How Obama Lost Control Of The Debt Negotiations

Barack Obama's biggest enemy in the debt negotiations has been himself.

There’s been much puzzlement expressed over how President Obama has been so unsuccessful in maintaining control over the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. After all, to a large degree the public has been more supportive of the President’s position on issues like raising taxes on the “rich,” or the general idea that whatever deal is reached should be a balanced approach that includes both taxes and revenues. Despite this, he’s been forced to retreat at every turn while House Republicans pursue their own plans, and House and Senate Democrats stay mostly on the sidelines, concerned as much with their own electoral fates as assisting the President. Time and again, the President has conceded ground to the GOP, only to find that it still wasn’t enough to get them to make a deal.

David Frum contends that the entire episode is merely further evidence that the President is not a good negotiator:

In this round of debt negotiations, the president has drawn red lines. He has threatened to veto a small increase in the debt ceiling, one that would force him to return to the argument before the election in 2012. By contrast, he has not threatened to veto debt-ceiling measures that cut too deeply into social programs. His red lines are drawn for his political advantage — not to protect his core supporters’ values and interests. His red lines are not theirs.

Whether it was health care or the deficit or now the debt ceiling, direct encounters between Obama and his Republican opposite numbers have always ended badly for the president. Yes, the president faces unusually extreme and intransigent opposition. But that’s a description of the difficulty, not an excuse for failure. Presidents win negotiations when they can mobilize the public behind them. That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon in 1981. It has never been Barack Obama’s. And the results are as we all see.

Indeed, last night was the first time throughout this entire process that the President made a direct appeal to the American people, the first time he went over the heads of the Congress and the media and spoke to the American people as President and said I need your help. Those of us who were around in the 80s can remember Ronald Reagan doing it many times, Bill Clinton too. But then, if we’ve learned one thing over the past two and a half years it’s that Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan, no Bill Clinton. Whether it’s because of the fact that he simply never had an Executive experience before becoming President, the fact that his primary political experiences was in a machine-dominated political system where the idea having to compete for support with an opposition barely existed, or because such assertiveness just isn’t in his nature, the fact remains that Obama has never had the Executive swagger of a Reagan or a Clinton, and his opponents have known it. That, I think, is why he seems to do so poorly, every time he takes Congress on in one of these debates.

Jonathan Chait diagnosis the problem as more severe and suggests that, because of his history of backing down and letting Congress take control of the agenda, he lacks credibility now in dealing with Congressional Republicans:

President Obama has a credibility problem. He has compromised so often that Republicans simply don’t believe that he’ll sustain his opposition to anything.

(…)

Obama clearly faces a perception problem. Republicans may complain that he’s walked away from deals, but they really think he’s a pushover who will cede more and more ground the harder and longer they push. That’s a dangerous position to be in on the verge of a high stakes game of chicken. It encourages the Republicans to push the envelope farther and farther — even to walk away from a deal they regard as a win in search of an even better win.

And, of course, if Obama did somehow agree to the Boehner bill, the problem would get vastly worse. Republicans would simply treat the next debt ceiling hostage fight as a chance to increase their demands more. Indeed, if Obama capitulated to Boehner this time, can you imagine the negotiating dynamics that would occur when the next debt ceiling vote comes in 2012? It’s almost impossible to imagine the upper bound of the Republican demands by then.

Some pundits would likely call it the end of Obama’s Presidency, and they probably wouldn’t be far off. Obama’s problem is that he’s got nobody to blame but himself. The debt ceiling debate began with the Obama Administration asking for an up-and-down vote on a debt ceiling increase, just like nearly every other increase in the debt ceiling since 1917. When Congress rejected that, the negotiations began. The Administration started out wanting a balanced approach that included spending cuts and revenue increases, but which didn’t touch entitlements. When the House GOP rejected any talk of revenue increases, the President and Speaker Boehner began talk of a grand bargain that included entitlement reforms, a development that nearly caused a revolt among Congressional Democrats. When Boehner walked away from the Grand Bargain, negotiations began anew on a deal that cut spending far more than it raised revenues, but even that wasn’t good enough., Now, the President’s surrogates in the Senate have come up with a plan that takes taxes completely off the table, meaning that there’s virtually no change they’d come back as part of any future negotiation. At each sign of resistance from the opposition, the President’s response has been to back away rather than fight. Is it any wonder that they’d take that as a sign that he’s willing to give up on more?

At any point throughout this process, the President could’ve called his opponents’ bluff. He coud’ve gone to the American public like he tried to last night and made the case for the kind of deficit reform or, as Andrew Sprung argues, he could’ve gone even further:

What would have felt like leadership from a Democratic president in 2011? Outline a deficit reduction/tax reform plan that included new stimulus at the outset, backloaded spending cuts and at least $2 trillion in new revenue over ten years.  Refuse definitively, early and often to tie deficit reduction talks to the debt ceiling; insist early, loud and often that the debt ceiling must be raised unconditionally, and threaten to use the Constitutional option if it weren’t.  Say to the GOP: I’m ready and willing to negotiate – call me when you’re ready to consider revenue increases.  Eschew high-drama deadlines, and make it clear that the Bush tax cut expiration date is the endgame.

Of course, that would have required a history as a strong Executive and a tough negotiator. By January of this year, it was fairly clear that Barack Obama is neither o f these things. His governing style seems more suited to that of a Majority Leader in a legislative body than a President and Chief Executive. As I said above, I don’t know why it is that Obama has governed in this manner, but it has not served him or the country well and, 2 1/2 years in, it seems unlikely that he can just turn things around on a dime and, to borrow a phrase from The West Wing, “Let Obama be Obama.” Actually, it’s entirely likely that we’re seeing the real Obama, and the best he can do, and that’s his biggest problem.

 

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Congress, Deficit and Debt, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. JanetS says:

    I second David Frum’s analysis. President Obama always trips over his feet when he’s in negotiations, no matter with whom. That’s also evident on the international stage as well. He could have used the power of his office, early on, to control the debate and subsequent agreement on the debt ceiling talks. He dropped the ball as well, just as he did with the BP Gulf oil spill. You can’t send the fox to guard the hen house. When he sent VP Joe Biden to Capitol Hill for early talks was a wasted opportunity.

    President Obama is coming across as less and less as a credible leader of the most powerful country in the world. He is simply not assertive enough. Bill Clinton, no matter what you think of him, was a master manipulator. He got things done, much like Ronald Reagan. Many people are now having buyer’s remorse, yours truly included.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    It is a pity that the President isn’t more skilled at dealing with extortionists…that ability certainly would have helped him greatly throughout this entire process…

    Many people are now having buyer’s remorse, yours truly included.

    And yet we see the field of GOP alternatives…do any of them fill you with hope?

  3. Chad S says:

    In this case, Boehner can’t seem to deliver votes for ANYTHING(his latest plan seems DOA already), so saying that Obama is falling in negotiations seems flawed. It’d be one thing is Boehner and McConnell kept getting Obama to agree to deeper cuts without anything in return, but thats not happening. This keeps changing because the House GOP is saying no to anything.

  4. hey norm says:

    I know this meme is trendy right now…I just don’t see where it comports with reality.
    Obama is negotiating with a guy that cannot deliver his caucus. Boehner is fighting for his job, not a deal. He’s not a credible negotiating partner. Obama can do just about anything and his base will go along – kicking and screaming maybe – but they will go along. Boehner on the other hand cannot do anything. His caucus wants the impossible. There’s not even any guarantee he can get his latest plan out of the House at all. Reid’s plan gives the so-called Republicans everything they said they wanted. Now they want different stuff. How do you negotiate with that?
    What is appealing to the public going to accomplish? The Tea Party faction is looking for unicorns. No one can deliver unicorns. The most skilled negotiator in the world is not going to deliver unicorns.
    Bowles/Simpson is just like the Gang of Six is just like what Obama had going with Boehner. Everyone knows Boehner wanted that deal…it was more conservative than Bush 41’s 1990 deal or Clintons 1993 deal. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. And we all know why.
    Because the Tea Party is insane. And you can’t negotiate with the insane.

  5. Drew says:

    “Whether it’s because of the fact that he simply never had an Executive experience before becoming President, the fact that his primary political experiences was in a machine-dominated political system where the idea having to compete for support with an opposition barely existed, or because such assertiveness just isn’t in his nature, the fact remains that Obama has never had the Executive swagger of a Reagan or a Clinton, and his opponents have known it.”

    A point I’ve made, in part because I live in IL, since he became a candidate. We hired a college professor, not an executive. That’s gotten plenty of sh, er, mud thrown my way. I’m sure it will again.

    Wake up, people. Not ready for prime time; not a competant man. And not learning fast enough on the job.

  6. gentile72 says:

    First things first, David Frum is an idiot.

    Secondly, what is this “Constitutional option”? -The Constitution, more precisely the 14th gives the executive no such power. For the President to even consider that, he must also be willing to face the possibility of impeachment, since everyone knows that Congress has the “power of the purse”

  7. MBunge says:

    Oh, for pete’s sake. There’s a very simple question that destroys all this nonsense about Obama’s weakness as a leader.

    Is there anything Obama could do that would make the GOP, especially in the House, more reasonable and less deranged? I’ve seen no evidence of it and have never heard a logical, let alone persuasive, argument for it.

    Let’s take the Bill Clinton example. Even though he never got 50% of the people to vote for him, led the Democratic party to its worst electoral defeat in two generations and spent most of his time in office actively embracing Republican and conservative policies, many liberals look at him as the epitome of political genius. Yet, for all that supposed skill, he still couldn’t avoid a government shutdown so what reason is there to believe that the Clinton approach would have been any more successful with the debt ceiling?

    People are basically bitching that Obama has taken the scenic route to disaster instead of speeding up and blasting the radio as loud as he can.

    Mike

  8. mantis says:

    What a silly post. No amount of appeals to the American people will make Republicans any less nuts or dishonest. They are bound and determined to burn the place down. How do you negotiate with that?

  9. hey norm says:

    As for Drew and his fantasies about incompetence…how incompetent do you imagine OBL thinks he is?

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @mantis: Obama lost control just like Boehner lost control – you can’t herd cats.

    No amount of appeals to the American people will make Republicans any less nuts or dishonest.

    Now dishonesty goes with the territory but complete suicidal insanity is something new.

  11. Ben says:

    Obama is negotiating about as well as someone can with a mugger who is holding a gun to his kid’s head. Which is exactly what the Republican’s idea of “negotiation” seems to be.

  12. Liberty60 says:

    I guess Doug’s argument is the conservative version of the liberals “If only we had been more skilled at diplomacy, Al Qaeda might not have attacked us so really, 9-11 was our own fault.”

    There is no point at which the GOP would meet Obama on anything; even when he gave them their own offer, they refused it.

    And so the argument goes that Obama should somehow summon up the awesome power of the Bully Pulpit to smash the numerical advantage of the GOP and somehow, well, somehow get them to vote for a tax increase?

    Or failing that, invoke martial law maybe?

    Neither Frum nor Doug has a clear vision of what Obama could have done differently to get the House votes for a rational plan.
    But they are sure that this must somehow be Obama’s fault.

    Can’t possibly be the Teahadists.
    Nope.
    Its gotta be Obama.

  13. hey norm says:

    @ Liberty 60…
    “…I guess Doug’s argument is the conservative version of the liberals “If only we had been more skilled at diplomacy, Al Qaeda might not have attacked us so really, 9-11 was our own fault…” WTF does that mean???
    I’ll give you Teahadists though – I like that.

  14. Drew says:

    “As for Drew and his fantasies about incompetence…how incompetent do you imagine OBL thinks he is?”

    An excellent candidate for dumbest post on the thread.

    As for all the other whining, babbling and exculpatory comments for Obama. I sit on Boards. Hire CEO’s. Own companies etc. The world is tough. The opposition and competition a bixch. Its fierce out there. No one promises you a rose garden.

    But we have a term for CEO’s like Obama, who after a considerable period in the chair, constantly point the finger of blame at others, whine, are ineffective and say because of the environment “its just impossible to resolve or fix.”……………….we call them “Ex – CEOs.”

  15. MBunge says:

    @Drew: But we have a term for CEO’s like Obama, who after a considerable period in the chair, constantly point the finger of blame at others, whine, are ineffective and say because of the environment “its just impossible to resolve or fix.”

    Except for the Office of President being quite functionally different from a CEO and the fact that Obama hasn’t really done any of the things you say, great analogy!

    Mike

  16. Wayne says:

    Re “Boehner can’t seem to deliver votes for ANYTHING”

    The House has already passed legislation on many things including the debt ceiling. Even if he couldn’t which he has, two failures don’t make a success.

    The simple matter of the situation is Obama is incompetent and ineffective leader. One of his problems is he think it is a simple matter that he hasn’t gotten his message out. The truth is he has but the majority of people reject it. Reagan was philosophically opposite of Obama. Even if Obama had the charisma of Reagan or Clinton, he wouldn’t be able to sell his load of B.S. to the American people.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    One of his problems is he think it is a simple matter that he hasn’t gotten his message out.

    Actually, it was Doug who made that argument…

    The truth is he has but the majority of people reject it.

    Wrong again…polls have shown that a majority of people want a genuine compromise, as the President has been pushing for, not the “give me everything I want” approach of the Tea Party crowd…

    …he wouldn’t be able to sell his load of B.S. to the American people.

    Actually, you are the one who isn’t able to sell your load of B.S. to most people here…

  18. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t know enough about what has transpired in these negotiations, and most of what people think they know is no doubt from self-interested sources.

    I do reject the notion that if one side is being particularly unfair or is engaged in extortionist tactics, that absolves one from being a good negotiator. Just about all negotiations have one side that has a greater interest in the status quo or a better walk away position. That’s endemic to any negotiation involving serious consequences. There are recommended books on the topic of Getting Past No published by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

  19. Drew says:

    “Except for the Office of President being quite functionally different from a CEO and the fact that Obama hasn’t really done any of the things you say, great analogy!”

    Your delusions are duly noted.

  20. Drew says:

    We can actually tie this up in a bow: leaders lead, the rest vote present………or grandstand from the sidelines.

    Any questions?

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  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    There’s been much puzzlement expressed over how President Obama has been so unsuccessful in maintaining control over the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. After all, to a large degree the public has been more supportive of the President’s position on issues like raising taxes on the “rich,” or the general idea that whatever deal is reached should be a balanced approach that includes both taxes and revenues.

    Doug, how you can say this and then segue into

    Despite this, he’s been forced to retreat at every turn while House Republicans pursue their own plans, and House and Senate Democrats stay mostly on the sidelines, concerned as much with their own electoral fates as assisting the President.

    It is pretty obvious that Republicans are Bat-sh_t insane and Democrats are gutless weasels. Just exactly what is Obama supposed to do given this hand? If you were dealt this hand, what would you do? I won’t hold my breath waiting for an answer as it is pretty obvious you have none.

    Obama’s problem is that he’s got nobody to blame but himself.

    Doug, are you as bat-sh_t crazy as the rest? I just spelled out who to blame, and yet somehow, someway I know I am the Obama-bot…. BUT CONSERVATIVES ARE the ones blaming him for not being THE one who can walk on water and solve all the worlds problems….

    Jesus was crucified by the Romans at the request of the Jews. I guess even he was not perfect…..

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Drew:

    We can actually tie this up in a bow: leaders lead, the rest vote present………or grandstand from the sidelines.

    Any questions?

    Said like a true sheep.

  24. mantis says:

    But we have a term for CEO’s like Obama, who after a considerable period in the chair, constantly point the finger of blame at others, whine, are ineffective and say because of the environment “its just impossible to resolve or fix.”……………….we call them “Ex – CEOs.”

    How many CEOs do you know of who have to wait for 435 elected officials to act before they can make decisions?

    If you think the presidency is the same as a CEO position, I don’t believe anyone in their right mind would let you anywhere near a company board.

  25. mantis says:

    We can actually tie this up in a bow: leaders lead, the rest vote present………or grandstand from the sidelines.

    Well, I don’t know about that, but we know what idiots do. They make comments like yours.

  26. tyndon clusters says:

    Now Mantis, why all the hate at Drew?

    He hires and fires CEOs, sits on boards, owns companies…all while he sits in his bedroom in his boxers spending hours on blogs regaling us with his unctuous, pedantic viewpoints….just like any other busy, successful, driven entrepreneur.

  27. mantis says:

    He hires and fires CEOs, sits on boards, owns companies…all while he sits in his bedroom in his boxers spending hours on blogs regaling us with his unctuous, pedantic viewpoints….just like any other busy, successful, driven entrepreneur.

    Heh. I guess he must have “Gone Galt.”

  28. jukeboxgrad says:

    MBunge:

    [Clinton] spent most of his time in office actively embracing Republican and conservative policies

    Indeed. Check this out:

    I think Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in a while

    You’ll never guess who said that.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    Hey, maybe this site is just a popular place for “Master of the Universe” types to hang out when they aren’t practicing the art of the deal…who knew…

  30. john personna says:

    Let’s see, a minority sign pledges that lock them into a position, and then you fault the other side that it can’t “negotiate” with them.

    Gawd.

    What do you think “negotiation” is?

  31. WR says:

    @Drew: We call them ex-CEOS…. and then give them a hundred million dollar severance and send them off to take over another company.

    Go ahead and tell us about the brilliant governance of US corporations, Drew. I’m sure we’re all ready to bow down at your genius.

  32. john personna says:

    Two questions:

    1) How many “kamikazes” threads has OTB hosted in the last month?

    2) How, exactly, do you negotiate with kamikazes?

  33. WR says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The word is “dittohead.”

  34. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    How, exactly, do you negotiate with kamikazes?

    Indeed. All you can do is avoid them, but that doesn’t work if you’re stuck in the plane with them.