Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Is there a displaced rational basis for blaming Obama?

Lots of smart political observers have been working hard in recent days to explain the odd phenomenon of centrist beltway types (Fournier, Ignatius, WaPo editorial staff) blaming Obama for not being able to induce Republicans to accept the kind of compromise or "balanced approach" to replacing the sequester that Obama has articulated ad infinitum and that the pundits in question themselves seek. That approach seeks a roughly equal mix of revenue increases (via tax loophole reduction) and spending cuts to replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending mandated by the sequester. Should such a balance be struck, spending cuts would still outnumber revenue hikes by about 2-to-1 in the sum of deficit reduction measures taken since 2011, not counting interest savings.

James Fallows calls the both-sides-are-to-blame schtick false equivalence.  Brendan Nyhan decries Green Lantern theory, the apparently ineradicable belief that the president can bend Congress to his will by force of rhetoric or personality or some more nebulous magical power.  Brian Beutler detects an Obama derangement syndrome -- a profound disappointment in Obama stemming from his apparent lack of power to stop the train wreck. Beutler does an excellent job demonstrating that David Ignatius in particular lambastes Obama for not making precisely the public argument in favor of a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts -- including cuts to Medicare and Social Security -- that Obama has been making nonstop for two years.

Fallows and others attribute this phenomenon to a rooted belief among establishment Beltway types that if compromise fails, both sides must be at fault. Beutler and Nyhan allude to misplaced faith -- disproved by political science research -- that the president can win a political fight by force of argument. Also, more generally, that presidential power should be able to overcome, because the president is...Father of us all?

I suspect that at least some of those who call on Obama to compromise more, or articulate better, or propose larger, "braver" entitlement cuts may be displacing anger over a disappointment in Obama that is more grounded in reality. Or perhaps I'm just speaking for myself here. Because I am angry at Obama.

I don't think that Obama could have made a better public case for his preferred mix of tax hikes and spending cuts than he has done. It's quite true, as Beutler says, that "Obama’s done a genuinely excellent job of fixing the broken link in the public’s mind between taxes and popular spending priorities."  Nor do I fault him for failing to conciliate the Republicans now, or for the nonsense about not exhibiting sufficient bonhomie. During Obama's first term, Republicans proved repeatedly that they were bad faith negotiators, bent only on destroying him and dismantling the welfare state as we know it.

I do think, however, that in early 2011 Obama could fought have back against the GOP's bid to set the national agenda and made a strong case in the SOTU and after for focusing on job creation before (or with) deficit reduction. When the GOP blew that off, as they surely would have, he could have proclaimed early and often that while he was happy to entertain (and negotiate) a mix of long-term spending cuts and moderate tax increases, with short-term job creation measures in the mix, he would never, ever accept debt ceiling exhaustion as a negotiating deadline.  He should in any case never have embraced the looming debt ceiling deadline as "a unique opportunity to do something big"-- a position that made the possibility of later recourse to extraordinary measures such as invoking the Fourteenth Amendment less viable and hence increased the likelihood that Republicans would go to the brink.

It can credibly be argued that invoking the Fourteenth Amendment to have the Treasury unilaterally issue new debt would have been too big a risk, to the economy and governance, though Bill Clinton said he would have done it. It could further be argued that the Budget Control Act that established the sequester was an acceptable punt that staked the outcome of budget warfare on the 2012 election. Whether a more forceful stance against debt ceiling brinksmanship early on would have changed the equation we'll never know.

What makes me angry now is that Obama gave up his maximum point of leverage at the fiscal cliff deadline, settling for half his scaled-down and always too modest revenue target and leaving the sequester in place. Here I don't want to repeat myself a third time -- I think Ruth Marcus made the pithiest case that Obama is "guilty of bad negotiating":
Which brings me to the administration’s fault in this mess: squandering its leverage on taxes when it accepted the cliff deal. In the administration’s imagining, this money was just chapter one; the second wave would come with another $600 billion or so through tax reform.

Except the White House seems to have forgotten to ask Republicans about whether they were up for more. The threat of sequester has turned out to be less scary than the hammer of tax increases for all. That crisis averted, and the GOP base unhappy with the increases already passed, Republicans’ incentive to cough up more revenue has evaporated.
This is not Magic Lantern theory. It's game theory of a rather basic sort.

We'll never know what would have been if Obama had made his stand after Jan. 1 of this year, and we don't yet know how the sequester/continuing resolution/debt ceiling warfare will play out. Perhaps the administration's calculation that fighting over half a cliff is preferable to letting the double hammer blow of tax hikes/spending cuts begin to fall last January will be vindicated.

But the anger remains.

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