Political Animal


September 13, 2011 10:35 AM ‘It’s not an a la carte menu’

By Steve Benen

After a few too many instances in which the White House used poor negotiating strategies, President Obama and his team appear to be fighting for the American Jobs Act with a very different — and far more aggressive — approach.

This was evident in the president’s speech, during which he said, over and over again, “pass this bill,” not “I look forward to talking to Speaker Boehner.” It was equally evident a day later when MSNBC’s Chuck Todd asked White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, “Are you guys assuming that it gets sort of piecemealed, that at the end of the day you’re going to get some of what you want but not all of what you want?” Instead of saying, “We’re willing to work on a compromise plan,” Pfeiffer replied, “Well, no, we’re not assuming that…. [E]verything in this bill is reasonable. Everything in the bill has bipartisan support. Everything will have an effect right now. And so we want them to pass it.”

This morning, Greg Sargent flagged this interesting exchange from “Good Morning America” between ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Obama senior adviser David Axelrod.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is it all or nothing?

AXELROD: The President has a package. The package works together. We need to do many things to get this economy moving and people back to work, not just one thing. Tokenism isn’t enough. We want them to pass the plan. The American people want them to pass the plan. We don’t want to play games. We don’t want to engage in brinkmanship. We want to put people back to work. This package will do that. They ought to act now.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it’s all or nothing?

AXELROD: We want them to act now on this package. We’re not in a negotiation to break up the package. It’s not an a la carte menu. It is a strategy to get this country moving.

Even the question presupposes that White House officials are supposed to preemptively compromise, effectively negotiating with themselves before Republicans have offered anything in the way of a substantive response.

To their credit, Axelrod, like Pfeiffer last week, isn’t playing the game. It took too long, but this team has clearly learned — there’s nothing to be gained from taking weak negotiating stances from the outset.

Of course, this has left House Republican leaders in the unusual role of talking up the benefits of compromise. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), of all people, said the other day, “I do not think that the president’s all-or-nothing approach is something that is constructive.”

Given that Cantor has traditionally defined “compromise” as “give me everything I want,” the irony is rich.

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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  • Lifelong Dem on September 13, 2011 10:49 AM:

    This is one time when they need to use a George W. Bush phrase: "You're trying to get me to negotiate with myself, and I ain't gonna do that."

    Or just go balls out and say, "Yes, it's my way or the highway. And in case you haven't noticed, the highway is crumbling."

  • c u n d gulag on September 13, 2011 10:52 AM:

    Republican idea of ala carte:

    They get the steak and potato's, and you get the broccoli and the bill.

  • QuestionEverything on September 13, 2011 10:55 AM:

    Sorry CAN'Tor, you had your chance to work with Obama to solve problems.

    Now you've painted yourself into a corner or sorts. But REALLY, Republicans are rarely, if never held accountable so why is Cantor even talking this way?

    How is this possible, that the GOP is acting this way, as if Obama has the upper hand? He's had it all along but GOP tactics neutralize this somehow with the complicit MSM enabling failure along the way.

    This isn't making sense, right now.

  • Alli on September 13, 2011 10:56 AM:

    But here's the thing Steve, this time the WH has written a bill instead of just dragged into negotiations at the last minute because Congressional Dems were too chicken to take responsibility for the final outcome. PLUS, there really isn't a looming deadline for this bill. They can afford to dither on this a little bit even though there is an economic crisis.

    This is all to say that if Obama can make a deal he will. If he can get 75-85% of what he wants, he'll take it. I personally don't have a problem with that but don't gin this up to mean that the WH is taking an all or nothing stance.

  • T2 on September 13, 2011 10:59 AM:

    we already know the GOP/TP idea of 'compromise' - it's 98% of what they want.
    They'll give the rest of us 2%.

  • jeri on September 13, 2011 10:59 AM:

    So far so good. But it's still early. I've been disappointed so many times that I think I'll wait a little longer before I get too pleased with team Obama's negotiating strategy.

  • Josef K on September 13, 2011 11:16 AM:

    “I do not think that the president’s all-or-nothing approach is something that is constructive.”

    Sayeth Eric Cantor, who has yet to display even a glimmer of self-awareness.

    The worst part is he represents the critical bottleneck through which legislation has to pass if we're going to see actual progress. And all he has to do is not schedule the package for a vote.

    I'm beyond hope at this stage that Cantor and the rest of his caucus can or will behave in anything ressembling a responsible manner. More's the pity.

  • June on September 13, 2011 11:19 AM:

    I still wonder if Obama truly believed Congressional Republicans aren't rat bastards and would really work for the best interests of the country, or if this has been one long, intricate rope-a-dope strategy played by the WH.

  • calling all toasters on September 13, 2011 11:48 AM:

    Hallelujah! Finally the White House has caught on to what everyone else learned around the age of ten.

  • tfbush on September 13, 2011 11:50 AM:

    One important distinction between this issue and prior negotatiations is the comparative harm to each side of failing to make a deal. On health care reform, financial reform, government shutdown and the debt ceililng, the President would suffer much greater harm from a loss than the Republicans would, and both sides recognized that fact. That situation made it easier for the Republicans to maintain a unified opposition and essentially compelled the President to compromise. This time, the Republicans appear to risk the greater harm from a failed deal, so the negotiations should proceed differently.

  • Homer on September 13, 2011 11:55 AM:

    But he noticeably would not say that it was, in fact, all or nothing. That would probably not be the politically expedient thing to say in any event.

    I'm not saying that it should be all or nothing, but I agree that I'll probably wait a little bit longer to see if Obama caves on this, like he has before. Bidding against yourself seems to be their modus operandi but it's almost always a bad idea.

  • square1 on September 13, 2011 12:02 PM:

    Well, if the WH means what they say it is good politics, pass or no pass.

    I'm not sure who the WH thinks still gives a damn about bipartisanship, but if their line is that the pre-emptively watered the bill down to make it bipartisan then they need to hold the line firmly.

  • jjm on September 13, 2011 12:06 PM:

    I agree with @tfbush: those bills were crucial for the future, which is what Obama has his eye on.

    This one is just the purest pleasure to watch unfold, as it inexorably shows the GOP being both to lazy to care and ideologically unwilling to lift a finger to help the people, the schools, the economy in general.

    We have hypocrite Cantor yelling that we can't afford it, honey! When he easily voted for $120 BILLION to reconstruct Iraq. We have Darrell Issa saying that teachers shouldn't be on state payrolls.

    Keep the choice words coming, GOP.

    Turn them all out of their seats-- or rather out of what they consider their thrones.

  • sjw on September 13, 2011 12:14 PM:

    For those of you waiting for Team Obama to fold, apparently it's already happened: the WH's economics guy Sperling just said they'd be ok with just a part.

    No, I'm not making this up: see the story just posted on TPM.

  • MBunge on September 13, 2011 1:10 PM:

    "After a few too many instances in which the White House used poor negotiating strategies"

    Just a reminder.

    Barack Obama got health care reform passed. Political genius Bill Clinton couldn't even get a Democratic Congress to vote on health care reform.


  • rrk1 on September 13, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Obama is in strange territory if he's now intending to fight for a specific outcome. So far he's been willing to settle for any outcome whether it's good or bad, which makes him look feckless and weak, not like the bipartisan hero he aspires to be.

    It's too soon to tell how far Obama will take take this new strategy which for him is alien and no doubt difficult. The man has so turned me off that I have lost the ability to give him the benefit of any doubt. He has to show me, and a lot of people like me, this time.

    The Rethugs have gone far on their obstructionist game plan, and made it look like some perverse form of normal. How they will respond to a bolder president who also backs up his eloquent rhetoric with aggressive tactics will be interesting to watch. Also, how will the truly feckless MSM respond to this change? And I don't mean Fox.

    My tiny bit of remaining idealism and hope wants me to think we've turned a corner, but reality suggests a lot of caution.

  • pdx-or on September 13, 2011 1:19 PM:

    Oh, surprise, that lasted long... This just in:

    "WASHINGTON -- The Obama White House is moving away from its initial unwillingness to negotiate on the president's job creation plan, saying now that if individual components of the bill came to the president's desk -- as opposed to the bill in its entirety -- he would sign them into law.

    The new approach opens up the administration to charges that it no longer views the American Jobs Act as a take-it-or-leave-it bill."

    Apparently, they couldn't stomach a stronger, more sensible approach to this political gamesmanship that they always fail at.

  • POed Lib on September 13, 2011 1:26 PM:

    Obama needs to up the pressure. He needs to do a speech from the Rose Garden, where he pulls out the Famous Veto Pen, and discusses that the bill needs to be what he sent up, or he will use the veto pen. It's better that no bill be passed than some lame half-ass piece of crap that Eric Cantor approves of be passed.

    And the WH can use my language if they want.

  • POed Lib on September 13, 2011 1:28 PM:

    @pds-or: Is that snark? If it's true, I'm feeling very ill.

  • pdx-or on September 13, 2011 1:50 PM:

    @POed Lib: Unfortunately no, not snark. Grab your tums.


  • Trollop on September 13, 2011 5:41 PM:

    "It�s not an a la carte menu"

    Desde cuando chica?

  • chi res on September 13, 2011 5:47 PM:

    After a few too many instances in which the White House used poor negotiating strategies

    I was expecting to see a few blue words in that sentence, Steve, a link to an article you wrote in which you gave details and examples of the White House's use of "poor negotiating strategies".

    Did I miss something? Or have you just decided to accept the so-called "progressive" CW about Obama?

  • Trollop on September 13, 2011 5:48 PM:

    Barack Obama is an a la carte leader.. It doesn't come with potatoes..

  • Doug on September 13, 2011 8:49 PM:

    re: pdx-or @ 1:19 PM

    I read the Huffington Post article. Trouble is, the headline doesn't match the article. I see no evidence of the "White House" saying it would accept piecemeal passage of the AJA. There were several references to, and quotes from, Axelrod and others about the need to pass the AJA as one bill. I also saw a Mr. Gene Sperling, identified as "a top White House economics advisor", being widely quoted. The most interesting statement was from Mr. Sperling when he is quoted as saying:
    "And I think, again, the President spoke yesterday and said if he was presented with parts of his plan his instinct would be not to reject things he favored but to come back and keep fight and fighting to get the entire program."
    I'm presuming THAT is what is causing all this eagerly longed-for schadenfreude? Where was all the outrage YESTERDAY? Oh, you mean President Obama DIDN'T say on Monday what Mr. Sperling said he did? Or just maybe, considering all the OTHER mistakes in the transcript, Mr. Sperling wasn't quoted accurately? Either way, if you have to try THIS hard to find evidence of President Obama "failing" you, I'd say you're getting desperate.
    Then again, an ego is such a fragile thing...

  • DenverRight on September 14, 2011 12:19 PM:

    White House mouthpiece: "[E]verything in this bill is reasonable. Everything in the bill has bipartisan support. Everything will have an effect right now. And so we want them to pass it."

    That is a brilliant negotiating strategy. Take a hard-line position, then sit down to negotiate. But negotiations USUALLY involve compromise.

    Negotiations don't mean "my way or the highway," or "If they won't pass my bill, I'll take it to the voters."

    The apparent problem, for many here at the Washington Monthly, is that Congress is a COEQUAL branch of government. The executive branch cannot simply run over them and dictate orders to the legislature.

    In December, the President did not want to lose the tax cuts for the middle class. And the Republicans did not want to lose the tax cuts for anyone. Guess what, Republicans got what they wanted, but had to accept another spending bill that added $900 billion to the debt and included extension of unemployment benefits. It was called compromise.

    Who doesn't expect SOME negotiating on the American Jobs Act? Really?