Political Animal


July 20, 2011 11:10 AM Quote of the Day

By Steve Benen

The political world probably made a little too much of President Obama’s comments yesterday about the Gang of Six framework. Most of the coverage said he endorsed the bipartisan agreement, but a closer look shows that’s not quite what happened. This was more an example of him using the blueprint to pressure intransigent House Republicans, not backing the details of a plan he hasn’t seen.

Reality notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom was apparently set very quickly — Obama is on board with the Gang of Six plan. Mike Allen talked to a Republican on the Hill yesterday who responded with an important perspective.

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.” [emphasis added]

Again, just to clarify, Obama didn’t really embrace the plan and didn’t say it mirrors his own plan.

But the larger point is worth remembering for the next year and a half: if there’s even a perception that Obama likes an idea, Republicans will reject that idea. Merit doesn’t matter; ideology doesn’t matter; even the source of the idea doesn’t matter. If the president wants something — if it even looks like he wants something — congressional Republicans will reflexively oppose it. This has already happened many, many times, even in instances in which the president has thrown his support behind Republican proposals.

Following up on an item from the weekend, I’d again draw your attention to a smart piece from Matt Yglesias:

[H]ere we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down.

After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side.

In theory, if Republicans were eager to get something important done, this knee-jerk response wouldn’t matter. In 1996, for example, Gingrich & Co. really wanted to get welfare reform done, even if it became “a win for President Clinton.” The goal was policy oriented, but had a political component, too — congressional Republicans wanted to run for re-election pointing to a meaningful accomplishment.

Those motivations have since disappeared, and congressional Republicans now perceive governing as something to avoid, especially if it makes the White House look productive.

If any important legislative initiatives are going to pass during over the next 18 months, the president would be wise to express skepticism on any proposal he actually likes.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Jordan on July 20, 2011 11:13 AM:

    "Don't throw me in that fiscal stimulus briar patch"?

    I guess that could work. :)

  • howard on July 20, 2011 11:13 AM:

    as i am hardly the first to point out, the gop has discovered the essential flaw in the structural makeup of the constitution and are seizing upon it.

    and since obama would rather cut deals with right-wingers than anything in the world (he has clearly taken triangulation way beyond anything clinton ever had in mind) and can't stand progressives, he doesn't denounce this discovery but rather accepts it as a normal way of doing business.

    which will make it a normal way of doing business, which will make america just like california, which means the whole country is going to lurch from crisis to crisis, unable to break out of the bind it's in.

    which would all be bad enough if it were 1997 and the economy was booming, but is obscene in 2011 when u6 is at 16%.

  • Cathie from Canada on July 20, 2011 11:17 AM:

    Doesn't everyone realize how ridiculous this is, to suggest that your President must play 11-dimensional chess in order to jolly along a bunch of know-nothings and ideological idiots formerly known as the Republican Party? I guess the terrorists really have won...

  • ex-curm on July 20, 2011 11:18 AM:

    If Obama endorsed an all spending cut plan, the Republicans would not reject it, they would just make it bigger. So this notion that they will reject anything he supports is a little too simplistic for me.

  • dr. bloor on July 20, 2011 11:22 AM:

    If the president wants something — if it even looks like he wants something — congressional Republicans will reflexively oppose it. This has already happened many, many times, even in instances in which the president has thrown his support behind Republican proposals.

    Obama won't take this on directly, and I don't know if Biden will be on the ticket in '12, but if he is I'll enjoy listening to The Bidenator rip the Republicans a new one during his acceptance speech.

  • c u n d gulag on July 20, 2011 11:28 AM:

    I think if you pass by Groucho Marx's grave right now, you'll hear his ghost singing "Whatever it is, I'm against it!"

    Hell, if you pass by Karl Marx's grave you might hear it, too. But sung with Engels aas a duo in dialectic form.

  • DAY on July 20, 2011 11:35 AM:

    At breakfast this morning Obama said he likes cornflakes.

    ArcherDanielsMidland immediately filed for bankruptcy. . .

  • Danp on July 20, 2011 11:39 AM:

    Next thing, they will accuse him of politically pushing them off the cliff by getting too close ideologically. It would be nice to think that is a possiblility.

  • zeitgeist on July 20, 2011 11:40 AM:

    is there no way to get the general public to see just how freakin' childish this is? really?

    "Oooh, Obama touched my toy! run away! bury it in the sandbox! Anyone else who touches it might get commie nigger cooties! aaaiiiigggghhhh!"

    It really does not seem possible that such a large group of petulent emotionally-stunted juveniles is part of the elected leadership of the most powerful nation on earth.

  • Han's Solo on July 20, 2011 11:43 AM:

    Even Andrew Sullivan, who criticized Obama for not pushing Simpson-Bowles is starting to come along.

    "It shows just how unconservative the current GOP is that it would rather risk the entire global economy than adopt the austerity measures of its British cousins. But today’s GOP is as hostile to the core institutions of government as it is to accountability and compromise. I hope they experience electoral near-death as a result. I see no way for the US to become a serious nation again until this deeply unserious party destroys itself."

  • Anonymous on July 20, 2011 11:47 AM:

    But the larger point is worth remembering for the next year and a half: if there’s even a perception that Obama likes an idea, Republicans will reject that idea

    Gosh! Ya think?

    Either President Obama is pathologically clueless and still hasn't figured this out or he's cynically trying to sabotage a deal in order to score political points. Frankly, neither option is too comforting.

  • Marko on July 20, 2011 11:56 AM:

    This is Obama's rope-a-dope strategy: Go big, butcher all social service plans, throw in some tax increases, tell the American public he likes it, then watch it fail when the Republicans run away. At the end of the day, there will be no plan and he will "reluctantly" invoke the 14th Amendment. The Republicans will get nothing but egg on their face.

  • Gridlock on July 20, 2011 11:56 AM:

    I think Obama knows that Republican'ts can't back anything he endorses. At this point, Obama is relying on the fact (hope?) that Americans are smart enough to see through the childish antics of those "Gooped on GoP".

    I've even overheard people in my area (GOPperville) talking to others saying that the Obama position (spending cuts + taxes)is reasonable and the Republican'ts should jump at it.

    With the media finally(!) starting to come around and realize the truth about the Republican'ts, maybe the narrative can penetrate Joe Sixpack's cranial mass.

  • MBunge on July 20, 2011 11:57 AM:

    "since obama would rather cut deals with right-wingers than anything in the world (he has clearly taken triangulation way beyond anything clinton ever had in mind)"


    The most progressive health care reform in two generations vs. welfare reform.

    Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" vs. creating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

    I could go on, but why bother? If you're so far gone with Obama-hate that you're cuddling up to Bill "The era of big government is over" Clinton, nothing anyone can say will make a difference.


  • Archon on July 20, 2011 12:10 PM:

    So do any "Obama is a sellout critics" think the President gave a press conference embracing the Gang of Six plan NOT KNOWING that his approval of it would kill the deal with Republicans.

    Or are we still pretending Obama and his strategists somehow don't know the Republicans aren't operating in good faith?

  • JS on July 20, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Republican staff members actually e-mail reporters with strategy memos that say things like "The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it."?



    And still the Politico-ized media won't call the GOP out for being un-serious. It's all a ball game to them.


  • Sharon Hale-Jenkins on July 20, 2011 12:21 PM:

    "the president would be wise to express skepticism on a proposal he actually likes."

    What,he hasn't got this yet? I find the president to be very honest and sincere, but enough, already.

  • howard on July 20, 2011 12:33 PM:

    mbunge, i am not "gone" with obama-hate, and i congratulate obama all the frickin' time on the affordable care act, which, after all, truman, jfk, lbj, and clinton all couldn't do.

    nonetheless, bill clinton: cared about jobs, cared about core democratic values (like not increasing the age of eligibility for medicare), and was willing to draw lines in the sand.

    obama doesn't like progressives, doesn't show any inclination to care about jobs, is willing to violate core democratic values, and doesn't believe in lines in the sand.

    he is a centrist who is comfortable cutting deals with the gop, confident that there are plenty of moderate dems who will follow, which is all well and good, but has nothing whatsoever to do with proessivism, right policy, or clinton's version of traingulation.

    do you seriously want to argue otherwise?

  • rrk1 on July 20, 2011 12:35 PM:

    It becomes ever clearer that the Congress, as currently constituted and with its current rules, is no longer a viable way of governing the country. The Crazy Caucus who, whether they know it or not, believe anarchy and nihilism is better than governance, and who hate the current president so much that anything he proposes, endorses, thinks about, dreams about, becomes instantly red hot has made us ungovernable.

    George W. Bush ignored his opposition and did anything he wanted, whether it was legal or not. Much of it wasn't legal. He got away with it. There's no question that Obama has a brain, he clearly does, unlike Bush. But does he have a spine? That's the question. If he does, then the obvious strategy is to string the Rethugs along until their obstinate stupidity becomes an obvious threat to the stability of the economy and the country. Then he invokes the 14th Amendment for the good of the country in a rousing speech on prime time TV. The Rethugs then get nothing. Of course thir response will be an impeachment circus, which will become a major distraction as we go into the election cycle. But it will make the know-nothings look even stupider. Obama is not a man of courage. He's too cautious by half. He has another moment to define himself. The odds are that he won't.

    Until the Crazy Caucus is either wiped out or reduced to near nothing, we will be stuck in an acid-filled rut that corrodes our very foundations. Obama is far from perfect, and far from a liberal, but the alternatives are so much worse it is impossible to contemplate.

    How sad is that.

  • IndigoJoe on July 20, 2011 12:35 PM:

    MBunge and Archon: I'll bite. While Obama may not be a sell-out, I consider him to be a blight on progressive values and the Democratic brand.

    Obama will be criticized no matter what he does, and opposed no matter what he proposes. He is very intelligent and knows this. So why use Republican talking points, why start negotiations in the middle, why always move way to the right? Obama has no real compass to steer him - it's a political game for re-election. I'm missing the liberal values, the "I welcome their hatred". I didn't vote for Obama to get Bush III.

  • Glidwrith on July 20, 2011 12:41 PM:

    After looking over the Gang of Six framework, I see a ton of tax CUTS, rather that spending cuts (other than dumb-ass draconian spending caps until 2015) and damned little else other than vague "we'll close loopholes" for revenue. What the hell are tax cuts doing in a framework that's supposed to work on the deficit?

  • Kathryn on July 20, 2011 12:45 PM:

    Without a doubt the president "got it" a long time ago. He knows the gang of six plan is going nowhere in the debt ceiling talks, he looks good to independents by being reasonable (which he is) and later in budget talks (can't wait)this could be resurrected. There's no time to pass a version of the gang of six plan even if you had sane people in the House of Representatives.

    Harvard Law professor on Rachel last night stated that Pres. Obama can only use 14th Amendment in the case of either actual default or significant upheaval in financial situation (huge drop in market, systemic panic, etc.) According to Harvard professor of law, he could the invoke the 14th Amendment to save the Republic. Of course, he said that could be too late to hold off real problems but that's how one law professor interprets it.

  • MDC on July 20, 2011 12:49 PM:

    Those who think Obama isn't well aware of this dynamic, and isn't factoring it into his public statements and the "leaks" that come out of the White House, are the ones who are naive -- not Obama himself.

  • Jon on July 20, 2011 12:52 PM:

    Alternately, Steve, Obama and the Democrats could bring up a relentless string of hugely popular measures that the GOP would all vote down. No need to worry about practical implications because the GOP will vote them down anyway, but what a show. Jobs Bills come to mind as one example. Highway bills for congested urban areas. Etc. Big, big bills that would get a lot of attention. In other words, since we can't do anything useful with the current GOP, let's concentrate on optics and let the GOP publicly hang themselves.

  • Archon on July 20, 2011 12:56 PM:


    The reason he uses Republican talking points is because whether we like it or not he's the leader of country that has a lot of Republicans in it. Obama's strategy has always been to frame left of center incremental policies in right of center rhetoric to maximize consensus. I readily acknowledge that his strategy has had mixed results but many liberals argue against any real empirical evidence that if Obama was a progressive firebreather he would have accomplished more progressive policy goals.

    Now if your not arguing political tactics but really implying that Obama doesn't have liberal instincts and he's really just a third Bush Presidency then don't bother responding. We can just agree to disagree

  • MBunge on July 20, 2011 1:24 PM:

    "nonetheless, bill clinton: cared about jobs, cared about core democratic values (like not increasing the age of eligibility for medicare), and was willing to draw lines in the sand."

    Bill Clinton spent most of his time in office pissing all over liberals and progressive politics and policies. He was slso the single greatest force in making the Democratic Party more friendly to corporate America and did just about everything he could to legitimize the Republican view of government. And in case you missed it, Clinton was caught on camera agreeing with Paul Ryan that "something" needs to be done with Medicare. But he got a blow job from and intern, so I guess all that is forgiven.


  • gus on July 20, 2011 1:44 PM:

    Wasn't 1996 another year of the small bore laundry list of quasi-conservative proposals that Clinton tossed outlined in his SOTU address for his re-election campaign?

    School uniforms, come to mind.

    I don't think Gingrich and the Gang back then looked at policies they endorsed and Clinton embraced by re-framing the Narrative (Mend it But Don't End It.) as being ones which Clinton would get credit for. The GOP Congress expected to get the bulk of the praises for reform. Clinton just saddled up and stole their ponies.

    As for Obama...he walks a fine line. The way he walks it isn't pretty. But, the GOP's inability to deal with it is fascinating. It is like every negative stereotype you can imaging about conservatives is on display at the same freaking time.

    It is a Thousand Dorks 'ALight!

  • howard on July 20, 2011 1:50 PM:

    mike, i have no idea what the hell is possessing you here (considering that clinton led the administration that set policies that produced the best results for median households in decades, the fact that he was also a centrist and not an economic populist is neither here nor there in my estimation), but it's totally non-germane to the point.

    the point is that in the objective conditions facing obama, he is making it perfectly clear that he wants to cut a deal with right-wingers, not draw a bright line to denounce their threat to the fundamental functioning of government.

    that was most assuredly not the point of clintonian triangulation, and blather about his corporate friendliness doesn't change that.

    p.s. hey, i think something should be done about medicare, too: anyone who doesn't one way or another is blind. but what most assuredly should not be done is to raise the eligibility age by 2 years. let me know when clinton endorses that one, will ya?

  • IndigoJoe on July 20, 2011 2:21 PM:

    Yes, Archon, we do disagree, but not exactly along the lines you are posing.

    My problem with Obama is that most of the rhetoric is good - he may even believe it - but that the actions and results tell a different story.

    First, though, I believe elections have consequences. Bush proved that and the Republicans of 2010 are proving it in spades. This may shock you, but I don't want Obama to find a middle ground (other than as the lesser of two evils when something absolutely needs to be passed); I want Obama to lead the country in a strongly progressive direction. It may just be optics when it won't pass muster in our dysfunctional Congress, but I agree with Jon that it would make for great optics.

    Instead we have an administration that won't try to shut down Guantanamo and prosecute terrorists in US courts, that won't wind down the costly wars more quickly, that sold out on drug prices and especially on the public option, that believes that deficits are important when the unemployment rate is 9%, that let the Bush tax cuts stand for another losing fight, that won't prosecute Wall Street, that won't educate the public on the value of government, etc., etc., etc.

    Do I appreciate that some things have passed that would not have passed under Bush III? Yes. Am I happy about all the rest? No. Do I think that Obama could actually have gotten more accomplishments? Probably not. My problem is that he hasn't tried. He cedes the high ground without even trying. He doesn't bend the force of public opinion; he let's the Republicans do that. He's weak and ineffectual. If folks want to keep their rope-a-dope and 11-dimensional chess theories, they are certainly entitled. If folks think it's good turning the Democratic party into Republican light, they are entitled as well. For me, I'll take my liberal views and stick with them.

  • Paul Siegel on July 20, 2011 3:54 PM:

    It does not matter what Obama says. Republicans are against Obama getting any kind of credit. If he manages to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything, this counts as a victory for Obama and Republicans vote against it.