Saturday, December 11, 2010

Obama and the Inside Game

One of the recurrent liberal critiques I've heard of Obama's recent tax negotiation with Republicans is that he appears to not be a very tough negotiator.  The critique goes something like this: there are still a few weeks left in the lame duck session.  On the subjects of extending tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits for the unemployed, Obama's position was very popular; the Republican one was deeply unpopular.  Obama could have gone public and brought popular opinion to bear on the negotiations.  Or he could have let Republicans sweat it out a bit in the media.  Then he'd have been in a stronger negotiating position.

My impression of what actually happened is that Obama looked at the political scene and said, there are two real veto players here: me and Senate Republicans.  So let's cut a deal and not worry about everyone else.  He might well have looked back at the debate over health care reform and thought, wow, the entire nation debated this for over a year, and it didn't really move the issue at all.  The public option didn't get more or less popular -- it always looked pretty popular but probably not commanding the support of 60 Senators.  And the bill that he signed into law looked remarkably like what he'd originally outlined a year earlier.  So it strikes me as legitimate to ask what the value of all that debate was.

Now, there's certainly some democratic value in public engagement on an issue, but that's not likely to happen on a two-week tax debate.  It would mostly have involved a lot of he said/she said on the cable news shows and a lot of alternative policies discussed in the House that really wouldn't have gone anywhere, and we'd still have ended up roughly where we were at the beginning, with Republicans clinging to their number one priority (tax extensions for income over $250K), Democrats trying to eke out what they could before granting that to the GOP, and liberal activists feeling betrayed anyway.  Seen in that light, it's hard to see Obama getting a whole lot more out of the deal than he did.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Obama's unwillingness to credibly threaten to let all the tax cuts expire, his most powerful bargaining chip that he has a power to play without cooperation, despite that the Republicans care much more about that possibility than the Democrats, is what has weakened him.

The status quo is in his favor, and yet he still hasn't been able to make use of that fact.

Robert said...

I'm with Seth on this with one additional point. That is, there are only so many days left in the year. The Senate Republicans have been unified throughout the term, and there was little reason to believe that they wouldn't remain so right up until New Year's Eve. So, on the one hand, it didn't look like holding the Republicans feet to the fire was very likely to make a difference for the reasons Seth talked about. But in the absence of an agreement there would also not be time for dealing with anything else. So, if Obama had any hope of getting anything done other than a tax plan, i.e., Dream Act, START treaty, etc., then he needed to get a deal done sooner rather than later.

Seth Masket said...

It's difficult to say who was in the tougher situation. I think Republicans would've caved eventually on unemployment benefits as Christmas approached, and if that's true, Obama should've called their bluff rather than dealt early. But Republicans have surprised me before with their insensitivity to public opinion, and I can hardly say that I have better knowledge of the situation than the president did.

Anonymous said...

What Robert said, plus: Look at repubs stance on 9/11 first responders. They certainly have it in them to act on lack of any compassion whatsoever. There has NEVER been any question in my mind about that, even as I interact with everyday, above-average intelligent ones. I've found it remarkable and more than a little creepy.