Thursday, January 31, 2013

Syncophants, shills and charlatans at work

Forget for a moment how Chuck Hagel performed at his confirmation hearing today. Consider how the U.S. Senate (as represented by its Armed Services Committee) performed:

Oh, screw it.

What I'd planned here, having listened to selected snatches of the nine-hour malignant clown show, was to extract every craven, grandstanding, litmus test-setting question demanding affirmations of unconditional support for Israel, willingness to supply limitless aid to Israel, retractions of any and all past criticism of Israel. But I can't find a transcript, and the relevant quotes are proving elusive in news stories.  Trust me, the demands of Levin, Gillibrand and Blumenthal, not to say Cruz and Graham, boiled down to this: "Mr. Hagel, if confirmed, how thoroughly and wholeheartedly will you subordinate U.S. interests to Israel's perceived interests?"

In any case, while searching for the questions in questions, I stumbled across a post by Mondoweiss expressing pretty much exactly what I wanted to say:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

You say you want an evolution

Our understanding of how politicians "evolve" is, I think, evolving.

As Obama moved through his slow dance toward embracing gay marriage, the word became obvious code for "I'm picking my moment to change my position" -- i.e., "reveal my true attitude," which had been on record since 1996. He first set the clock running in October 2010 (all Obama quotes below are taken from this ABC 5/912 timeline):
“I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage,” President Obama said during an interview with liberal bloggers. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”
By the time he went the last yard more than a year and a half later, his "evolution"  had become a punchline. The process was at once disingenuous, since the conclusion was foregone, and candid, in that he did describe a mental process that in some sense and at some time probably did take place:

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fever breaking?

In meetings with donors and editorial boards during the 2012 campaign, Obama suggested that his reelection would "break the fever" of fanatic GOP opposition to everything he proposed. The fiscal cliff brinksmanship at the turn of the year did nothing to suggest any such "break"-through, as Obama acknowledged in a New Republic interview conducted in mid-January and published just yesterday:
Chris Hughes: You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you've made headway on that?

Not yet, obviously.

CH: How do you imagine it happening?

I never expected that it would happen overnight. I think it will be a process. And the Republican Party is undergoing a still-early effort at reexamining what their agenda is and what they care about. I think there is still shock on the part of some in the party that I won reelection. There's been a little bit of self-examination among some in the party, but that hasn't gone to the party as a whole yet.
Now, just a day after that interview appeared, the doctor may be looking up and offering some cautious optimism.  For a day at least, the stonewall seems to be cracking at three points:

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wait, Jonathan Bernstein has a point

In my last post, I suggested that Jonathan Bernstein was warning Obama against an unlikely pitfall in suggesting that Obama not waste his energy chasing a "liberal Reagan" myth -- that is, imagining he "can win arguments for a generation by choosing exactly the right words at the right time."

Obama, I suggested, in seeking to implement his alleged realization that "you can only change [Washington] from the outside," is focused on marshaling public opinion that already supports his policy proposals, not on attempting to change public opinion from the bully pulpit.  My evidence was twofold. First, he's tried the former (tapping opinion that's already on his side) repeatedly over the last eighteen months, asking supporters to lobby their Congressional reps on behalf of "balanced" deficit reduction,  the payroll tax cut, and low interest rates for student loans, and more recently tapping public disgust with debt ceiling brinksmanship to pressure the GOP into a clean raise. Second, as I noted yesterday, in making the case in 2008 that Reagan "changed the trajectory," Obama emphasized that Reagan "tapped into what people were already feeling," not that he educated them or changed their minds by force of argument.

The distinction between seeking to channel public opinion, or perhaps even focus it when it's latent, and trying to change it, is crucial, and my impression has been that Obama recognizes this. But an interview with The New Republic's Chris Hughes and Franklin Foer sends up some warning signals.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What exactly is the danger for Obama in chasing the "liberal Reagan" mantle?

Yesterday, I offered a partial dissent from Jonathan Bernstein's contention that it's a myth that Ronald Reagan "defined an era" or, to borrow Obama's 2008 phrase, "changed the trajectory of America."  Reagan, I argued, did set the ideological mold that subsequently hardened into GOP dogma, not least by at least appearing to demonstrate that tax cuts can unleash economic growth.

I'd like now to probe a little deeper into exactly what Jon was warning Obama against. I'm not certain, but I suspect that the warning may pertain to a perceived flaw in Obama's current political strategy fingered by Ezra Klein and others. Eliding out the meat of Bernstein's debunking of the "transformative Reagan" myth, here's his advice for Obama:
Here’s the problem. Ronald Reagan wasn’t really the Reagan of everyone’s imagination. So aspiring to be a “liberal Reagan” is chasing a fantasy. Worse than that—it’s a fantasy that can easily distract a president from the real things that he should be doing....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Yes, Reagan did change the trajectory

Jonathan Bernstein would have us believe that the notion that Ronald Reagan, in Obama's words, "changed the trajectory of American politics" is a mirage -- and Obama would do well to stop chasing it.

It's one more salvo in the continuing campaign of political scientists who engage with the broader public to convince us (with pesky evidence) that almost nothing that we think matters in politics really matters, or matters much, or matters in the way we think it does. Here's the core of Bernstein's 'untransformational Reagan' argument:
Take a look at the Reagan myth. Did Reagan “ideologically shift the nation in his direction?” If we’re talking about voters, the answer is pretty clearly no. As Northeastern political scientist Bill Mayer showed in The Changing American Mind, if anything, public opinion on many issues became more liberal, not more conservative, during Reagan’s presidency (see also a nice post from George Washington University political scientist John Sides).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Obama, child of 2008, father to man of 2013

Harold Meyerson has helped me recognize that in noting the continuities between Obama's second inaugural and his past speeches (2008 and 2009-12), I under-emphasized what's new. Meyerson helps me see more fully the extent to which the speech represents a restoration of ideas Obama expressed in the 2008 campaign. Or rather, an attempt to reboot his implementation of those ideas -- seizing the "gift for reinvention" that he affirmed as an American quality.

It all boils down to what is meant, if anything, by "we are the ones we've been waiting for" (2008) and "my fellow citizens -- you were the change" (2012) and "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course" (2013).  Here's Meyerson:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Meet the new Obama -- same (mostly) as the Old Obama

Yesterday, I sought to demonstrate that Obama was simply reverting to form in his second inaugural address by equating liberal priorities with the nation's founding principles and historical development. He did so day in and day out in 2008; the notion that liberal policy prescriptions would enable the country to continue forming "a more perfect union" was the basis of his campaign. I professed myself astonished that anyone would be surprised by his using this framework -- grounding his policies in the Declaration of Independence -- in his Second Inaugural.

Lest anyone conclude that Obama the defender of liberal priorities went into remission for four years, let's extend the 'rhetoric retrospective' back from the most recent past. Take, for example, Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention last September -- a widely panned speech that to my ear was more forceful, more caustic, and more conceptually resonant than yesterday's inaugural.  At the DNC, Obama grounded his defense of government action to expand opportunity and strengthen the safety net and stimulate enterprise in -- you guessed it -- the Declaration of Independence:
As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights – rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system – the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations....

Monday, January 21, 2013

Our liberal history: Obama's oldest trope

In my response to Obama's second inaugural speech, I took it as a given that it's a well-worn Obama trope to equate liberal priorities with the nation's founding principles and historical development -- so much so that Obama rather abbreviated the argument this time around.

I am therefore a bit gob-smacked to note that many of those whom I like to read best seem to be assuming that the equation of active government and collective action with the credo expressed in the Declaration of Independence and with the course of American history is some kind new departure for Obama. See  Greg Sargent, Ezra Klein and James Fallows, That Obama today expanded his circle of concern to include immigrants and gays and (implicitly) safety from gun violence in new ways, I recognize. Ditto that he's dropped the pretense (or rather, belief) that acknowledging some "good ideas" from the other side will get him where he wants to go (as I noted after his convention speech).  But the core concept of government that he articulated today, and the historical support he mustered for it, were utterly familiar..

Back in June 2008, I examined Obama's deployment of our shared past in a post called "We've been here before": How Obama frames our history. Not to bore you with peripherals in that post, I've culled a few examples of such deployments from it and other 2008 Obama speeches.

Janesville, WI, Feb. 13, 2008:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States....

In the end, this economic agenda won't just require new money. It will require a new spirit of cooperation and innovation on behalf of the American people. We will have to learn more, and study more, and work harder. We'll be called upon to take part in shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And we'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children...

It’s a promise that’s been passed down through the ages; one that each generation of Americans is called to keep – that we can raise our children in a land of boundless opportunity, broad prosperity, and unyielding possibility.

New York, New York, March 27, 2008:
But if we unite this country around a common purpose, if we act on the responsibilities that we have to each other and to our country, then we can launch a new era of opportunity and prosperity. I know we can do this because Americans have done this before. Time and again, we've recognized that common stake that we have in each other's success. That's how people as different as Hamilton and Jefferson came together to launch the world's greatest experiment in democracy. That's why our economy hasn't just been the world's greatest wealth creator – it's bound America together, it's created jobs, and it's made the dream of opportunity a reality for generations of Americans.

Obama strips his credo to essentials while widening his net

From the beginning of his national career, Obama's core message has been that what our current political configuration defines as liberal priorities fulfill the promise of America's founding documents. That is, government's function is to ensure an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- and to pool collective resources to create conditions in which opportunity is optimized for all. Today, at his second inaugural, Obama delivered that credo in short form:
we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action
Obama cast a wide net in defining what's entailed by pursuing equality of opportunity in this country and seeking to foster it abroad. It entails not only preserving entitlements for the elderly but fighting income inequality, not only fostering alternative energy industries for economic purposes but fighting climate change that is already upon us, not only reducing unequal opportunity for citizens but expanding opportunity for immigrants, not only securing equal pay for women but complete equal rights for "our gay brothers and sisters."

Obama did not provide a lot of policy detail as he laid out the tasks required to fulfill the nation's charter.  But I was heartened by a few hand signals, e.g.:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A lawyerly second inaugural, or a piece of the president's heart? Or both?

I am generally chary of literary analysis that finds meaning in sound -- variations of rhythm and meter, assonance and alliteration, etc. But purely by accident, while reading Ronald C. White's little ode to Lincoln's Second Inaugural in today's Times (this by a man who I see in the bio line has written a whole book about the speech), I was struck by the beauty and, as it were, aural authority of the speech's final phrasing as White quoted it:
By contrast, Lincoln disappeared in his second inaugural. The speech contains the word “I” only once. Lincoln was pointing beyond himself to the future of the American democratic experiment, “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves; and with all nations.”

Following the qualified, conditional assertion that the nation has endured God's wrath, and the injunction to "bind up the nation's wounds," this final phrasing does, it seems to me, deliver a kind of aural balm.  It chimes internally in multiple ways: in the alliteration of "achieve and cherish," the assonance of "achieve" and "peace," the double nail-down of just and lasting, lightly punctuating the soft susseration of "cherish...peace...ourselves, nations."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Three professors of false equivalence look at the Obama-Boehner faceoff

The Times' James B. Stewart today interviews three management gurus who think that "getting to yes" in a deficit reduction deal ought to be easy. These men presumably know a good deal about corporate negotiations. But their apparent ignorance of politics -- political dynamics generally, and the battles of the last two years in particular -- is breathtaking.

The three cited experts, William Ury of Harvard, Seth Freeman of Columbia's Stern School, and Daylian Cain of Yale,  collectively assert the following: both sides are taking and have taken maximalist, uncompromising positions; neither allows the other any face-saving outs; and they are not that far apart substantively. Prof. Cain suggests that spending time together socially could make a substantive difference.   All of these assumptions are wrong.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why the euphoria?

At the risk of displaying my ignorance of How Things Work: I do not quite get Dem-side triumphalism in response to the Republican cave on the debt ceiling.

Yes, it's a relief that the GOP will not blow up the world economy late next month.  But what about the sequester, st to take effect in six weeks?

Chris Cillizza quotes a "senior House Republican aide" declaring, "“in the sequestration fight, we have greater leverage because current law is on our side.”   Is everyone in the liberal commentariat sanguine that because half the cuts fall on defense spending, the GOP will never pull the trigger?

Most surprising to me is Paul Krugman's readiness to declare victory on Obama's behalf:
But it appears that [Obama's fiscal cliff] strategy has worked, and it’s the Republicans giving up. I’m happy to concede that the president and team called this one right.

And it’s a big deal. Yes, the GOP could come back on the debt ceiling, but that seems unlikely. It could try to make a big deal of the sequester, but that’s a lot more like the fiscal cliff than it is like the debt ceiling: not good, but not potentially catastrophic, and therefore poor terrain for the “we’re crazier than you are” strategy. And while Republicans could shut down the government, my guess is that Democrats would actually be gleeful at that prospect: the PR would be overwhelmingly favorable for Obama, and again, not much risk of blowing up the world.
I would think that Krugman would regard implementation of the sequester's across-the-board cuts -- $100 billion in the coming year, $1.2 trillion over ten,  executed with "a meat ax not a scalpel," to paraphrase Obama -- as catastrophic indeed.  He's expressed a great deal of angst over far lesser cuts in the last two years. Those cuts would be a serious immediate blow to the recovery and a long-term threat to a host of vital government functions.

On August 2, 2011, the day after the debt ceiling deal was finalized, James Fallows wrote, in an email to me, "Knowing something about how defense budgeting works, I have zero confidence that the triggered cuts in Pentagon spending will ever happen. FWIW."  Is that the general assumption now?

Perhaps the salient point about sequester is that it's more curb than cliff.  According to National Review's Andrew Stiles, "A senior GOP aide notes that sequestration “doesn't have the cliff-like finality” of default and could be more easily dealt with retroactively through legislation to restore defense spending."  IF Republicans want to roll back those defense cuts, though, they'd presumably have to cough up some of the additional revenue Obama is demanding -- unless he hates the defense cuts as much as they do.

Best case, I would think, the two sides agree to postpone the sequester for say nine months and to try once again to reform the tax code and agree on lesser, more targeted spending cuts. That would open up some possibility of Obama winning new revenue under cover of tax reform -- perhaps by capping any given deduction's value at 28%, as Obama has proposed.

Also possible, perhaps: stalemate, whereby the sequester is postponed, the GOP allows no new revenue, and appropriations are sweated out bill by bill, with relatively moderate spending cuts.

Finally, Obama might cut a deal in the next two months, with far less revenue and rather more cuts, including, possibly, an entitlement trim such as chained-CPI,  than his side can easily stomach -- though if the past is any guide, there may be less to those cuts than meets the eye, and a few low-profile stimulus goodies thrown into the mix.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Geithner sees no evil in the bubble

Two moments in Tim Geithner's exit interview with the Wall Street Journal's David Wessel struck me as noteworthy. First, this:
MR. WESSEL: Is there a risk that a combination of the backlash to the bailouts and the changes to the authorities of the Treasury and the Fed has been your successors, if confronted with something like 2008, will be unable to respond as effectively?

MR. GEITHNER: [One risk is that] they're not willing to respond . If you look at the history of crises, what most distinguishes how countries fare is whether people who are willing to do those tough things really do them or whether they sit there and wait—hope it burns itself out, decide to try to teach people a lesson, worry about moral hazard, not protecting the innocent. So one risk is that people are going to be more tentative about that because they just looked at the backlash in this crisis, and they decide to try to wait a little bit, and hope they don't have to do the hard thing.
Geithner appears here to set up an either/or: either the regulator "worries about moral hazard" or he or she "protects the innocent."  The "worry" about moral hazard, of course, is that it may precipitate the next crisis by shielding those who triggered the last one from the consequences of their recklesssness.

To be fair, Geithner says at a different point, "if you’re in policy or you’re in markets, you should always worry about moral hazard"-- so it would appear that his point above is limited -- that in the crisis hour moral hazard should not be the primary concern.  But it's fair to wonder whether moral hazard is ever a primary concern of Geithner's, given that he doesn't see much moral transgression in our banking system. Which brings us to the next  moment:

Passive aggression against Netanyahu

Surprise surprise, according to Jeff Goldberg Obama believes Israel "doesn't know what its own best interests are." As Israel threatens to cut the West Bank in half and so cut off the possibility of a two-state solution, that sentiment is about as surprising as an Obama conclusion that Republican budget math doesn't add up.

While allowing for the possibility of effective U.S. action behind the scenes to block the E-1 development, I am, shall we say, conditionally infuriated by Obama's reported passive aggression vis-a-vis Israel, if Goldberg's reporting is reliable:
When informed about the Israeli decision, Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Progressive consensus and debt ceiling scenarios

Jared Bernstein has a post that crystallizes an emerging consensus on the left regarding our current budget battles:
  • Medium-term deficit reduction (10-year horizon, per Simpson-Bowles etc.) is 2/3 done
  • The last third requires hard bargaining but isn't brain surgery. Cf. Obama in Monday's presser:
    The consensus is we need about $4 trillion to stabilize our debt and our deficit, which means we need about $1.5 trillion more. The package that I offered to Speaker Boehner before we -- before the new year would achieve that. We were actually fairly close in terms of arriving at that number.

    So -- so if the goal is to make sure that we are being responsible about our debt and our deficit, if that’s the conversation we’re having, I’m happy to have that conversation. And by closing some additional loopholes through tax reform -- which Speaker Boehner has acknowledged can raise money in a sensible way -- and by doing some additional cuts, including making sure that we are reducing our health care spending, which is the main driver of our deficits, we can arrive at a package to get this thing done.
  •  The key to our fiscal future is healthcare cost control. The best course on that front is watchful waiting to see how ACA reforms shake out (coupled, I would add on the basis of Obama's 2013 budget and December negotiations with Boehner, with moderate, incremental trims to provider payments and benefits to the wealthy).
Here's Bernstein's sum-up:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Apologies, commenters

It seems that for several weeks, many comments have been going into my spam filter. I just picked out the real ones (most are spam) and published a bunch of comments. So sorry if yours was among those that sat for days or weeks.  I will now be vigilant on the Blogger 'comment moderation' page to make sure it doesn't happen again. And thanks to Andrew Long for pointing the problem out to me.

"Not this time": Obama revises himself

The headline takeaway from Obama's press conference yesterday is that he's talking tough about the debt ceiling. And indeed, he elaborated his case against holding the faith and credit of the nation hostage in new and forceful ways. What also struck me, though, is the extent to which Obama implicitly admitted that the obstacles he is now facing are partly of his own making. In fact, since late in his reelection campaign he has been casting is second term as an edited version of the first.

On the economic front, Obama reiterated three core messages yesterday:1) The debt ceiling is no frame within which to negotiate deficit reduction; 2) deficit reduction is not our chief problem; and 3) Republicans' chief goal is to weaken core government functions and commitments, radically altering the social contract. Each was to some degree a revision of a past stance.

Regarding the debt ceiling, as Ezra Klein pointed out yesterday, Obama has been unequivocal since the election: it is not a negotiating chip in budget battles.  Yesterday he stated this simply, forcefully and repeatedly.  Here is the first iteration, in his opening remarks:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Julianna Goldman questioned Obama's debt ceiling cred to his face. His response...

I noted in a prior post that as the debt ceiling approaches, I'm getting foreboding flashbacks from this familiar process: 1) Obama articulates his position forcefully and with precision; 2) progressives note with glee that he's boxing Republicans in; 3) stalemate sets in as a deadline looms; 4) a flurry of reported Obama concessions augurs a deal; 5) the deal is announced, headlined with those concessions if backloaded with some Obama priorities.

Today's press conference may augur a similar pattern.  At greater length than ever, and with top-of-his-game precision, Obama laid out his case for a clean debt ceiling hike and "balanced" deficit reduction.  When asked why we should believe that this time he would not blink at the brink, however, he was less convincing.

Two lengthy exchanges tell the tale. In the first, challenged on the consistency of his debt ceiling position and the irresponsibility he alleged in Republican conduct, he was precise and masterful, catching Republicans in a rhetorical pincer: Threatening default is extremist and unprecedented. And doing deficit reduction by spending cuts alone is extremist and unprecedented. One threatens to blow up the economy and destroy the nation's privileged position as the world's default currency. The other threatens to sell the nation's public benefits and seed corn to preserve tax breaks for the wealthy. As the TV hosts say, let's listen:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The next debt showdown...I see it!

This snippet from this evening's Plum Line roundup gave me deja vu:

* Steve Kornacki on why Republicans may cave in the end:
Much attention is paid to the way-out-there true-believers who have gained to power to define what conservatism means in the Obama-era. But there are still many Republicans in Congress – and in influential positions outside of Congress – who recognize the catastrophe that would be unleashed by a default. And in the wake of the November election, they may be more assertive in reining in the crazies now than they were during the debt ceiling showdown in 2011.
The flavor of this deja vu might be classed as optimistic preview.  The sentiment: Obama has the leverage: when he stares the GOP down, they'll be forced to... [add consummation to be wished].  As, for example, when Reid and McConnell were negotiating on December 28, three days before the fiscal cliff's edge, and Sargent eagerly anticipated the failure of those talks:

The real budget battle: voucherize Medicare, or IPABize it?

Noting that the emerging Republican budget strategy seems to be stalemate -- refuse to approve any new taxes, consequently give up on entitlement reform, and blame Obama, Jonathan Chait notes that this strategy makes a kind of sense. That is, it locates the long-term budget battle where it belongs, on the means of controlling healthcare costs:
This may sound like a cynical strategy. And it is. But it’s not a purely cynical strategy. It reflects an important intellectual development on the right. Capretta is advocating not just the classic no-taxes-ever approach that has defined the party for years, but also its newer (or newly fervent) belief in privatizing health-care services.

The main driver here is Paul Ryan, whom Capretta advises. (Yuval Levin, another Ryan favorite, makes a similar, though less openly cynical, no-deal argument for the Weekly Standard.) Ryan has accepted the argument, traditionally pushed by Democrats, that the main driver of long-term budget deficits is not the aging population but skyrocketing health-care costs. Ryan has decided that the only possible answer to the problem is to turn Medicare into a system of subsidized private insurance, and that the wonders of competition between insurance firms will dramatically suppress cost inflation (“the way it always works when the consumer is in charge,” he says).
What's truly cynical is not Ryan's ideological faith in the competition fairy, but his demonization, in the illustrious McCaughey-Bachmann-Palin tradition that is now general GOP dogma, of other more proven means of controlling healthcare costs. Chait continues:

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Boehner's whining is finding an audience

John Boehner, with an assist from Bob Woodward, is doing a nice job spinning the interpersonal side of his failed negotiations with Obama. While it's natural for right-wing media to take up his narrative, his spin is trickling into the mainstream, too.

On the right, the new image of Obama the Negotiator is oddly flattering, at least to the ears of a liberal accustomed to fretting about the president's accommodating style.. The personalized corollary of the right's current view of Obama as a legislative juggernaut is Obama as an imperious, arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway stonewaller. Here's Peggy Noonan:
He didn't deepen any relationships or begin any potential alliances with Republicans, who still, actually, hold the House. The old animosity was aggravated. Some Republicans were mildly hopeful a second term might moderate those presidential attitudes that didn't quite work the first time, such as holding himself aloof from the position and predicaments of those who oppose him, while betraying an air of disdain for their arguments. He is not quick to assume good faith. Some thought his election victory might liberate him, make his approach more expansive. That didn't happen.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Who's more scared of the sequester?

Since the limited fiscal cliff deal was struck, there's naturally been a ton of speculation whether the Republicans will indulge in a fresh round of debt ceiling terrorism when the treasury reaches the end of its rope in a couple of months, and whether Obama will blink if they do.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, John Boehner indicated that the debt ceiling may play more of a support role, and that the sequestered spending cuts postponed for just two months by the Jan. 1 agreement are the GOP's main source of leverage. Here's how he sketched out his alleged negotiating strategy, as recounted by the WSJ's Stephen Moore:
The real showdown will be on the debt ceiling and the spending sequester in March. I ask Mr. Boehner if he will take the debt-ceiling talks to the brink—risking a government shutdown and debt downgrade from the credit agencies—given that it didn't work in 2011 and President Obama has said he won't bargain on the matter.

The debt bill is "one point of leverage," Mr. Boehner says, but he also hedges, noting that it is "not the ultimate leverage." He says that Republicans won't back down from the so-called Boehner rule: that every dollar of raising the debt ceiling will require one dollar of spending cuts over the next 10 years. Rather than forcing a deal, the insistence may result in a series of monthly debt-ceiling increases.

The Republicans' stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs—defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

McConnell clears the way for more revenue hikes

Annoying as it is to hear Mitch McConnell declare that Republicans will not agree to any further revenue increases, I am pleased to note him intoning this party line regarding the fiscal cliff deal:
Look, this was not a tax increase,
That's true, insofar as at the time the deal was enacted, the Bush tax cuts had expired, and the deal reinstated about 85% of the cuts. If restoring a portion of the foregone revenue was not a tax increase, then neither is restoring more of it. If you accept all negotiations this year as an adjustment within the frame of the Bush tax cut expiration (which, okay, McConnell and co. don't), that gives Obama and the Democrats another two trillion-plus over ten years in running room for future negotiations.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Obama the centrist

It's been a while since I checked in on Obama's weekly address. This week, the headliner is another call on Congress not to play chicken with the debt ceiling -- though based on recent polling, he's going to have to do better to explain to the public that raising the debt ceiling does not authorize new spending (not withstanding that poll's limitations).  A few other tidbits caught my eye, though:

1) While Obama paired job growth and deficit reduction, his emphasis again was on deficit reduction. That's partly a function of his focus on looming budget battles, but he still positions himself as a centrist who cuts spending while investing in the future (infrastructure, education, energy). He also invoked the confidence fairy.

2) When talking about cutting spending while preserving essential investments, Obama does not emphasize preserving Medicare and Social Security.  It's no secret to anyone not in the grip of right-wing paranoia that Obama is open to entitlement reform (though his preferred means of Medicare savings would work by squeezing providers and reducing unnecessary care by ending away from fee-for-service payments). He not only aims to transfer wealth from the wealthy to the poor and middle classes, but also, to some degree,  from the (nonpoor) elderly to children, parents of children, and broadly, "the future", via infrastructure and R&D.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The liberal Reagan of the Wall Street Journal's imagining

Democrats worried that Obama will get rolled in the looming debt ceiling/sequester fight might turn to the right wing commentariat for comfort.  To his enemies, he now bestrides Capitol Hill like a colossus while the GOP leadership walks under his huge legs and peeps about to find themselves dishonorable graves.

I don't think they're right. But I find it refreshing.  Bracing. You might almost say exhilarating. Start with Charles Krauthammer:
The rout was complete, the retreat disorderly. President Obama got his tax hikes — naked of spending cuts — passed by the ostensibly Republican House of Representatives... now that he’s past the post, he’s free to be himself — a committed big-government social democrat...

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Uggh, my money is on McConnell

Yesterday, I wondered where Obama thinks he's going to get the leverage to insist that any future spending cuts be paired with further tax hikes. As reflected in today's Politico reporting, Obama and the GOP leadership are living in alternate universes. Obama thinks he's broken a psychological threshold along with the Republican no-new-taxes-taboo and that he can wield public opinion to make his all-spending-cuts-to-be-balanced-with-more revenue rule stick. McConnell & co. think they have Obama over a barrel with the debt ceiling and sequester cuts looming.

My money is on McConnell. Reid might have been a match for him. Obama and Biden weren't.  Agreeing to only a two-month postponement of the sequester cuts, McConnell's main demand, looks like a disaster -- unless Obama is ready to finally go over a cliff. The only precedent for that: he did let the sequester become law in the first place in late 2011, rather than intervene and strike another all-cuts-no-revenue bargain. That's a thin reed of hope.

What I can't see is Republicans agreeing to further tax hikes, e.g., through Obama's proposed 28% deduction cap for wealthy taxpayers.  They acceded to a very limited tax increase only under extreme duress -- when the only alternative was larger tax hikes. Their "principles" are therefore intact. The notion that a taboo was broken is nonsense.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

What I don't get

I was a little shocked by the two-month sequester postponement in last night's fiscal cliff deal. That sounds to me like debt ceiling squared.  Where does Obama think he's going to get the leverage to demand that spending cuts be paired with further tax hikes?  Yesterday he was talking like a man with platinum coins in his pocket. Is there something we don't know, or is he just blowing Choon smoke?

P.S. tweets like this set me thinking/remembering a little:
House R demands for cuts now MIGHT suggest a smidgen of awareness that debt-ceiling hijack won't fly as well the 2nd time.
Last time around, in summer 2011, perhaps even the GOP House would have backed off the brink if Obama had not embraced the debt ceiling deadline as a "unique opportunity to do something big."  Perhaps this time, simply insisting that he won't treat it as a deadline will be enough.  But I can also imagine stories leaking out as the deadline approaches that he's offered this and that in exchange for that and this...making it impossible to step back and insist, "no, I want a clean raise."