Wednesday, July 20, 2011

(Un)pulping the bully approach to presidential politics

Early this year, we heard much about the Catch-22 of presidential leadership: that the president's advocacy for a given position guarantees that the opposing party will...oppose it.  Quantified by political scientist Frances Lee, this theory was  voiced to explain Obama's failure to lay out a detailed deficit reduction plan in the SOTU or shortly thereafter by Jacob Lew, Kent Conrad, and Obama himself.

Today, via Mike Allen's Playbook, we have a further endorsement from a GOP Senate aide:
--A Senate Republican leadership aide emails with subject line “Gang of Six”: “Background guidance: The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”
Granted that a president needs to be aware of this dynamic, how can you negotiate with an opposition that wants you politically dead without polarizing and then fighting out the opposed positions in the court of public opinion, which will presumably, over time, move both sides off their initial positions?  Avoiding polarization, especially with an extremist opposition like the current GOP, is like trying to jump off your own shadow. Obama has bowed to this reality in stages, laying out his own sketched-in deficit reduction plan in April 13, when he contrasted it sharply with Ryan's, and more recently hammering the GOP on its refusal to make tax hikes part of the mix, which the public supports. In between, though, he kind of went dark, while apparently ceding a lot of ground at the negotiating table.

While you could make a case for Obama trying to get a master deficit reduction deal done this year, though, I can't understand why he not only accepted the debt ceiling as a deadline but embraced it as "a unique opportunity." Doing so muddied the message that threatening not to raise the debt ceiling is wildly irresponsible, while compressing negotiations for such a megadeal into an impossibly tight time frame. Indeed, Obama has been complicit in that irresponsibility -- binding himself and the country over as hostages.

Update: Ezra Klein notes the same presidential power paradox, prompted by the very same Politico item.

Related posts
Pulping the bully approach to presidential politcs IV
Pulping the bully approach to presidential politics III
Pulping the bully approach to presidential politics, cont.
Pulping the bully appraoch to presidential politics

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