Barack Obama, Republicans, the debt ceiling, and the Principle of Adequate Cordage

Michael Cohen of the American Security Project thinks Barack Obama has played this one pretty well.

Michael Cohen, Senior Fellow at American Security Project, doesn’t buy the claim that Obama is somehow missing an opportunity to instruct the voters about how the budget really works.

That’s much too complicated and inside baseball for the ordinary low-information voter.

Obama is using a far simpler set of talking points that are more likely to resonate with non-policy-wonk Americans. “I’m willing to meet Republicans halfway, I’m willing to make some painful decisions, but Republicans are too intent on protecting their rich buddies to show any leadership on this issue. As a result we are at an impasse.”

To the extent to which Americans are paying attention to this (not much I suspect) this isn’t time for some “teachable moment” it’s time for basic big picture politics – and on that account Obama has completely out-played the GOP.

In the end, I have no idea if Obama really wanted to make a grand bargain with the Republicans or is this is all political theater (I suspect the latter, but I’ll let the history books let me know) – but while I suppose I can’t discount the possibility that Obama

a) hates liberals; or
b) got elected President so he could fulfill his dream of shredding the welfare state and the social net; or
c) won 53% of the vote in 2008 w/ the middle name Hussein simply as a fluke

I would speculate that there is another explanation for what we’ve seen over the past few months.

Obama understood something that should have been obvious all along – Republicans were never able to make a deal and that no bill could ever pass the House that would satisfy Republicans and Democrats. (That any political observer is surprised Boehner pulled out of talks yesterday is perhaps most surprising of all).

Thus the best way to resolve this issue was not to stamp his feet  on the ground like a petulant child and demand a clean debt limit  increase. but instead to call the GOP’s bluff – and set a trap for them – by appearing conciliatory. Again, I have no idea which scenario is correct, and my sense is that Obama has probably bent too far over backwards to be conciliatory, to the point where people can reasonably suspect that he refuses to fight for core progressive values.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine that this is all a bit of a political theater to create a meta argument that will resonate in 2012 (an almost identical approach that Clinton used in 1995). But in the end, the notion that Obama is a bad politician strikes me as reflecting just a bit too much policy literalism. With the view that Republicans were likely never going to make a big deficit reduction deal, what may end up mattering most of all is how this has played out from a political perspective.

We seem to be headed for a clean debt ceiling increase, which if true would be quite a policy achievement by the President.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

21 thoughts on “Barack Obama, Republicans, the debt ceiling, and the Principle of Adequate Cordage”

  1. President Obama has now explicitly stated three times in the course of this “process” that his goals include substantial cuts to federal spending and substantial “adjustments” – a Petersonism for “cuts” – to “entitlements” – a Republican code word for Social Security and Medicare. I’m not sure how much more direct and explicit a human being, even a politician, can be in describing his goals and preferred outcome. Even Mitch McConnell – dubbed by Ezra Klein the most honest man in DC – is not that explicit about what he really hopes to accomplish.

    Mr. Obama has also been very explicit about his belief that those who disagree with his goals of cutting Social Security and other vitally needed federal programs are “misguided”, “on my left”, and “children”. Those are _his_ dogwhistles for dirty, smelly hippies. Again, I’m not sure how much more direct a person can possibly be, and he is for once admirably spiny about those beliefs at least.


  2. I’m somewhat persuaded that Obama is toying with the Republicans, convinced they don’t actually have the spine to face the heat that their rhetoric would actually entail. To believe he’s a closet Republican, I would also have to start believing 911 conspiracy theories.

    But it’s an awfully dangerous game and unquestionably a bad precedent.

    A simpler message would have been: “I will not allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be made a pawn for scoring ideological points”. I think that would have still left room for negotiation without sacrificing principles. For example, he could say, “We can talk about deficit reduction but not if you’re going to put the credit of the United States at risk”. He could even have offered other hostages (e.g. appointments etc.).

  3. Oh, it has been too much of a roller coaster for me. Like “Lost”. Or maybe even “Game of Thrones”.

  4. What Cranky said.

    This whole post is rivers in Egypt.

    Obama was *angry* on Friday when his grand bargain blew up.

    Obama’s been talking about this grand bargain since he was elected. He’s been hoping to play this storm in a teacup as cover for his grand bargain. He just never figured that the Republicans were batshit insane. After all, he himself said that both left and right were equally responsible for the impeachment fiasco of the 90s.

    Apply Occam’s Razor. Stop embarrassing yourselves.

  5. Time for this blog to make an “adjustment” in nomenclature, to something more accurate such as “Faith-Based Lapdogs” or something. Short of strangling kittens and disemboweling retarded kids on TV, there is apparently nothing Grandmaster Obama can do to disabuse the faithful of their illusions about what he really values. Like Clinton before him, he is destroying the party and selling out society’s most vulnerable members while insuring his own prosperity and political future by seeing to the interests of the rich and powerful. At least Bush had the excuse of being an indolent alcoholic raised in a Borgialike family, on top of his limited intellectual abilities. Barry is cunning and has supposedly read the constitution at least enough to lecture first-year students on it. So what is his excuse for following so willingly all of Bush’s policies, when not making them worse?

  6. It seems pretty clear what Obama’s negotiating position is:

    1. The debt ceiling must be raised enough to take us to 2013.
    2. An all cuts deal is unacceptable; there must be revenues
    3. He’s willing to agree to entitlement cuts if and only if the Republicans will agree to revenues, but the details of both matter.

  7. > It seems pretty clear what Obama’s
    > negotiating position is:
    > 1. The debt ceiling must be raised enough
    > to take us to 2013.
    > 2. An all cuts deal is unacceptable; there
    > must be revenues

    Whereas I should think a deal with any cuts at all would be unacceptable, since the current deficit is simply the sum of the budgets passed by the last 7 Congresses and signed by the respective Presidents. And after voting 7 to simply raise the debt ceiling, as should be done, the Republicans suddenly believe this meaningless ledger number gives them the “leverage” to undo 14 years of Congressional decisions, elections, etc. Sure, let’s meet them “halfway” on that position; that’s excellent for the long-term health of our nation.


  8. What are we up to now, 15-dimensional chess?

    Any sane Democratic would have spent the last three months blasting Republicans for voting for the Ryan plan. Grow up guys, Obama just wants the cuts.

  9. Let me see if I have this straight:

    1) Obama gave the Republicans what they wanted in extending the Bush tax cuts, and didn’t even ask for a rise in the debt ceiling in return.
    2) He rejected McConnell’s offer of a fairly clean rise in the ceiling out of hand, even though that would have been vastly better for the country.
    3) He put raising the Medicare age on the table.
    4) He’s been amenable to Social Security cuts.

    Why in the world should I believe that he didn’t want to create this crisis in order to gut the public sector/safety net? Because when he was running for office he said all the right things?

  10. Let me see if I understand this theory. In order to get a clean vote on increasing the debt limit, President Obama has shown himself – and by extension, the Democratic Party – to be willing to cut Social Security and medical entitlements, among others. Additionally, he has largely validated the right-winger’s argument that we have a “spending problem, not a revenue problem”, i.e. that domestic spending is too high and that tax rates can’t go any higher, by offering a deal so deeply conservative that (even the execrable) David Brooks declared it a “no brainer” for Republicans to accept. All based on the gamble that Republicans will be constitutionally unable to accept even his “generous offer”, at which point he’ll get the clean debt ceiling increase that he really wanted but never asked for.

    This is some seriously exquisite calibration. (According to some theorists, this was the strategy employed in 2000 by another Barak, Ehud, with the desired results). But what if the Republicans do end up accepting the “generous offer”?

  11. So finally we have an Obama supporter answering the question: What outcome would vindicate Obama’s words and actions? Cohen tells us that a clean bill would do so, as long as Republicans were deemed responsible for the fact that no entitlements got cut and no taxes were raised.

    The clean bill could have been arranged by Obama in any number of ways, and Democrats should be running on a refusal to cut entitlements. So that’s not an acceptable outcome as far as I’m concerned.

    But as I say, at least Cohen has the guts to lay down a marker, to acknowledge that there is some conceivable course of events where Obama’s actions wouldn’t be justified.

  12. Cohen is somewhat correct; no bill passed by the Senate Democrats would be passed by the House Republicans. So this is an attempt to heard cats, to make the Congressional houses and opposing parties pass a bill. The difficulty is that there is solid support for default amongst Republicans. There is no negotiating with sectarians.

  13. Those “cuts” you are all whinging about are means testing for the rich elderly so they don’t get paid as much as the more deserving and adjustments to work hours for employees. And a re-indexing of SS benefits that will not show a reduction versus ANYTHING until sometime after 2050.

    So pardon me if I don’t join the screaming about how he really wants to kill us all, OK?

  14. @Lysana–and raising the eligibility age for Medicare is just fine with you as well, right?

  15. After 2014, Medicare won’t be as much of a failsafe as it has to be now, because people will be able to buy insurance and there will be a cap on how much it costs as a proportion of their earnings.

    I don’t know why everyone is freaking out about a rise in the Medicare eligibility age (or amending the so-called COLA for Social Security not to outpace real inflation). It’s as though they can’t imagine a safety net for anyone but people over 65.

  16. > I don’t know why everyone is freaking out about a rise in
    > the Medicare eligibility age (or amending the so-called
    >COLA for Social Security not to outpace real inflation).
    > It’s as though they can’t imagine a safety net for
    > anyone but people over 65.

    Given that people in general, including but not limited to highly accomplished and capable professionals, are finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs once they pass that magic 50 mark (and increasingly, past 45), I can’t IMAGINE why anyone would be freaking out about increases in Social Security and Medicare eligibility ages.


  17. I’m with you about the lack of jobs for well-educated professionals over 50, but I hardly see how waiting 15 years for health care is markedly better than waiting 17 years. Wouldn’t it be better to trade medicare at 65 for affordable health care for everyone now? And then maybe even turn to investing in education, infrastructure, renewable energy, the environment, occupational safety and maybe even doing something to reverse the gross income inequality in this country? That would actually be change to believe in!

  18. So, ‘curious’, are you suggesting that having passed Republican-friendly cuts the Republicans will be so filled with gratitude that they’ll sign on to Democratic issues?

  19. No – just pointing out that raising Medicare eligibility age hardly seems like the one “progressive” issue to draw the line in the sand over. Both Medicare and SS are regressive taxes and slightly diminishing their benefits is not in itself a progressive calamity.

    Where is the rest of a genuine progressive agenda in threads like this one? Does no one recognize that “starving the beast” has been the Republican road map to dismantling all sorts of regulatory and socially progressive federal programs with nary a complaint from new Democrats in Congress or in the administration who first got started in politics during the Clinton administration (all while blithely ignoring the military industrial complex and military budget which grows apace)?

    The Democratic party long ago abandoned its own progressive agenda (with pseudo education “reform” as the sole issue this administration embraces to the detriment of actual learning and critical thinking). There is nothing all that remarkable about President Obama putting medicare eligibility on the table given where we are with everything else in what passes for national discourse in this country.

  20. Curious,

    A most prescient comment. The problem here is that there is an underlying issue – one contingent remains convinced that what Obama is doing (and has done) is the best job that could be done under the circumstances – that he is a master of multi-dimensional chess and what he is doing is all brilliant manipulation. There is a second contingent, rapidly growing, that believes (to one degree or another) that Obama is a Republican, to the right of Nixon, some believe to the right of Reagan. There are other discussions, but this topic is fundamental and defines all other discussions ultimately. Unless, this problem is solved, questions about the rest of the Democratic Parties program are moot.

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