The emperor we deserve?

August 2nd, 2011

Opinion, at least in left-of-center circles, seems to be unanimous that Obama is an abysmally bad negotiator, at least where congressional Republicans are concerned.  I have expressed this opinion myself.  Time after time, he lets them set the terms of debate; instead of staking out an initially maximal position and then retreating from it step by step towards compromise only when forced to do so, he starts out by meeting them halfway and then accedes to the Republicans’ additional demands almost before they have a chance to make them.  He unilaterally disarms, as when he eschewed resorting to the Fourteenth Amendment to trump Congress in the debt ceiling battle.  He insists on pronouncing reliance on the GOP’s good faith and willingness to “do the right thing” despite explicit and unmistakeable evidence that neither of these premises is true.   This pattern repeats itself over and over.  The insufficient stimulus.  Health care reform without even a public option.  Extension of the Bush tax cuts.  The debt ceiling/deficit reduction fiasco.

Unlike George Bush, Obama is not open to charges of stupidity, so alternative explanations must be found as to why he repeatedly wanders down this course of seeming self-destruction.  Popular theories seem to be:

  • He has a megalomaniacal belief in his own prowess as a persuader, and/or he persists in believing despite all evidence to the contrary that the GOP is amenable to compromise; in other words, he’s crazy.
  • He miscalculates.  That is, he’s not crazy, he’s inept.
  • He’s weak.  That is, he’s not stupid, he’s feckless.

It’s tempting to stop at “He’s crazy.”  After all, he wanted the job he now holds, which is prima facie proof of some degree of mental disorder.  So I’ll accept that it’s true, to some degree.  But is it the whole story?  Would a man who pathologically overestimates his own persuasiveness tend to stand back from the fray and time his entrances as sparingly and carefully as Obama does?  I think not.  A chronic tendency to miscalculate, to underestimate his opponents and the political environment, seems unlikely in a man who, unlike his critics, rose rapidly from nowhere to the highest office in the land over powerful opposition from within his own party.  Weakness and fecklessness are inconsistent with the character of the man who acted against Qaddafi in Libya and achieved a legislative goal that has eluded generations of his predecessors, meaningful health care reform.  The ideological charge, of moderate Republicanitude, would be more convincing if his supposed ideological fellow travelers battled him with less frequency and vitriol. I would like to consider a fifth alternative.  Maybe he’s the moderate Democrat he purports to be, he knows what he’s doing, and actually he is achieving his major objectives every time.  For those who claim not to be able to distinguish between a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat, I’ll say this: a strike across the lower inside corner of the plate looks about the same as a low inside ball, but it makes a difference.  Get a pair of glasses, ump!

I am prompted to think that Obama might in fact be enormously competent and effective by the (to me) startling fact that the “deficit reduction” part of today’s debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal does not actually achieve any noticeable cuts in federal spending either this fiscal year, 2011, or next, 2012.  Well, it cuts ten to twenty billion dollars from next year’s spending, but that’s a pittance in a three and two-thirds trillion dollar budget.  This is little noticed, but it may be the whole point.  Sure, the deal says that federal spending will be cut by trillions in the next ten years, but Congress is no more bound by this than it is by any other law that Congress passes.  Any statute can be amended or repealed, or, perhaps with the help of creative bookkeeping, effectively ignored.  (See, e.g., War Powers Act).  Congress makes a new budget every year and nothing obligates it to stick to this year’s fantasy about what the FY 2016 budget, for example, needs to include.  In effect, legislation that purports to cut spending more than a year or so in the future is meaningless.

So: in this deal, Obama gets the debt ceiling lifted, which was his primary objective.  He agrees to a trillion dollars in cuts, practically none of which occur in the next year or so, meaning never.  He agrees to let a congressional committee decide some years in the future what further deficit reduction measures should be taken.  He looks like a deficit buster.  He extracts the GOP’s reluctant agreement to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and thereby gets to represent himself as the savior of these programs.  At the same time, he agrees that Medicare payments to providers (not benefits to recipients – they’re protected) could be cut in some mythical future in the unlikely event that Congress fails to act on the deficit committee recommendations, thus triggering automatic cuts including hundreds of billions of dollars of reduction to defence spending as well as to domestic programs (yeah, right).  Although there is no provision for immediate new revenues, the deficit committee can recommend tax increases and the closing of loopholes, and the Bush tax cuts are set to expire in 2012.  In sum, Obama does all this without giving away hardly anything in terms of real reductions to federal spending and in a manner which substantially enhances his own stature vis a vis the Republican-controlled House, highlighting the GOP’s intransigence, bad faith, hypocrisy, and subservience to its most extremist members, and enhancing the chance that the 2012 elections will see a reduction in Tea Party numbers.  He has set up 2012 as a way of seeing whether America is fonder of right wing extremist lunacy than it was in 1964.  Concurrently, in the process John Boehner, presently Obama’s strongest antagonist, is subjected to repeated public humiliations at the hands of his own party’s crazies, severely damaging both his party and his authority as Speaker.  I’ve enjoyed that.  It’s schadenfreude I can believe in.  Not bad for a day’s work.

It is at least possible that Obama’s “meet you halfway at the outset” approach to bargaining is something other than what it seems.  Perhaps it is a way of snookering the other side – a con in which the mark is so focused on getting his wildest dream realized, that he fails to see he’s being robbed.  In this case, the GOP was so sure Obama had caved to them on deficit reduction and tax increases, they failed to see that the package doesn’t contain any meaningful spending cuts and allows for substantially enhanced revenue.  Maybe Obama isn’t really negotiating. He’s just giving the other side enough rope to hang itself.  Under this construction, it’s the GOP that keeps on falling for the same bait-and-switch, over and over.  Sure, that’s the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, in the hopes it will work out this time.  Who seems crazier to you, Obama or the Tea Party?

The costs of such a strategy are many and obvious.  You do surrender the terms of the debate, because in order to snooker the mark you’ve got to let him think he’s in control and that means accepting the language he wants to use to describe the situation.  So Obama ends up spouting nonsense like the country has to manage its finances just like a family around the dinner table.  What he really believes, he can’t say, or he won’t be able to lead the mark into the trap.  There’s a sacrifice of integrity.  Also, there’s a consequent lowering of the level of public discourse; we’re all talking like a bunch of idiot rubes instead of discussing what’s really going on, and Obama’s successors and erstwhile partners, not privy to the con, are stuck with this degraded level of intellection.  His erstwhile partners, not in on the con, begin to see him as crazy, unreliable, feckless, a turncoat.  He also has to give up on some policy objectives that he considers desirable but secondary.  Taxing the rich, for example, or a single payer health insurance system.  Those become the bait.

To express one’s sense that Obama may be more effective than his tactics or his observers’ preconceptions make it appear, does not entail that one is an admirer.  On the whole, I would prefer a more assertive, even combative, direct approach.  Would that be more productive?  I have no idea.  It would comport more closely with my ideal of public ethics, of virtue and probity, of integrity.  I am one of the people who loves to recall FDR saying of the rich, “I welcome their hatred!”  FDR was a champion of the people, a democrat in the finest sense.  But maybe in the past sixty years our empire’s politics has become truly byzantine.  Do we have the emperor we deserve?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011 at 12:45 am and is filed under Current events, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “The emperor we deserve?”

  1. Hallie Says:

    I would be soothed by agreeing with you, but I don’t believe he’s on the right path. What do you think of this? (Krugman, in the Times.)

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    I think getting into an argument with Paul Krugman is probably a losing proposition. On the other hand… Krugman’s premise is not too far distant from mine, really. That is, Obama is confronted with a Republican party that is entirely self-interested, otherwise irresponsible, willfully ignorant, and irrational. Krugman wishes Obama and his party would take them on, head on. I too would find that more emotionally and ethically satisfying. Krugman has his arguments as to why he thinks that also would be more effective, and he might be right. All I’m suggesting is that Obama, coming from the same premises, may have a different take on the situation – that it is politically impossible to overpower the GOP, given the softness of the Democratic coalition, and the way to get around the GOP’s destructive intransigence is to play to their weakness. Let them think they’re winning. It’s like going to a hostage exchange with a suitcase full of counterfeit money. I’m not saying this is what’s happening, but it seems to me at least as plausible a theory as that Obama is crazy, or incompetent, or weak, or ideologically indistinguishable from Susan Collins, or consistently outsmarted by the likes of Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner. After beating the Clintons. Puh-lease! And of course, Krugman also has the added frustration of being a Nobel winner whose freely offered advice on these matters seems to be conspicuously disregarded.

  3. Upton O. Goode Says:

    Not fair. Three sneezes ago Obama was a mere asterisk, who over concerted and entrenched opposition, seized the Oval Office, and kept it out of the gunsight of Vice-President Palin. A young black man, without the Mayflower pedigree, he proved all those Castro-loving, left-bank carnival hucksters wrong, that such a thing could ever happen in America. In the process, he beat a moderate, electable Republican war hero. He delivered Colorado to the Democrats. And, Virginia. And, North Carolina – North Carolina! going to the Democtrats! – I still don’t know how that’s even mathematically possible. He saved the left, some of the very people who now criticize – from complete and utter obscurity. In so doing, he also saved the right to choose, at least for a generation. He got a doubtful, though plausible Nobel. He has yet to produce a drunk-driving conviction or a cheerleader with a seamen-streaked dress. He can swish a three-pointer, and he looks good on TV – an essential if going up against some human haircut like Romney. He has managed two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, without the daily foot-shootings we had become so accustomed to. Libya, half the country saved from the very same genocide that the whole world had previously condoned in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kurdistan. Bin Laden raid – his call. And as you concede, he delivered a form of healthcare that has eluded every contender since Clinton1. It was a “big, fucking deal!” That is, he actually spent political capital rather than staying popular and cutting brush for photo-ops. And to what result? Middle America handed his head to him in the mid-terms. You – or at least, the usual left – counter with, what? That he traded doing away with Bush’s billionaire tax cuts, temporarily, in exchange for gays serving in the military (something that also eluded Clinton1)? Guantanamo not closed yet? Caved on the debt-ceiling debate? Not good enough, friend. Politics is the art of getting your hands dirty, of forging coalitions with people you don’t have anything in common with, or necessarily even like. But even here, more than two years in, with a septic-tank economy, he still stands a chance of reelection, if – big if – he can hold Florida and pick off something purple. To do that, you can only spend so much political capital before making a mad dash back to the center, which is exactly where he is dashing. To save the right to choose. You know it, I know it and the ‘Murican people know it. Thanks for listening.

  4. Seth Steinzor Says:

    I agree with almost everything you say. Please don’t confuse me with the usual left. I have little more respect for them than I do for the right. Delayed adolescents constantly whining about how mommy and daddy could make everything perfect if they wanted to. I do think in one respect you don’t give Obama quite enough credit. Correct men if I’m wrong, but I think efforts to reform the health care payment system started in the Truman administration, no?

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