Political Animal


April 30, 2013 12:11 PM Permission Structure

By Ed Kilgore

In the president’s press conference this morning, he was asked the usual question about his inability to get deals with congressional Republicans (on the sequester specifically), and Obama made an interesting comment:

I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now and, I suspect, members in the House as well who understand that deep down, but they’re worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.

I know a lot of progressives are under the impression that Obama is entirely naive about the nature of the contemporary Republican Party and/or shares too many of their ideological tenets. I don’t agree. But there is a problem in that the president professes to believe there’s something tangible he can do about Republican obstructionism. Last year he suggested that his own re-election might “break the fever.” That clearly didn’t happen. Now he’s talking about working to create a “permission structure” that allows Republicans to work with him without fear of “the base” or of primaries.

Good luck with that, Mr. President. I suppose “permission structure” means assembling enough conservative support, and/or framing legislation so that it addresses the concerns of “the base” (e.g., border enforcement on immigration) in a way that makes bipartisanship possible. But as we saw in the supreme example of the Affordable Care Act, even adopting conservative policy prescriptions right out of the Heritage Foundation playbook, as implemented by the man who would become the next GOP presidential nomination, didn’t prevent them from being demonized as representing the imposition of an alien “European-style” “government takeover of health care” aimed at totalitarianism and the slaughter of old people.

It’s instructive that even as Obama searches for a “permission structure” to help Republicans move along on immigration policy, fiscal issues, and perhaps gun regulation, his earlier effort on health care is in danger of being unraveled by Republican guerilla warfare aimed at its implementation, to the point where in today’s press conference Obama was reduced to boasting about the reforms that have already been implemented (which have indeed been underreported).

Perhaps the White House’s new emphasis on letting bipartisan “gangs” in Congress take the lead on the tough issues is what he means by “permission structures.” It hasn’t worked on fiscal issues so far and didn’t work on gun regulation. Maybe with immigration the third time will be the charm. But you don’t have to be one of those folk who expect Obama to magically impose his will via fiery speeches and tough-guy talk to wonder if a different strategy is in order. I’d recommend about four straight speeches about filibuster reform, followed by four straight speeches on what the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act will actually mean for actual people. At a minimum, a Plan B to deploy if his umpteenth effort at bipartisanship fails is in order. Otherwise, there’s little reason to think anything will much change before 2017 at the soonest.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 30, 2013 12:25 PM:

    The only "permission structure" that's likely to work, will take some time - because we need to see enough Death Certificates of old, white, mostly-males, before there's permission to do anything but try to obstruct that KenyanSocialistFascistCommunistHeathenMuslim Usurper in any and every way possible.

    Harry, I hope you and them Red Dog (Ah calls 'em "Red," 'cause thar ain't nothin' "Blue" 'bout 'em!) Democrats are happy!!!

  • Mimikatz on April 30, 2013 12:30 PM:

    I don't think Obama is naive. I think he is a fundamentally decent person, and it is just really hard for him, psychologically and politically, to accept how many GOPsters simply hate him because he won, because he is a center-left Dem, and above all because he is black. He is optimistic enough to hope things can be made better, that John McCain will stop being so bitter about losing and that Lindsay Graham will grow up and Mitch McConnell will stop being a hateful creep and that our country's very real and serious problems can begin to be addressed, but I fear it ain't gonna happen. Not as long as there is so much money and power to be gained by making people fearful and resentful.

  • JackD on April 30, 2013 12:41 PM:

    His naiveté has been on display ever since the 2010 midterms. What could he have done instead? He could have invoked the 14th Amendment as Clinton said he thought would have been best to avoid the debt ceiling blackmail and he could have stopped his quest for the "grand bargain" that keeps alive the austerity policies supposedly based on deficit reduction but actually based on trying to dismantle social security, medicare, and so on. He really needed to face up to the obstructionist policy of the congressional Republicans and attempted to overcome it (the filibuster, for example) instead of pretending there is some way to accommodate them. There is no way short of capitulation.

  • PVB on April 30, 2013 12:57 PM:

    Actually, there has already been a "permission structure" in place. That is getting the dynamics of certain bills in a position that Boehner breaks the Hastert Rule. He has done that FOUR times this year already. It gives a minority of Republicans -- NOT the majority -- "permission" to vote with almost all Democrats on certain bills. I suspect that was what the President was talking about, without saying he would seduce the Republican House leadership into breaking the Hastert Rule more times; if he said that, it would be politically harder for Boehner to do that. I would predict that if the Senate passes an immigration bill, Boehner will break the Hastert Rule again, and give a minority of Republicans "permission" to vote with the Democrats.

  • gregor on April 30, 2013 1:11 PM:

    That's it.

    Obama believes in magical thinking.

    Who knew?

  • boatboy_srq on April 30, 2013 1:15 PM:

    There's no need for a "permissions structure" to get the GOTea to go along. TABMITWH, and that's all they care about.

  • Pat on April 30, 2013 1:16 PM:

    Or maybe he just really, really wants to get something done sometime in the next 18 months.

  • Milt on April 30, 2013 1:24 PM:

    What do you want him to say? Do you really think riling against the Republicans will make them change their minds? Hardly. I'm sure he is as frustrated as loyal Democrats but unlike his predecessor he seems intent on playing within the rules of the constitution and this constrains his actions. Instead of criticizing him why don't you come up with a realistic alternative. Who knows, it might be the magic key.

  • Kevin (not the famous one) on April 30, 2013 1:29 PM:

    I'm having a lot of "permission structures" flash through my head but they all end up in the same situation, weighed down with concrete along with their contents and send to the bottom of the ocean.

    Here's an idea Mr. President; let them build their own "permission structures", they can feather it until they feel comfortable from the prickly reality they find surrounding them.

  • bubba on April 30, 2013 1:38 PM:

    I find his premise "...but they’re worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal," dubious at best. Why does their base think that way? In large part, because of those members' own rhetoric, used over and over ad nauseum, then replayed on an infinite loop on Fot and A.M. radio, to effectively turn their constituents into unthinking automatons, to try to insulte themselves from any accountability. Reminds me of how certain middle eastern regimes do the same to the US for a similar purpose.

  • gdb on April 30, 2013 2:45 PM:

    "I know a lot of progressives are under the impression that Obama is entirely naive about the nature of the contemporary Republican Party and/or shares too many of their ideological tenets. I don’t agree."

    I don't know what BHO's strongly held political tenets are, other than "compromise is good". Does anyone else? As for naivity, BHO naivity led to the disasterous election results of 2010 and subsequent debt ceiling negotiations and other political difficulties from which BHO and the Dems have never really recovered. All one can say is that the country at present is moving right less rapidly than if Mittens had won. And that rightward slide won't stop until Dems elect leaders with Progressive/Liberal policies they are willing to constantant articulate and support with policy proposals. Those leaders ain't gonna be BHO, Reid or Hillary.

  • Peter C on April 30, 2013 3:18 PM:

    It feels to me like he’s more invested in ‘saving’ the Republican Party than getting the best solutions for the country. He’s still dreaming bi-partisan dreams.

    Personally, I don’t feel like a Party constructed of people who need ‘permission’ to do what’s best for the country is worth saving; they represent the ‘permission givers’ when they’ve been elected to represent their states or districts. Personally, I no longer give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they truly want to do the right thing but are not ‘permitted’. I think they believe in a sort of ‘market based’ democracy in which each faction is expected to maximize the benefits won by that faction in a zero-sum world where all outcomes involve both winners and losers. They feel empowered to maximize their gain at our expense. Whereas Obama is trying for a ‘win-win’ situation, they will only accept a ‘win-lose’ situation.

    The Republicans have said publically that their number-one objective is to make sure that Obama’s presidency is a failure. I’ve seen much to suggest that this is really the case. I’ve seen almost nothing to suggest that deep down they actually have better motives. I don’t think it is fruitful to negotiate with people whose ultimate goal is your destruction.

  • Peter C on April 30, 2013 3:33 PM:

    “Otherwise, there’s little reason to think anything will much change before 2017 at the soonest.”


    I’m resigned to the likelihood that nothing good will happen this Congressional term. But the surest way to ensure that next term is a bust is to concede 2014 before it is fought. If we refuse to fight in 2016, you can write off 2017 too.

  • sjw on April 30, 2013 4:05 PM:

    "I’d recommend about four straight speeches about filibuster reform, followed by four straight speeches on what the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act will actually mean for actual people."

    In other words, leadership. Like I've been sayin'.

  • Doug on April 30, 2013 7:15 PM:

    I got the impression President Obama was quietly telling everyone that there's gridlock in DC because of what the GOP base demands of those they elect.
    If so, he's absolutely right: the GOP base *is* the problem and Republican candidates are merely representing their constituents. After all, *if* the GOP base *wasn't* the problem, then where are the elected "sane" Republicans?

  • rrk1 on April 30, 2013 8:23 PM:

    Obama is way too cautious and timorous. What little he learned in his first term is still far from enough to make him effective. He continues to act as an adult, treats the Rethugs as adults while they continue to behave like truculent adolescents.

    His predecessor, for whom I have absolutely no love, treated his opposition as if it didn't exist, and did exactly what he wanted and defied anyone to stop him. I suppose if you're a privileged, not too bright, superannuated frat boy, you think that's the way to get something done, no matter how horrible whatever it is you got done.

    You have to respect, not admire, Bush's brutal approach. But Obama is far too cerebral, being a constitutional law professor and all, to go that way, although he has no problem subverting the Constitution on civil liberties.

    Between Obama and Reid we have the Mutt and Jeff of politics. And not much 0is going to happen.

  • JD on April 30, 2013 10:06 PM:

    Folks, Obama's statements of hope have one and only one reason:

    The President of the United States is not allowed to publicly express despair. It's just not allowed.

    Hope that helps you all.