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?

The White House Unilaterally Disarms

It’s better, apparently, to trust in Republican goodwill:

The White House said on Tuesday that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was “not available” to President Barack Obama to avoid the August 2 deadline to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.

“There are no easy ways out here. There are no tricks, there is no citing of the Constitution that suddenly allow us to borrow,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “It’s not available.”

Apparently that would rule out coin seigneurage as well.

A gentle reminder to the White House:



What Obama Offered to Boehner

This, confirmed by a senior administration official to Jonathan Cohn:

Medicare: Raising the eligibility age, imposing higher premiums for upper income beneficiaries, changing the cost-sharing structure, and shifting Medigap insurance in ways that would likely reduce first-dollar coverage. This was to generate about $250 billion in ten-year savings. This was virtually identical to what Boehner offered.

Medicaid: Significant reductions in the federal contribution along with changes in taxes on providers, resulting in lower spending that would likely curb eligibility or benefits. This was to yield about $110 billion in savings. Boehner had sought more: About $140 billion. But that’s the kind of gap ongoing negotiation could close.

Social Security: Changing the formula for calculating cost-of-living increases in order to reduce future payouts. The idea was to close the long-term solvency gap by one-third, although it likely would have taken more than just this one reform to produce enough savings for that.

Discretionary spending: A cut in discretionary spending equal to $1.2 trillion over ten years, some of them coming in fiscal year 2012. The remaining differences here, over the timing of such cuts, were tiny.

If someone puts cuts like that on the table, and then confirms them after negotiations have broken down, to me at least that hardly seems to be someone who was simply playing rope-a-dope, Michael Cohen’s straw man attacks (“hates liberals”; “got elected President so he could fulfill his dream of shredding the welfare state and the social net”) notwithstanding.  If you play rope-a-dope, you don’t put concrete things like that on the table, and then loudly announce to the world that that’s what you did.

It’s not “acting like a petulant child” to say publicly, “the Republicans want to cut the deficit, and so do I; but I will not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits to do it”.  It’s restating something that the public has repeated over and over again.

These observations hardly suggest, pace Cohen, that Obama is a bad politician; instead, they suggest that this year at least, he is an Eisenhower Republican, something that I predicted a few months ago (although I actually put the President a few steps to the left).  His trouble is that today’s GOP is the heir of the John Birch Society, which accused Ike of being a KGB agent.

The question is whether these concessions will muddle Obama’s and the Democrats’ message in next year’s elections, which will be difficult in any event.  The Ryan budget was an enormous gift to the Democrats, which Obama seems to have sent back unopened.  Obama’s refusal to talk about jobs, or even use anything in the executive arsenal to alleviate economic distress (HAMP, anyone?  Regulatory threats unless banks write down mortgages?  Nah….), confirms his at-least-temporary conversion to Eisenhower Republicanism.  Ike was re-elected, of course.  But the economy was better in that year.  And Ike won the war.

Nobody Knows Anything

If this is true, then the dichotomy that I suggested last week, viz., Obama is either a Democrat and a moron or a Republican and a genius, is still valid:

A Congressional aide briefed on ongoing negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama says the two principals may be nearing a “grand bargain” to raise the debt limit which would contain large, set-in-stone spending cuts but only the possibility of future revenue increases.

“All cuts,” the aide said. “Maybe revenues some time in the future.”

Essentially, this would represent a complete cave to the Republican agenda.  And for that reason, I’m not persuaded that it is true.  Even the 11-dimensional chess master himself can’t get away with that, assuming that he wanted to.

But the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, and several other outlets appear to have confirmed that something is up.  The White House has issued a denial, but even with that, there is some wiggle room:  White House communications director Dan Pfeffer says, “Anyone reporting a $3 trillion deal without revenues is incorrect. POTUS believes we need a balanced approach that includes revenues.”  Okay, then how about a $4 trillion deal without revenues?  Or a $2.5 trillion deal without revenues.  Oh yes, POTUS believes that we need revenues, but he believed in a public option, too.  It appears as if the White House has broached the idea to Senate Democrats, and left Capitol Hill with its tail between its legs.

Maybe the whole thing is an elaborate fake-out, and after trying every possible combination, Obama will decide to save the country’s credit by invoking the Constitution and blowing through the debt limit.

But maybe it’s best to remember William Goldman’s law: Nobody Knows Anything.  And also Harry Truman’s: give the people a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they’ll choose a Republican every time.