Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chait on the chess master, and one missing piece

On the "Fallows question" of whether Obama, in his 3-year combat with Republicans, has been more chess master or pawn, Jonathan Chait lays down an opening premise:
There’s a pattern in the way President Obama reacts to his opponents. He always begins with the outstretched hand, taking their goals (and complaints) at face value. But if they prove unwilling to meet halfway, he assails them for their intransigence and draws sharp lines.
That, however, is merely a statement of Obama's default strategy.  On the question of whether it worked (or is working) in the battle over deficit reduction, taxes, stimulus, and long-term spending priorities, Chait, like Fallows, takes a split decision. He thinks Obama was insane to pursue a "grand bargain" with Boehner, arguing that it should have been plain that there was no way that Congressional Republicans would move off their tax absolutism.  At the same time, he thinks that Obama has advanced his political ends in the broader battle:
Still, the plan did work, pretty much. Republican hostage-taking on the debt ceiling caused the economy to stagger and Obama’s approval ratings to sag. But he did effectively establish the predicate for his current stance. The fact that he so obviously bent over backward to accommodate concerns on the deficit helped him expose the Republican position and give himself room to change the subject to jobs.

Ultimately I come down in the middle. Obama’s current political rebound is in part an accident of trial and error, but in part the successful application of his characteristic style.

I would add one more piece to the equation. By Aug. 1, 2011, Obama had convinced most of the nation that he was more ready to compromise than the Republicans were and that his position on deficit reduction (a "balanced" mix if tax hikes on the wealthy  and spending cuts) was more reasonable than the GOP's cuts-only approach. But he'd also convinced too many Americans, particularly Democrats, that he was weak and ineffectual because he didn't get what he'd asked them to ask their Congressional reps for: "balanced" deficit reduction that included tax increases on the wealthy.  Hence the precipitate dip in his poll numbers following hard on the announcement of the no-new-revenues Budget Control Act (though that dip also tracked a rash of bad economic news, itself in part a result of the debt ceiling debacle).

His comeback, while driven mainly by an improved economy, is also probably at least in part the fruit of his pivot in September to sustained and escalating direct confrontation of the Republicans, culminating with his partial but palpable December victory in the fight to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment.  He also helped to erase, or at least efface, the weak/ineffectual tag by  letting the 'sequestered' defense/domestic cuts happen, at least on paper; by his recess appointments of Richard Cordray and the NLRB appointees; by facilitating the toppling of Gadaffi;  and, most recently, by stumbling or strategizing his way to playing both the conciliator  and the effective champion of women's health rights via his unilateral compromise on the contraception coverage issue -- an interesting platform on which to reintroduce the Affordable Care Act to the center of the national political debate.

As of Aug. 2, I think a lot of people, Democrats in particular, considered Obama something of a weakling; now, not so much -- though many still judge him ineffectual on the economy. It is interesting that his political fortunes have tracked both the direction of the economy and the outcomes of his political battles. In fact it's hard to disentangle the two, as improvement in the economy helped to sharpen the argument in the payroll tax cut fight that the GOP was seeking to sabotage growth that would boost Obama's reelection chances.

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