Obama and the Debt Deal: I Am Right. You Are Wrong.

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.)


  1. Professor, I hear your frustration and commend your response to it. I fear there are swaths of people averse to academia; however, I do not mean that in a condescending way. If anything, the responses to your Salon blog post reveal just how healthy our democracy remains despite the contentious atmosphere fostered by both parties over the last 20 years. Let’s be honest, Fiorina was on to something in “Culture War?” … right, Bert?

    I have to question one part of your President Obamanalysis though. Do you really think he is not a “risk taker”? We are talking about a president who just knowingly shunned the extreme left (to whom he never really catered but of whom he must have always been aware), escalated the war in Afghanistan (the graveyard of empires) and sat and watched as one of the riskiest clandestine missions in American history that he authorized played out in real time (he should thank his lucky stars and incredibly competent armed forces that this mission did not join the list of failed clandestine ops: the Iranian coup, Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra, etc.). Really, not a risk taker? I am cautious of labeling pragmatism as “playing it safe,” as crazy as that sounds. Maybe I am just a 24-hour news cycle child and cannot help but hear the lefty-righty loonies ringing in my ears.


  2. So, you believe LBJ would have achieved the same outcome, because presidents are sufficiently limited by the laws/dynamics of the Washington environment. this is fodder for the disaffected – it doesn’t matter who gets elected, the powers in Washington are always the same and they call the shots.

    i’m still not convinced that Obama had more pressure to raise the debt celiing than the Republicans. A default would have had deevastating effect on the trust Americans afford the party.

    can you at least allow that obama did not sufficiently accept the inevitable (as you see it)? the series of demands that he didn’t win (revenue increases, the grand bargain, etc.) make him look weaker. If, as you say, the outcome was “perfectly predictable”, then perhaps Obama should have pursued a strategy where he would not look so ineffective at the end. i mean, he achieved nothing he said he wanted (remember the limit increases to 2012 in steps).

    i agree that the bill was going to be passed at the last possible minute. but i reckon anything that came forward at that moment was going to pass. no party wanted to be responsible for the default.

    many on the left feel that at least unemployment extensions would have been possible; that it was obama and not the republicans how added medicare as a negotiable; and that the attempt at building a coalition in the house should have been between moderate republicans and democrats. the decision to need tea-party votes (a boehner need, not an obama one) forced a hard turn to the right.

  3. Wahoo Lon,

    This and your previous post really deserve a more detailed response than I can give at the moment (the perils of having a day job, I’m afraid), but let me at least be courteous enough to respond to your first point. You asked whether LBJ would have had pretty much the same outcome in this debt debate. And my answer is yes, pretty much the same outcome. This is not to accept, however, your suggestion that this means it doesn’t matter who we elect as president It does matter, in important respects, who we elect. But the differences tend to manifest themselves more distinctly in other areas, such as agenda-setting. The debt default deadline, by contrast, was a negotiating game played out under fairly rigid bargaining rules, involving multiple players with relatively fixed preferences operating under a looming deadline. Under that kind of structured interaction, presidents have less maneuvering room.

    If I can, I’ll try to look more closely the specifics of your alternative bargaining scenario. Keep in mind that Obama did limit Medicare cuts to reimbursements to providers, not beneficiaries, although in practice the two are linked. And note also that, in the end, the winning coalition in the House was based on moderate Democrats and Republicans – that’s who voted for the bill.

  4. Addie,

    You raise excellent points. Trying to make nuanced arguments in a blog format is difficult, and I may have gone too far in suggesting Obama was not a risk taker. But there’s risk, and then there’s risk. As I look at your examples, I tend to classify them as risks taken in order to avoid bigger risks. Take the killing of Bin Laden. It was a risky call to initiate the raid – but less risky, I think, than not taking the chance and having it leaked that we had a shot at getting him and didn’t take it. Similarly, the decision to go in with Seals was risky – but Obama thought it was less risky than bombing the compound and killing Pakistani civilians. In the same vein, the surge in Afghanistan was risky, but perhaps less risky than either a straight withdrawal or acquiescing to the generals’ preferred option. so, you are right that, in the context of the decisions a president must make, pragmatism is certainly compatible with risk taking.

    As for the comments to my Salon piece reinforcing Fiorina’s theme in “Culture Wars” – I can only agree. I think Fiorina would too.

  5. Wahoo – One other quick thought. You suggest that if the government defaulted, Republicans would have received as much blame, if not more, than Obama. Polling this question is tricky, but I think there is lots of evidence suggesting you are right. But that presumes Obama was willing to let a default occur. Every indication is that he was not willing to do so. I don’t think Boehner was either, but he was dealing with a wing of his party whose members very well were willing to let a default occur, rather than raise revenue through tax hikes. The Tea Party activists came to Washington to cut spending and, by God, they were going to do it – default or no default. Obama simply feared a default more than they did – and both sides acted accordingly.

  6. To fully appreciate how good this professor is at explaining the complexities of politics you need to take a j-term class with him. I was never interested in politics, and frankly hated discussing it because you couldn’t (still can’t most of the time) have a sensible talk about the subject without someone’s opinion getting in the way. What is truly remarkable is how he’s able to be completely unbiased. All he will give you are the cold hard facts and an opinion unlike any other which is almost certainly the right one.
    I have read each of your posts sir and I think you’re doing a fantastic job. The people who have been commenting on your blog obviously haven’t read what you wrote because they always seem to be way off the mark, though I’m sure you’ve noticed that yourself.
    Keep up the posts, it gives me hope that American politics isn’t all that bad!

    An avid fan.

  7. Hello Matt,
    You fool, the budget / debt issue has nothing to do with God, this is the
    american human race mess. It has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican.

    It simply has to do with the federal government takes in just 2 trillion
    dollars a year and spends 4.3 trillion.

    Where in anyone’s religion does that balance?

    All federal programs regardless of what they are, have to have a 40%
    budget reduction or we are toast as a country and not over a 10 period,
    over a 1 year period.

    The Chinese have realized that we are no longer a good investment, the
    Japanese will not be investing anywhere for a long time and Europe is
    imploding on itself, where you would recommend we sell our debt?

    How does any of this make you think that we believe that we are doing
    god’s work when all we are doing is speaking the unspeakable truth, WE
    the people are broke, bankrupt, kaput…

    I believe that some of the missionary zeal maybe misplaced, but that is
    exactly what it is going to take to have any effect.
    99.9 % of Americans want the budget balanced without taking anything
    from me.
    I am sorry you may feel that you paid into the system and are owed, but sometimes life sucks.
    We all want a guarantee from the government, well they can’t do it!
    We all want the government to promise to keep us safe from any and
    all harm, they can’t do it!
    We all want the government to promise us to be happy and profitable for
    life, well they can’t do it!

    LBJ promised us that with 20 billion dollars and 20 years he would do
    away with poverty, WELL 45 years later and billions upon billions of
    dollars later, Poverty is worse than ever, we have become a socialist welfare

    WE the people have spent ourselves into a very deep hole, the
    politicians only did what they thought we wanted them to do in order to get
    reelected. We wanted tons of credit, we wanted houses we couldn’t
    afford, we wanted cars, boats, toys and lifestyle we couldn’t afford, so
    the politicians made it possible for to get these things and now it time
    to pay.

    What about your children and their children, we are supposed to give our
    children a better life than what we have. Right now we are not doing
    that, we are leaving them with a imploded debt ridden country….
    WE are doing that, not some mysterious THEY.

    Time for all of us to suck it up and get to work.

    Thank you

  8. Hi David,

    I appreciate the sentiments although I realize that some readers may be confused by the context. David’s comment is actually a response to some quotes of mine contained in a recent piece by Olivier Knox for the French AFP news service. I pointed out that some of the Tea Party-backed representatives in Congress saw themselves as doing “God’s work” in cutting spending. Here’s the link to that story:


    If I can, I’ll try to do a more extended version of my comments in that story.

  9. As one of the several hundred students in the Grille on election night 2008, I can say both that you did predict this, and that the jubilee in the room drowned it out as the networks announced at 11pm what you called around….9 pm or so? Anyway, I can safely confirm that while I do in a way feel frustrated with what went down this past week or so, I also do realize that Obama isn’t all powerful, and as one man, he cannot single-handedly dictate the course of anything; thanks for the insights over the past six years that allow me to respect that reality.

    His choices may be pragmatic, and his actions may line up with his nature, but what I’m really frustrated with is the quality of the dialogue, the style of reporting or message framing, and the hijacking of the conversation between control of spending or being “fiscally responsible,” and the push back from a large number of economists who argue that this isn’t the time to be restricting spending and cutting back on unemployment support, student loan subsidies, etc. Polling and anecdotal reports seem to indicate perhaps that we’re all rather unimpressed with this “grand bargain,” that was signed at the (almost literal) 11th hour.

    Moving forward, finally, to 2012 without the threat of renegotiating this debt ceiling again…are we still looking at liberals swallowing this and continuing to support Obama? It does seem that Obama is in for a very difficult race, but as other GOP nominees try and articulate how they feel about this debt deal, it isn’t clear to me how the decision will shape the debate so much as the economy’s performance in the next year or so. I guess my question here is, should we be more preoccupied with this specific event and vote, or what happens with the economy moving forward (however possible it is that it may react as a result of this decision) when it comes to 2012? As always, your academic commentary is greatly appreciated while tempers flare down here in Washington.

  10. Tarsi,

    As always, great questions. One of the points I made in the AFP article is that this debt debate will, in all likelihood, recede in public consciousness as we get deeper into the 21012 election campaign, to be replaced by a debate about jobs, jobs, and jobs. So I think you are right that that we should focus, looking forward, on the economy, rather than on this debt dispute. I do expect a flareup of the past few weeks come November when the joint committee makes it recommendations. But that should die down, to be replaced again by an election debate regarding the performance of the economy.

    You raise an interesting point about the disjunction between economic orthodoxy, which would have us believe that cutting spending is exactly the wrong thing to do at this point, and political orthodoxy, which says that the 2010 midterm elections signaled that the voting public is deeply concerned about spending. In any dispute between politics and economists, politics will win. I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing.

  11. the Krugman’s and Limbaugh’s.

    I’m not saying I disagree with any of your points, but this phrase doesn’t help your case. Not so much because you’re equating a blowhard hatemonger who consistently lies to his audience with a Nobel-Prize winning economist whose polemics are always grounded in fact and often in his expertise in his discipline, but because the plurals of proper names don’t take apostrophes.

  12. I just found your blog via your comment on The Monkey Cage. I’m bummed I didn’t get a chance to follow you as events unfolded given your clear understanding and articulation of the constraints facing this and every President. In any case, I’m definitely adding you to my blog reader.

  13. Good catch, Matt. I’ve been cranking these out so frequently that at this point I’m pleasantly surprised when I have this few grammatical errors/typos/misspellings in a post. Alas, my boss won’t give me a copy editor.

    I assume you are designating Limbaugh as the “blowhard hatemonger who consistently lies”? Just making sure.

    Seriously, I’ve spent most of my professional career rubbing shoulders with the “highly credentialed”, and as a result I suspect I put a little less stock in the significance of the awards than do you, particularly when they are for a field in which the person is not always writing. But you are right – the Limbaugh comparison may be a bit much. Then again, I’ve been known to write with tongue in cheek, just to provoke the deadly serious among us. .

  14. Welcome aboard Adam. Warning: you caught me at a high point – if past history is any guide, my next 30 predictions won’t pan out. But you’ll read something different – and it’s more fun if you join in.

  15. Prof. Dickinson – I’ve been following your posts and I’ve been struck by your reference to Neustadt but not to Skowronek’s argument in The Politics Presidents Make.

    In the post above, you argue that “rules, norms, laws and institutional constraints and incentives […] largely determine how much power presidents have.” As you rightfully point out, these factors are often overlooked by those who would have preferred a different outcome to the debt ceiling debate. This leads to you to next argue that “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.” This is perhaps where I stop agreeing with you because I think that Skowronek shows us something different but something that should be factored into this argument.

    Namely, that under the right circumstances, these same factors can enable the exercise of substantial presidential power/authority (think FDR vs. Jimmy Carter). Rather, therefore, than saying that Obama couldn’t get what progressives wanted because the office of the Presidency is weak and always “has been weak,” shouldn’t we instead say that Obama governs at a moment in political time that forestalls reforms of the type desired by progressives? Indeed, we saw that when news broke about the White House potentially using the so-called “14th Amendment option” we also heard news about impeachment hearings. This too fits the Skowronek-ian model…

  16. Justin,

    Excellent insight. I have two responses. First, I would note my conditional statement – “except in rare circumstances…..” This is not inconsistent with Skowronek’s claim that, periodically, the existing political “regime” is ripe for replacement, and these are the moments when “reconstructive” leadership can take place. These moments are exceptional – in Skowronek’s retelling of history, there have been but a handful of truly reconstructive presidents: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR. (Or, if you prefer, you can talk about realignments). My second point is that Skowronek’s model is better utilized retrospectively than prospectively. In this vein, he has had a devilish time trying to characterize Obama’s place in political time. That suggests to me that his conceptual framework, while intriguing, is difficult to operationalize. It is interesting that you see Obama presiding in a time “that forestalls reforms of the type desired by progressives.” If we go back two years, the perception was quite different, with many very smart people suggesting that Obama was poised to be a reconstructive/realigning president. This shows, I think, how difficult it is to apply Skowronek’s conceptual scheme to actual presidents, while they serve.

  17. Yeah, Limbaugh definitely isn’t the Nobel-winning economist. I don’t think you need to rely on Krugman’s credentials to see the difference between them, though.

    Really I’m not sure that either Limbaugh or Krugman is an apt comparison here; Limbaugh’s website seems to consist of transcripts of his radio show rather than a blog (I admit I only clicked on one link), and Krugman’s comments don’t seem to be a gathering of the like-minded; before the NYT started charging for them, I remember him getting hassled a lot about Austrian economics. When I think blogs that are “designed to allow like minded people who worship from the same hymnal to gather together and react to political events,” I think Daily Kos and Redstate, which in fact restrict their membership. And while I’d protest against an attempt to draw an overall equivalence between them (Erick Erickson is a very extreme personality, and of course has a regular gig on CNN which Markos Moulitsas does not), in this respect I think the comparison would be apt.

  18. Matt,

    You are right. The Daily Kos/Red State comparison is a better illustration – and one I’ve used here before – of the point I was trying to get across regarding the echo-chamber effects of some blog sites that tend to amplify a unified view. In comparing Limbaugh and Krugman, part of me is playing provocateur just a bit (we have mostly, but by no means all, left-leaning readers here). But they are similar in this respect: both are holier than the Pope. That is, they both have public platforms from which to advocate their principles, both are paid to entertain and provoke as well as inform, and both don’t hesitate to attack policymakers who don’t heed them. They can do this because they don’t have the responsibility that comes with governing. As Kennedy said, “the president must finally choose…he bears the burden…the advisor may move on to new advice” (or in Krugman’s case, often the same advice over and over again). In the world of governing, presidents must compromise – neither of these guys bothers to understand that, because they don’t have to.

    P.S. To get the full Limbaugh effect, you have to listen to him, and his dittoheads.

  19. I agree with you about Krugman and compromise — I wouldn’t actually give him much credence about what’s possible politically, because it’s far outside his realm of expertise. (Which I think he sometimes acknowledges; at least he’s talked about how unsuited he would be for a job in the administration.)

    To get the full Limbaugh effect, you have to listen to him, and his dittoheads.

    On this, I will gladly defer to your authority.

  20. professor –

    if i knew you actually read the comments i would have been more concise. i don’t want you to think you’re feeding a attention seeking monster. but i did want to circle back to register reasoned disagreement that Obama could have secured more of what the party wanted (i’m not sure what obama really wanted). the criticism of obama usually takes one of three tracks: 1) critic doesn’t like the outcome; 2) critic doubts obama’s negotiating skills; and, 3) critic believes obama weakened his office. your posts posit that given the forces present at the time, obama could not have achieved a different outcome. pointing out negotiating mistakes or alternative outcomes misses the mark. a rebuttal to your argument would need to point out political forces that obama failed to utilize in steering to an alternate outcome.

    i believe obama failed to value the pressure upon moderate republicans to prevent a national default. he would have done well to exploit the gap between establishment republicans who would not want to appear irresponsible to the washington powers, and the freshman tea-partiers who, for at least the moment, more highly value a reputation as renegades. olympia snowe was going to vote for a raise on the debt ceiling and in favor of the bill that comes before the congress moments before time expired. rather than building a coalition with the hardest to reconcile, obama should have mobilized the moderate republicans towards a less draconian debt solution. here’s how:

    1. reid replaces the bill from the house that was tabled in the senate with an alternative.
    2. republicans have a choice of filibustering, but with the clock ticking the pressure would be on them to pass something. Snowe, Collins, Brown, and Murkowski had already said they would vote for the raise. the filibuster would play poorly with corporate interests and i don’t see how some republican senators, like kirk of illinois, can vote to sustain it.
    3. democratic bill passes the senate.
    4. democrats in the house need 22 moderate republicans to pass the bill. again, because the clock is ticking the pressure would be on the republicans to either pass what’s before them, or take ownership of the default. those afraid of a primary would be unlikely. but if the revised bill was written to accommodate their needs, i think it would.

  21. Wahoo,

    The scenario you lay out is not unreasonable although much depends on the details of the Senate bill that you envision could get the support of moderate Republicans. But the bottom line and the reason I was pretty sure the negotiation would turn out the way it did is that the key issue here for Obama was not getting a debt deal closer to his ideal point – it was avoiding a default and getting a debt deal off the table until after 2012. In short, it was all electoral politics to him, whereas for Tea Partiers it was all political principle – they would have gone to the mat to avoid a bill that increased revenues. Given this, Obama would have pretty much given up anything to avoid a default – as long as it meant Republicans couldn’t play this game again until after the 2012 election. This was pretty obvious, but issue activists were so focused on who would “win” the immediate debt debate battle that they lost sight of the bigger picture from Obama’s perspective. While they were focusing on how he might wrangle an additional $400 billion in revenue, he was thinking about what he needed to give to get Republicans to drop the two-step negotiation process. In the end, he got what he wanted and at a price he was willing to pay.

  22. No decision is wrong as long as it looks at the future prospects for the country, I’m sure Obama is just looking out for the stability of the country.

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