Memo to a Reasonable President

I realize that a large part of President Obama’s strategy through the debt limit fight has been to present himself as the grown-up, the reasonable one when everyone else is screaming and yelling.  Fair enough.  But he should also listen to his most recent Democratic predecessor:

When we look weak in a time where people feel insecure, we lose. When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.

 People are not looking to the President to be reasonable.  They are looking for him to fix the problem.  That’s why unilateral disarmament will not help.

 Of course, that’s just Bill Clinton’s view.  What did he know about politics?  How well does he play 121-dimensional chess?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

29 thoughts on “Memo to a Reasonable President”

  1. I think the biggest problem is that the independents aren’t buying the “I’m the grown up” argument.

  2. I think the biggest problem is that a core part of the Republican party wants a default, and so a default we will have. You can blame Harry Reid for not passing a ceiling extension in 2010 during the lame duck or you can blame the Republicans that hope for a default. Either we, a default we shall have.

  3. @anonymous — point taken. Usually people talk about the President playing 11-dimensional chess, so I just squared it. But fair enough.

    @Benny Lava — Mark suggests coin seigneurage; I think that or the 14th amendment is a potential way out. Capitulation is not necessary.

  4. Question: If we default (as it appears we will), given that the Republicans will be blamed and the Congress will be blamed. Will this enhance Obama’s ability to do what he wants with “entitlements?” This “crisis is of his making as much as anyone’s. The Deficit wouldn’t be the issue it is had he not been so eager to extend the Bush tax cuts, and of course he could have gotten the increase in the debt ceiling at that time. But, rather than think his “giving in” on the tax cuts, perhaps he wanted something like what is happening. He has consistently thrown some monkey wrench into the negotiations – increase revenue, refusal of a clean bill on just the debt ceiling, even increasing the cuts when Republicans seemed ready to accept a deal. I somehow doubt that Boehner’s upset last Friday was because of Obama “more of the same.” Something else happened.

    But what is the outcome from Obama’s point of view – easier re=election in 2012? more clout with the congress, the ability to gut the safety net in ways undreamed of? He has been pointing toward “fixing” SS and Medicare/Medicade…

    What if Obama has wanted the default all along. his behavior is consistent with that, although certainly hes words are not – Unless one sees them as putting the Republicans in a deeper corner where they can’t compromise – especially with a parental figure.

    I hope he gets us out of this pickle, but I have little faith that he really wants to do that. Mark has Obama teaching a lesson. It would seem there is little difference between teaching the lesson and just letting it go a little farther – then he is the only adult anyhwere, and he knows best.

    Oh well, I’m prolly worrying needlessly – being raised in a fundy Christian family/society, it is easy to see the end of the world coming at one. But still, this “crisis” still smells manufactured.

  5. “People are not looking to the President to be reasonable. They are looking for him to fix the problem.”

    Then “people” are stupid (which, of course, is a possibility). The office of the president of the United States does not come with dictatorial powers (much as the recent two office holders seem to have been working towards that goal) and the president cannot fix this problem. He can only beg, plead, and compromise with those who can.

    In our actually existing version of the United States, we have a division of power. The power to enact laws lies with Congress, not the president. We elect a president to execute the laws enacted by Congress, not a philosopher king to be the supreme ruler. The name of the current office holder is Barack Hussein Obama, not Barack Cornelius Sulla. This may not be ideal in a situation where a Roman-style dictator could cut through all the red tape and make things happen, but it happens to be the way our democracy works, and usually for the better (despite the current problems).

    And if Congress is hell-bent on driving the economy over a cliff, there’s only so much you can do against that from the bully pulpit.

    Yes, it’s very American to be “tough”. Being “tough on crime” is popular; a few dead criminals (actual or innocent) have helped more than one DA or politician getting elected; I hear such thoughts are even popular among some so-called progressives. Similarly, a few dead foreigners from a short victorious war or two have never harmed the reelection chances of an American president.

    So, it’s perhaps natural for the average American to think that the president just needs to rap the leaders of Congress over the knuckles, like some ill-behaved schoolboys, to make them see the light. After all, if you want something badly enough, surely there must be a way to make it happen?

    Is this the Green Lantern theory of domestic policy-making? (With apologies to Matthew Yglesias.)

    I’m not actually a great fan of the president’s tenure so far (not that I regret voting for him and Joe Biden over McCain/Palin, but that’s damning with faint praise). Jon Stewart’s statement that he ran as a visionary, but governed like a functionary, rings very true to me. But I can find no support in the facts for the assumption that if the president just were to talk tough and willed things to happen with sufficient power of mind, that this would magically fix the economy (it may slightly increase his approval ratings, but that’s not going to help). Not with an opposition that is much more terrified of Rush Limbaugh cracking his whip and primary challenges from its extreme right wing than anything else.

  6. This “unilateral disarmament” thing only makes sense if the 14th amendment gambit is a legally valid option that can withstand the scrutiny of courts. If that isn’t the case–and apparently it isn’t–then attempting to use that gambit doesn’t make Obama look strong, but instead makes him look desperate. As for Clinton, yes, he knew a lot, but he couldn’t pass health care, and he made compromises with the Republicans himself. I doubt his wit would do better than Obama’s in the current crisis.

    I’d say that Obama is neither a closet Republican nor a chess player who only looks like he’s losing, but rather a captain of the Kobayashi Maru. Barring a stroke of good luck, there just isn’t much in the way of options.

  7. Memo to a Reasonable President:

    Call their bluff.
    Even if it means default.
    Once the social security checks get halved:
    “Tax the rich” (already a clear majority) will explode like a hot virus on immune-suppressed guinea pigs…

    Time to put the teabags in steaming hot water…
    Say it again: “I will not yield”.
    Call their bluff.

  8. I keep wondering why Pres. Obama does not use the lines that I try to send him telepathically. Lines like, “If the default takes place, the economy will suffer, interest rates will rise, and millions of Americans will suddenly have less money in the bank. This will have the same effect on them as if they had had a huge tax increase, but it will be a tax equivalent which the Republican extremists in Congress have no conscience about imposing.”

    Maybe my tinfoil hat is interfering with the thought waves. I’ll have to take it off next time the President speaks.

  9. Memo to the community – The Repukes are in complete, total disarray. The implosion of Boehner’s imaginary hold on his caucus has been drawn in bold, simple lines. Obama has come out swinging with both barrels (mix, baby, mix).

    Short take: most damaging (for Repukes) Dem victory in twenty years. Repukeism in desperate retreat. Luck? Sure. Murdoch in the gunsights? Good timing. Very well coordinated, and completely dependent on conswerveatwist idiocy. So what? It takes a stake to the heart to kill a vampire, not a stern warning. Good on ObamaCo for playing like professionals, and looking forward to more of the same.

  10. @ StevenB,

    Wow! That’s great! Unfortunately, I guess I must have been eating dinner when Obama achieved this magnificent victory so I didn’t get to see it unfold. I mean, when I started my salad, it looked like us Democrats were the ones without a path to a good outcome. But now, it turns out, Obama must have won the greatest political victory in 20 years sometime between the main course and the cheese course. Like I say, I’m glad to hear that everything worked out fine; it’s just that I seem to have missed it. Could you maybe just fill me in on how Obama won this great victory and the debt crisis got resolved? (I also missed where he vanquished Murdoch and routed the Republicans. Could you fill me in that too?)Thanks.

  11. What amazes me is the total inability of Obama to enunciate a few simple messages and stick with them. Who knew they were electing such a lousy communicator? And one who admires Ronald Reagan! I am no admirer of Reagan, but the radio announcer could probably out-debate the Professor of Constitutional Law.

  12. “Who knew they were electing such a lousy communicator?”

    The people who noticed his teleprompter addiction?

  13. Ed Whitney, good, but not only will interest rates go up but the American dollar will be devalued, even more than it is already. But the art of deal-making is as much about the testosterone (and the changing estrogen levels) of the players, as it is about rational decision-making. Most thorny negotiations go on until the last possible moment right, on to the tarmac, before the last plane takes off.. or the bus goes over the cliff. Think of the Iranian USA hostage drama for example, being settled on the day Reagan was inaugurated, and Carter left office.

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The people who noticed his teleprompter addiction?”

    The only people who ‘noticed’ that were following the Rovian tactic of blaming one’s own faults on the other.

  15. Any lingering doubt that Brett is a partisan hack is now removed.

    The really stupid thing about the teleprompter slur is that, of course, we can actually watch Obama in formats where he doesn’t have one and he does fine. We also know that essentially all politicians use them in prepared speeches.

  16. There’s no objective reason why Clinton’s capitulations and compromises should be considered more emotionally satisfying than Obama’s. It is our choice about what narratives we build about these men’s political styles. You could argue that Clinton was weak and wrong. You could argue he won re-election at the cost of crippling his party’s principles for a generation. Instead we consider him a political genius and a lot of people in 2008 insisted that the best way to undo the damage to liberalism was to elect his wife.

  17. Ed: It looks like the President did get most of your message. “For the first time in history, our country’s Triple A credit rating would be downgraded, leaving investors around the world to wonder whether the United States is still a good bet. Interest rates would skyrocket on credit cards, mortgages, and car loans, which amounts to a huge tax hike on the American people. We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis – one caused almost entirely by Washington.”

  18. Failed health care reform, NAFTA, Welfare “reform,” PSLRA, repeal of Glass-Steagall and so on. Clinton did not play the game so well — rather, he benefited greatly from a strengthening economy as well as a republican Congress that, like this one is doing, dramatically overplayed its hand. The only tactical approach that I, a political junkie, think probably did make a difference was that Robert Rubin basically walked out of the room anytime anybody threatened default. I think Obama might have considered a similar strategy, but I also cannot say that it would matter. After all, in 1995, when Rubin did that, the government did indeed shut down for a matter of weeks, and those people were a sight more reasonable than the current crop of congressional flame throwers. I guess amnesia is one of our defining traits, because the only thing that got things back on track in 1995 was the immediate possibility that SS checks would not, in fact, go out.

    Bill Clinton is a smart guy, but I really don’t think he has his finger on the pulse of what is happening right now.

  19. And I would like to second apm — a narrative is very much a subjective exercise in choosing what details should be emphasized. The Clintons made a huge tactical blunder that they never recovered from, and that was choosing to pursue a Republican priority, NAFTA, before health care reform. Pursuing the two in tandem, requiring one as the price of the other — they did not do it because, in my view, they were hopelessly naive about how Washington worked. At the very same time Hillary Clinton was botching health care reform, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness one year before Medicare eligibility, after having retired early and hoping he could wait a couple of years without incident and without insurance — well, let’s just say that I am personally grateful Obama — and Nancy Pelosi — were more politically astute than the Clintons. I like the Clintons, but they had material flaws, both political and personal.

  20. @ Brett Billmore,

    Ha Ha, the teleprompter one is pretty old now. George Bush, whose bumbling delivery endeared him to Repubicans everywhere, was above all that.

    Obama is a brilliant speaker, in fact. But one can be a brilliant speaker, while the sum of the messages have gotten lost over time. Reagan did it better .. have one speech and give it again and again in different ways.

  21. What Barbara said.

    And I think this president is repeating the same mistake. He fixed the banking system first and ignored the jobs problem. And now he can’t do anything about jobs, and that’s a much bigger problem both practically and politically, than this manufactured debt ceiling crisis.

    I am glad too, though, about the HCR. It’s not great but I will always think fondly of him because of it, no matter what.

  22. “Who knew they were electing such a lousy communicator?”

    The people who noticed his teleprompter addiction?

    Brett, as somebody who could not have metaphysical certitude about Obama’s birth place even in the presence of a birth certificate because you were not physically present at the event, how can you have so much certitude that the president is addicted to teleprompters seeing as you are not in his head. I know you are a thoughtful and analytical, and not at all a hack or an absolute idiot, so I am also curious about how your theory explains object permanence. You know, the thing that 6 month olds get. After all, if the ball rolls behind the couch at one end and a similar looking ball comes out the other end, how do you know the ball really existed behind the couch because you clearly did not physically witness it?

  23. Any lingering doubt that Brett is a partisan hack is now removed.

    Brett the birther is a partisan hack? And his justification saying he can never be sure about where Obama was born since he didn’t physically witness it is not a sign of Brett’s towering intellect? GET OUT!

  24. his teleprompter addiction?

    I certainly sympathize with anyone trying to police a blog’s comment section. That said, if this counts as “civil” conversation, then you’ve got a problem with civility on this blog. By any sensible standard, this comment is more straightforwardly reprehensible than any accusation that this commenter is trolling.

  25. Brett has a license to troll here. My guess is that Matthew is trying to recruit him for UCLA. He’d be an excellent fit in several departments – economics, history, business……….

  26. Folks, Brett is what Brett is. You don’t have to respond, and yes I know it’s difficult, given his track record. I still get the same urges occasionally. But IMHO the recent back-and-forths between Brett & Carnap & Redwave save me a lot of dreadfully wasted time scanning through the legions of droolers on the various nutter sites looking for signs of sentience, and then figuring out what they’re “thinking”, and I appreciate that. Assuming our resident Teapartiers are representative of what passes for the (tiny) educated nutter fraction, of course.

    It’s going to be interesting when Redwave and Carnap encounter Brett at his finest, such as asserting his right to assassinate politicians whenever he wants, but that party hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime lets mine this for what we can.

  27. He’d be an excellent fit in several departments – economics, history, business……….

    Which department produced that most excellent context free keyword counting study and recent follow-up book on how liberal the media is? Brett would mot just fit in there, he’d be their mascot.

  28. There are a lot of problems with the whole “Reality-Based Community” concept, but one of the worst is how often its adherents are agnostic on the subject of reality. This blog, particularly, needs to be renamed the “Decorum-Based Community.”

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