. The fact is that this is the most polarized Congress since the post-Civil War reconstruction era. There’s simple not much middle ground on which to rest a compromise on any issue – I’ve showed the data on this many times in previous posts. Add the impact of the Tea Party on the 2010 elections and you have a Congress predisposed to battle every issue to the bitter end – whether Obama seeks consensus or not.

  26. Loonesta – On which campaign promises did he backtrack? I can think of a few dealing with foreign affairs: particularly Guantanamo, military commissions and some of the eavesdropping regulations. But if you had been a regular reader here, that wouldn’t surprise you. On the other hand, he’s made a good faith effort to implement many of his campaign promises as well, hasn’t he?

  27. Endof – I hope to devote a complete post to the 14th amendment controversy, since so many of you asked about it. But my short response is you seem to gauge the effectiveness of invoking the 14th amendment solely in the context of “winning” the debt debate. That perspective, however, is one that Obama cannot afford to adopt. He will tangle again with Congress across a range of issues. Given this, it makes no sense to, in effect, abrogate their constitutional role in order to achieve a single policy objective. Republicans – and some Democrats, I dare say – would have done more than scream and sue – they would have made sure Obama’s legislative program never made it out of committee.

  28. Al,

    With all respect to Silver, talk is cheap. This is exactly what you’d expect Democrats to say, if they are acting strategically. But when faced with a choice of voting Bachman, or Palin, or Perry, into the White House versus four more years of Obama, do you think the base will stay home? Now, if he was primaried, they might choose otherwise. But in the absence of legitimate party opposition, I don’t see it.

    What will cost Obama reelection is not his base, who still strongly support him by margins of more than 75% – it will be the loss of independents. That’s what this debt deal was all about.

  29. David,

    Again, we need to keep in mind the nature of representation in our system of separated institutions sharing powers. That vocal “minority” that you castigate often forms a voting majority in many of the districts that House members represent. There representatives aren’t being held hostage – they are doing their best to fulfill the expectations of the voters who sent them to Washington. It has always been thus. Johnson passed civil rights legislation only after the televised beating of civil rights marches galvanized public opinion to support this action and when he had massive majorities in both chambers of Congress. Neither situation exists today.

  30. Ed,

    Good points all. If I can, I’ll address a longer post in response. But, Krugman’s repeated assertions to the contrary, there’s simply no evidence that Obama got “rolled” because of narcissism or naivete. Indeed, when he had “strong” majorities (actually, he had a very thin working margin in the Senate), he got legislation through, including health care and a stimulus bill. Now the stimulus bill may have been smaller than Krugman wanted, but there is ample evidence suggesting anything bigger wouldn’t have made it through those “strong majorities”. I appreciate your devotion to Krugman, but I’ve posted numerous blogs and written several articles about the health care and stimulus debate showing that Obama went about as far left as he could go without losing the moderate middle of his own party. The reality is he took office with limited political capital, and all the polemics from Krugman notwithstanding (and keep in mind that he is paid to be opinionated) Obama got pretty much all that he was going to get. See my prior posts for the evidence on this topic, and keep those comments coming.

  31. Fort – Loser’s mentality, or realist’s? If you were president, you would have “forced a raise in the debt ceiling unilaterally”. Really? How so? And please don’t tell me you would have invoked the 14th amendment back in December!

  32. Bert,
    I’m not buying it. No matter what its composition, the joint committee is going to tailor its recommendations to what it can get through Congress – otherwise it risks a worse outcome. No bill containing revenue enhancements is going to pass Congress in the next 14th months, unless it’s paired with draconian spending cuts.

    Of course, it’s an argument worth making, for appearances sake, I guess.

  33. Jaime – You’ve made probably the most insightful observations among all the comments. Because you are precisely right: this is all about 2012 and independents. And the fact that both Douthat and Krugman oppose the deal suggest Obama’s political instincts were spot on!

    I’m going to devote an extended post to your point, which is critical to understanding what just took place.

  34. Truthteller – Post away.

    I devoted an extended post detailing the difficulty in relying on polling data to discern the public’s views on the debt issue – see:

    So I won’t revisit the issue here except to say that poll of national attitudes aren’t really very helpful in explaining how individual members of Congress vote. They are much more responsive to their own constituents – particularly those who vote in primaries!

  35. Eli,

    Ah, patience – an under-appreciated virtue! I hope you maintain that patience while I respond.

    First, there are indeed “laws” governing presidential behavior – literally! There are norms as well, but I mean laws in two senses: actual legal strictures governing how presidents can act (think of the veto power), and covering generalizations that presidency scholars have discerned through careful research ( most people’s vote is based on party affiliation).

    As for the “green tea”, as it turns out, a study of candidate backgrounds indicates that tea party activists have no less governing experience than the non-Tea Party candidates elected in 2010. (See how this works? You make an assertion, I respond with data! It’s fun!)

    I am certainly aware of the liberal blogs revisionist history of what could have been done during the debt negotiations. My response: I don’t care what should have happened – I only care about what did happen, and why. My point in this blog is to explain, not persuade. And, if you go back to read my postings the last two weeks, you’ll understand that’s what I did and why I was right. Liberals are mad because they think Obama made the wrong choice. They could be very well correct – but that’s not my concern. I merely explain why Obama acted as he did. You need to keep in mind the difference between what liberals like Yglesias and Krugman do and what I do. They are polemicists advocating a cause, based on a set of political values that they believe the country should adopt.
    In contrast, I am a political scientist who job is not to persuade you to adopt my values – it is to make you understand why things happen, often in a way that fluster the Krugman’s and Yglesias’ of the world. Hint: it is rarely for the reasons they say it is.

  36. Kevin,

    An interesting intellectual exercise. My immediate response is that the threat of invoking the 14th would have been ineffective for two reasons: first, Obama would never have actually invoked it,and second, Republicans probably knew this. So it would have been an empty threat. But it is worth considering, and I thank you for raising the issue.

  37. jack – I need to wade into the details of the spending cuts. How much of the defense cuts can be achieved by winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we will do anyway?

  38. Chris – I understand the feeling of disappointment. But consider this – in 2004 Karl Rove was predicting Republican majorities for a generation to come. Two years later Democrats were controlling Congress. In 2008, pundits saw Obama’s election as heralding a realignment. Then came the Tea Party and 2010. Events can change political dynamics very very quickly in this country. Don’t lose heart but more importantly, think with your head.

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