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.

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.

37 thoughts on “What Obama Offered to Boehner”

  1. I don’t know why you’re so ready to credit Obama with saying “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”.
    You yourself repeat Cohn’s report that Obama proposed cuts that would have required cuts in benefits in all three programs.
    If Obama were to make the proposal that Cohn reports, and then were to try to justify it publicly with the statement you suggest, then he would indeed be acting like a petulant child: one who thinks everyone ought to agree to see the world his way even when he’s stating a simple untruth.

  2. For all the wailing about the public option the Affordable Care Act was a big win because it shoveled $35 billion/year to working people to help them get insurance (IIRC. Can somebody find a source for that number? I spent 15 minutes googling and came up empty. I found a lot of rightwing garbage though). The Medicare/Medicaid cuts mentioned above are $36 billion. WTF?

  3. American democracy in a nutshell:

    It takes a supermajority to do something good (cap and trade)…
    But only a tiny superminority is necessary to bring all Western economies to their knees…

    This fundamental dysfunction seems to be on the fast-track to reality.
    And it seems as if we are back in 1859…

    Perhaps “The Great Compromiser” will gut his own Health Care Bill to hold the Union together?
    It wouldn’t surprise me…

  4. We are in a world of hurt and this does seem a lot like the tail-end of the 1850s: Incalcitrant dumbasses who are self-assured of their own righteousness leading the country into the abyss, while nothing is done to stop them, not by their erstwhile compatriots or anyone else. Except that James Buchanan was not nearly as feckless as Barack Obama, given the advantages (now all squandered and lost, much to our detriment) that Obama had on January 20, 2009.

  5. This move was great for Obama the President; it was horrible for Obama the head of the Democratic Party. He keeps talking about leaders needing to lead but the only time he brings a case to the people is when he’s unable to pre-emptively cave. One would think a Democratic president would be arguing why he SHOULDN’T cut entitlements, not why he should. But no, he throws his base under the bus then gets whiney when they don’t thank him for it.

  6. It is truly pathetic to see people bend themselves into pretzels to defend a man who pretty clearly believes in nothing, risks nothing, and is loyal to nothing. Remarkably like genuine conservatives of the old school who tried to defend George Bush, but on the other side.

    My vote and what I can afford will go to the mensch who primaries the lousy excuse for a Democrat.

  7. What JR said.

    We’ve seen this before. Triangulation made Clinton very popular but also enabled the rightward drift of our national debate. If you always start in the middle and THEN compromise, the results should be no surprise. Any party which is attacked by its own leader is doomed, Doomed, DOOMED.

  8. I just read that Obama threatened to veto the entire intelligence authorization bill if it contained an amendment authorizing a bipartisan investigation of the FBI’s Anthrax debacle (they have no Idea who tried to off two Democratic senators). I’m sure this is a part of the 11-dimensional chess, but – WTF when do we call treason treason? And if not, what do you call stopping an investigation into an assassination attempt. He specifically threatened a veto for that (already passed by the House). Could it smell worse? Oh, I know, he could be a Republican – the fact that he’s not is why I’m supposed to keep voting for him.

  9. Metaphor watch. The way one manages rope a dope is by bending over backwards (look at footage from then Zaire).

    Also mixed metaphor watch. Give them enough rope and they will hang themselves, since they are dopes.

    I’d guess this was rope a dope. My belief (the wish is father to the idea) is that Obama has a long term plan for 2012 and he is winning over the (relatively) long memory villagers. They love this stuff. There was no risk that Boehner would say yes (or deliver votes from his caucus if he did).

    What are Republicans supposed to do ? Denounce Obama for being willing to bow to their demands to cut Medicare and Medicaid ?

    Yes he will anger lefties. I shouted when I heard of his approach (2 weeks ago). But I now think that, whether or not he can play 11 dimensional chess, the Republicans can’t find their way through a 1 dimensional maze. Yes he has angered the people who would normally be his strongest supporters but where are we going to go. Eisenower or Ali he has made it clear that the Republicans are insane (talk about easy tasks). Even if we were to become unthrilled with him, we would still know we have to stop them. So there is no political cost in bashing us.

    Note the effort at grammar which I find challenging at 5 AM. I remain an Obamaniac even when doubt has penetrated samefacts itself.

  10. Bloix: Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that was much harsher than anything proposed by Reagan. He also signed a bill threatening capital punishment for 50 different crimes. He failed to deliver health care reform. Oh and he had a retarded man put to death (when he was campaigning for President and presumably to show how tough on crime he was — people were shocked that the Supreme court denied the man’s appeal on the grounds that killing someone with a mental age of 10 was forbidden by the 8th amendment — Clinton didn’t have to choose between killing him and establishing a precedent — as governor he just decided to kill a retarded man for political reasons — the man’s last meal was a pie — he asked if he could keep a piece “for later” just before people acting on Clinton’s orders killed him).

    If you were to remember the past you would be less shocked by the present.

    This is from memory. As I am not allowed to have my own facts I googled [clinton retarded “death penaly” 1992]
    and got


    Reagan never did such a thing (Eisenhower had a soldier shot for deserting).

  11. Clinton also signed DOMA into law, as well as the Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court struck down before it took effect. It made it a crime, subject to two years’ imprisonment, to put material on a website that was accessible to a minor (i.e., a free website), or in a phone call, fax, or e-mail to a minor, that “community standards” found to be “indecent.” The Supreme Court wrote that “a parent who sent his 17-year-old college freshman information on birth control via e-mail could be incarcerated … .”

  12. “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,”

    Doesn’t that kind of depend on what someone demands in return for the cuts? (You know, like another $400 billion in taxes?) And, of course, whether or not it’s intended that the out year cuts ever take effect?

    I think Obama has a long term plan: Tax increases and debt increase today, in return for spending cuts tomorrow, which will be repealed tonight.

  13. Robert Waldmann: but where are we going to go

    The best outcome we can hope for is a clean bill. The worst is deep cuts to the social safety net. There doesn’t seem to be an in between. If Obama pulls this off he’ll have my vote next election. Probably some money, but not my time.

    But if he doesn’t — and he gives us the “look, it’s the best we could do, it’s painful on both sides” line — then he needs to understand he’ll be primaried. He can’t screw the pooch this badly and not have consequences from his base.

    In any event, we need to sideline him in any future negotiations. He sucks at it. The Democratic leaders needs to have a nice private chat with him: “Look Barry, we love you. You’re smart, you give great speeches… but the next time you feel the need to ‘get in there and make it right’, give Barney Frank or Dick Durbin a call and go back to bed”.

    I think Krugman nailed it: “he is into is his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend the partisan divide. He imagines that he can be the one who brings about a big transformation that settles disputes for decades to come — and has been unwilling to drop that vision no matter how many times the GOP shows itself utterly uninterested in anything except gaining the upper hand.”

    I will happy, thrilled to be wrong about all this.

  14. Tim-
    Tim, I don’t think you are wrong – and agree you should give him your vote if he isn’t successfully primaried, as I will, but give your money to decent candidates who will fight for something worth fighting for.

  15. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Obama could have easily gotten the debt ceiling raised when he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts. He obviously wanted this crisis. And now the absolute best possible outcome is the one he didn’t want.

    “Stupid, or evil?”– it’s not just about Republicans any more.

  16. It drives me crazy that Obama will talk about Medicare and Social Security cuts — but won’t talk about jobs. He could have drawn a hugely popular line in the sand: any “adjustments” to entitlements have to be accompanied by a massive jobs bill. It doesn’t matter that the House would never pass it. The American people would hear it. He’d look like he was actually concerned with voters’ interests, instead of bankers’. But no, he whines about being “left at the altar,” even when he gave up everything before the wedding. Somebody should tell him he’s not the girl in this dance — he’s supposed to be leading. And that means battling America’s enemies (in this case, Republicans) as hard as you can.

  17. I think Brett is exactly right on this one. Obama is making a deal for $160 billion of additional stimulus now, in exchange for benefit cuts in the future, which can always be rolled back. Jonathan Cohn makes just this point today, in the best defense of Obama I’ve seen yet. Note also that “more stimulus now” in the form of a payroll tax holiday was exactly what Obama got out of the much-derided budget deal.

  18. If the “two stage” plan (spending cuts now; revenue increases addressed later) is how it pans out, it is obvious that the revenue increases simply will not happen. Why would Democrats even believe this ruse?

    If this ends up to be a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, a repeat of the last month’s stupidity and utter time-wasting and market uncertainty is the only thing we have to look forward to, endlessly, until the end of Obama’s term. Why would anyone think this is a good thing?

    On the revenue-increasing side: why does no one talk about jobs? How much has income tax revenue declined that is directly due to fewer people paying income taxes? If one looks at the decline in revenue charts, that trend parallels the decline in jobs, as one would expect since jobless people pay little or no income tax. Same with FICA taxes.

    I agree with those above who say that Obama is either out of his league or complicit with the Republicans in these (so-called) negotiations. At some point (before the Asian markets open) Obama needs to understand that this has already gone on far too long, and for the good of the COUNTRY he should state his intent to immediately raise the debt ceiling based on the Constitution, and stop with the pointless “negotiations” already.

    Given all the REAL needs that have gone unaddressed during this debacle, how can anyone defend the “process” of the last month(s)? Our government could not be any more dysfunctional.

  19. Hell of a story @ Robert Waldmann

    Couldn’t find a vein, partly because of the antipsychotic drugs. From the wiki:

    Bill Clinton’s critics from the anti-capital punishment sector have seen the case of Rector as an unpleasant example of what they view as Clinton’s cynical careerism. The writer Christopher Hitchens, in particular, devotes much of a chapter of his book on Clinton, No One Left to Lie To to what he regards as the immorality of the then Democratic candidate’s decision to condone, and take political advantage of, Rector’s execution. Hitchens argues that among other calculations, Clinton was attempting to change the subject from the ongoing Gennifer Flowers sex scandal.

  20. “If the “two stage” plan (spending cuts now; revenue increases addressed later) is how it pans out, it is obvious that the revenue increases simply will not happen. Why would Democrats even believe this ruse?”

    If Lucy agreed for once to back away from the football, why should she believe Charlie Brown will actually kick it? Well she probably wouldn’t believe it, as we tend to project our own faults onto others. But that wouldn’t change the fact that it’s Charlie Brown who’s been repeatedly betrayed by Lucy, and not the other way around.

    Similarly, we happen, in this reality, to live in a country where bargains of tax increases now for spending cuts latter have essentially always been broken. Not one where the contrary deal has been repeatedly welshed on. So both sides may lack in trust, but only one side has any historical basis for that distrust.

    And it ain’t your side.

  21. Robert Waldmann, by your analysis the end game for Obama’s rope-a-dope is to impress the villagers? That’s even more pathetic than wanting to sell out the New Deal.

  22. Brett, I’m amazed by the audacity of your claim that Republicans will stick to any promise they make about tax increases. In fact, I’m not aware that Boehner or any Republican in power has even claimed that, as a consequence of a debt-hike deal, they will stop trying to cut taxes on the rich. I assume Republicans will try to roll back any tax increases, especially taxes on the rich, just as soon as they can.

  23. Like I sad about people tending to project their own failings. Do we know if Republicans will keep promises about future tax increases? No. Do we know if Democrats will keep promises about future spending cuts? Yes, we know they won’t.

    Doubt beats certainty of betrayal.

  24. > Brett Bellmore says:
    > July 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm
    > Like I sad about people tending to project their own
    > failings. Do we know if Republicans will keep promises
    > about future tax increases? No. Do we know if Democrats
    > will keep promises about future spending cuts? Yes,
    > we know they won’t.
    > Doubt beats certainty of betrayal.

    Just like those tax increases George W. Bush and the Republican Congress put in place to pay for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, eh? Hard-line paygo there.


  25. It sounds like Brett isn’t aware that just a few months ago, the House Republicans passed the Ryan plan, which included budget-busting giveaways to the rich such as the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains. And now he wants us to believe that the Republicans no longer favor budget-busting tax cuts? It’s bizarre.

  26. I think Republicans are most assuredly in favor of “budgets Democrats like” busting tax cuts, much as Democrats are in favor of “budgets Republicans like” busting spending increases. That’s what makes Republicans agreeing to a tax increase a compromise, much as Democrats agreeing to a spending cut would be a compromise. You need people who disagree with you for “compromise” to be relevant.

    The issue I’m raising is that there’s an actual history of “grand bargains” involving tax increases in return for spending cuts being entered into. And it’s a history of the tax cuts occurring, and the spending cuts being reneged on.

    To my knowledge, there’s no corresponding history of Democrats agreeing to accept spending cuts today in return for boosted taxes tomorrow, and getting cheated. Maybe it would happen, but it hasn’t.

  27. I do wonder what would have happened if Obama had said, per Jonathan Zasloff, “I will not move from X progressive position,” and no matter what Congress brought him, he held fast to a progressive stance. No compromise.

    Here’s what I think would have happened: Congress would have failed to raise the debt ceiling. And they would have been able to pin the subsequent collapse of the economy on Obama’s recalcitrance. To the satisfaction of progressives, Obama would have remained an ideologically-pure, failed knight-in-shining-armor.

    A similar scenario is playing out now, despite Obama’s efforts at compromise. The difference is that Obama can now pin this on the Republicans’ recalcitrance. Whether it will stick is a different question.

    I guess I keep wondering how a true progressive president would have played this, given the same congress.

  28. I think it’s problematic to frame this debate as a progressive administration vs. a recalcitrant conservative opposition in Congress. If Obama had sufficient popular support for a different position, he would have been able to take that and dare the Republican party to oppose him.

    The problem is that Obama does not have that popular support; not because Americans hate Social Security and Medicare (they most emphatically don’t), but because the average American voter, to be blunt, is economically illiterate and thinks that the budget should be balanced by cutting some foreign aid. Raising taxes just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, except for small nominal amounts or where it affects an unpopular minority, so cuts it is. That’s not to say that Americans don’t also like a functioning social safety net; they just want to have their cake and eat it, too, which is perfectly human, but unrealistic.

    That’s the biggest difference between the United States and Europe, I think; Europeans don’t like taxes all that much, either, but they understand the principle of TANSTAAFL. American voters, by and large, don’t seem to.

  29. The linked US News story about a poll showing Americans don’t want to raise taxes is misleading – in the extreme – as it appears to ask about increased taxes on the individual answering the poll (whether or not as part of an across the board tax increase it doesn’t say), and surprise surprise most people don’t want their taxes to go up.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t broad popular support for reintroducing real progressive tax rates or closing loopholes (or call it “incentives” if you prefer) that make it possible for hedge fund execs to pay at the marginal tax rate of 15%.

    I remain baffled only by the administration’s failure to get the debt ceiling raised when it reached the agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts that were TO EXPIRE OF THEIR OWN ACCORD!

  30. curious: “The linked US News story about a poll showing Americans don’t want to raise taxes is misleading – in the extreme – as it appears to ask about increased taxes on the individual answering the poll (whether or not as part of an across the board tax increase it doesn’t say), and surprise surprise most people don’t want their taxes to go up.”

    That’s not misleading. That’s exactly my point. You cannot just offload tax increases to “the rich” or “somebody who isn’t me” and expect to raise sufficient amounts of revenue. Remember that European countries, while they may have more progressive income tax schemes, generally couple this with a very regressive VAT (currently 20% in the UK, for example). At some point, everybody who can afford to will have to pitch in.

    Go ahead, try and balance the budget yourself: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/13/weekinreview/deficits-graphic.html

  31. @Matt — Saying that you want to balance the budget but don’t want to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is NOT a “progressive” position: it is a position favored by huge majorities of the American public. It was the position that Bill Clinton took in 1995. It would frame the question as many pollsters do: would you rather cut SS and the Meds to balance the budget? And the answer is ALWAYS an overwhelming no. That is, at least, a clear position. Then, if the thing melts down, and Obama goes with the 14th Amendment plan, or coin seigneurage, then everyone would know what the clash is. It would not undermine one of the Dems’ best talking point for 2012, i.e. the very accurate perception that Republicans want to end Medicare. And not incidentally, it would be the right thing to do.

  32. Katja:

    Maybe the budget couldn’t have been balanced if the Bush tax cuts expired AS PLANNED but we wouldn’t be facing a debt ceiling next week. ditto if we weren’t fighting 2 wars over the past 10 years. or taxing multi-national corporations at 0 and hedge fund executives at a marginal rate of 15% on their current income and 0 on their deferred income. I could go on but the point is that we have seen nothing in the way of a truly progressive tax structure at the federal level in a very long time. Tax rates on the wealthy are at the lowest rate in something like 50 years. Get rid of the AMT and stop requiring families with middle and upper middle class incomes to calculate their taxes twice and maybe all of them would be willing to pay a little more to the government instead of their tax preparer. None of this would balance the budget but it would at least be a rational discussion beyond “don’t raise taxes” ever anytime.

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