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Obama: Bad Negotiator, Or Clever Moderate?

I've been noting the negotiating blunders that have left President Obama in the position of surrendering to Republican policy demands or risk the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury. Kevin Drum says it's not a blunder:

I continue to think that this probably wasn't a bungle. More likely, during his first two years in office Obama had gotten enough deficit religion from the likes of Peter Orszag and Tim Geithner that he actually welcomed the opportunity to put in place some long-term spending cuts. He couldn't very well admit that publicly, of course, since his base would go bananas, so instead he punted on the debt ceiling, knowing that Republicans would then use it to "force" spending concessions out of him. Mission accomplished: long-term spending is reduced, and Republicans get all the blame. Democrats mostly forgive him because everyone knows Republicans are crazy, and as a bonus, Republicans don't even get much of a boost from their own base out of this since any real-world spending cut won't come close to the demands of the tea party crowd.
How sure am I of this? Not very. Maybe 60%. But think of it this way: the kind of negotiating position Matt is talking about isn't rocket science. It's not even Negotiation 101. It's more like the fifth grade version. There's just no way that Obama and Reid and the rest of the Democratic brain trust were literally so stupid that they didn't understand this.

Greg Sargent agrees:

I continue to maintain that the explanation for Obama’s conduct is right out there on the public record. His advisers have made his thinking on these matters very clear. Right after the 2010 “shellacking,” they concluded that their number one political task was to win back independents. How? As the Post reported at the time, “they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.”
David Axelrod recently spelled this out, claiming that after the midterms Obama and his advisers decided they needed to return to what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined that this way: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”

Here's why I disagree. First, to address Sargent's point, Obama certainly wanted to negotiate with Republicans and make bipartisan agreements. But he did not want to spook the financial markets. And, while he may not sure the policy goals of the modal Daily Kos contributor, he is fundamentally left of center. I don't think he wants to be negotiating with a gun to the head of the economy, or contemplating cuts to Medicaid or slashing the domestic discretionary budget. He could have negotiated a budget deal with Republicans the way Bill Clinton did -- by negotiating over the budget, with the threat being a government shutdown that would probably benefit him politically, rather than a debt default that could blow up his own election.

As for Drum, "they couldn't possibly be that stupid" is a classic error. I've made it myself. One of my general rules of interpreting human behavior is never to assume a complicated plan is at work when incompetence is available as an explanation. Incompetence can involve many factors, and often rank stupidity is at work. I agree that Obama is not stupid, but how many memoirs of presidential decision making have we seen that emphasize bureaucratic inertia, lack of good information, panic, exhaustion, distraction, and so on?

If Obama wanted a bipartisan deal on the budget, then almost certainly he and his advisers were looking at the proximate historical example of Bill Clinton. That would cause them to overlook the debt ceiling as a leverage point, as not even the Gingrich revolutionaries thought to use it to jack up the administration for concessions. It wouldn't have caused them to set up the debt ceiling as a trap for themselves.