Political Animal


September 19, 2011 1:30 PM The politics of debt reduction

By Steve Benen

It seems more than fair to criticize the Obama White House for taking too long to understand the nature of congressional Republican tactics. The president has operated under a set of assumptions — GOP leaders are reasonable people, willing to compromise in good faith, acting with the nation’s best interests at heart — that have always seemed rather fanciful.

With the introduction of the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction plan, President Obama and his team appear to have thrown out the old playbook.

“I think this is less ‘Let’s be the grownups in the room and start at the 50 yard line,’ and more ‘Let’s start on our side of the field,’” said Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s about time. The White House suffered some major setbacks, but officials have apparently decided to send congressional Republicans a new message: no more Mr. Nice President.

Trying to shape policies in advance to make the GOP happy is out; presenting credible and progressive plans is in. Preemptive compromises are out; veto threats are in. Asking Congress to consider doing the right thing is out; taking a “pass this bill” message to the public is in.

It’s possible that for many of the president’s critics on the left, it’s too late. But for those who’ve been urging Obama to adopt progressive principles and show a willingness to fight, let’s not miss what is plainly true: the president has taken their advice.

Indeed, if we look at the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction as bookends of one large, integrated economic package there were a number of things the left said the White House simply couldn’t do: a regulatory moratorium, cutting Social Security, and raise Medicare eligibility. The old playbook tells us Obama would put all of these on the table as part of an outreach effort to garner Republican support. The new playbook is predicated on more realistic expectations: Republicans are going to say no to everything anyway.

What are the major concessions Obama has included in his economic plan? There aren’t any; that’s the point. All of the things progressives pleaded with the president to take off the table have, in fact, been taken off the table.

So, what happens now? If congressional Republicans decide they’re ready to work with the White House, great. If they decide otherwise, President Obama will blame them for Washington’s failures and run against them.

For quite a while, Republicans have set the parameters of the debate. They’re perfectly willing to consider negotiations with Democrats on economic and budget policy, just so long as Dems realize any policies to be considered must not raise taxes, increase the deficit, expand the scope of government, or spend any money. Once that’s established, then the two sides can talk.

The White House has finally noticed the value in changing the nature of the conversation. It took a while, but President Obama seems to have decided to break out of the box Republicans have spent years trying to weld shut. Between the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction plan, the White House appears more invested in presenting what should pass, and less concerned about what might pass.

It’s the difference between following and leading.

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.


Post a comment
  • Hank Roberts on September 19, 2011 1:39 PM:

    A curious question -- we know 400 families own/control more than half of the wealth.

    Has anyone profiled them? How many are US citizens?

    Why not just poll them about whether they'd agree to pay more taxes to be secure in their position in the US?

    Or are their names kept secret?

  • bleh on September 19, 2011 1:42 PM:

    the White House appears more invested in presenting what should pass, and less concerned about what might pass.

    Yes, and more invested in what might look good politically and less concerned about what they think should look good politically.

  • c u n d gulag on September 19, 2011 1:43 PM:

    Hey, who's this new guy in the White House?

    Looks a lot like the guy I campaigned and voted for in 2008.

  • Will on September 19, 2011 1:47 PM:

    I guess I'm someone on "the left" who thinks it's too little too late. I've been looking for work for 3 years and gave up and decided to raise my kids instead (which although it's work it is still unpaid and under-appreciated, especially if you're a guy). Provided he and they keep up this new fight until next November, I'll vote for Obama and the Dems, but not for me, for my kids. I will always wonder what might have been had he and the Dems not been so blind/naive to the nature of conservative opposition and the state of the economy in February 2009. There will always be taste of bitterness in my mouth after such a huge (to me) personal let down. That said, I won't leave my kids future in the hands of the teabaggers either. So hopefully Obama's new found faith is real and he keeps it up for another 12 months. Here's to hoping!

  • wvng on September 19, 2011 1:48 PM:

    Now we sit back and wait for the conservaDems to ruin the narrative. They will, you know. I'll bet on Nelson, Webb, Landrieu. Who else?

  • Brenna on September 19, 2011 1:48 PM:

    If Obama stays on this course, with this kind of messaging, I think he'll be reelected. What he said in his speech today made so much sense. Sure, if you hate him, it didn't, but for most reasonable folks out there, it's a winning message because it's the truth.

  • Steve LaBonne on September 19, 2011 1:49 PM:

    Hey, who's this new guy in the White House?

    Looks a lot like the guy I campaigned and voted for in 2008.

    Enjoy campaign Obama while he lasts. One way or he'll be gone again after 2012.

  • wvng on September 19, 2011 1:49 PM:

  • Josef K on September 19, 2011 1:54 PM:

    I have to ask: is this a case of "better late than never", or "too little, too late"?

    Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the President has finally decided to come out fighting, especially on this issue. But got to be some serious lifting done if anything positive is going to come of of this, and his Administration's conduct hasn't been at all encouraging.

  • slappy magoo on September 19, 2011 2:01 PM:

    This is only good news if it's a start. Unfortunately, what I think needs to happen is a thing that Obama is incapable of doing, for fear of "how it will play in the media." It's the thing he's not done since getting elected.

    He needs to be a Democrat. He needs to EMBRACE Democrats. He needs to become a hyperpartisan Democrat.

    Let's face it, most of his new ideas will get watered down as to be meaningless, OR they will be filibustered in the Senate out of hand. There won't even be a debate. Obama needs to make overt gestures to the Democratic Party, most notable incumbents in 2012 and those running against Republican incumbents in 2012. Obama needs to extract promises from THOSE Democrats - especially in the Senate - that they will fight for and vote for this agenda he's now pushing forward. It needs to be done in broad daylight so American voters know this is going on - no back-room secret-handshake meetings. Politicians need to be held on-the-record that they will endorse the President's strategies, strategies based on a few years of polling that proves these are issues that resonate with the American public.

    Were Obama to do this, there would be no way he would lose in 2012, no way WE would lose in 2012. The Republican strategy, as always, would be to veer even farther to the right, and try to obscure Obama's message, but if all the Dems are on board, that won't be so easy to do. After all, the message is "we're going to tax the rich to protect the poor and the old and make America better," WHICH IS WHAT MOST OF AMERICA WANTS. The only thing the Republicans can try to do is convince people that they DON'T want that.

    What the GOP has done thus far is convince people that since Obama is incapable of change, they should embrace a party that refuses to change. At some point, that false front can not sustain as a party agenda. Against "protect America by taxing the rich" they'd be doomed, forced to go into the scummiest arenas of politics, find women (or men) claiming to be Obama's secret lover or love-child, make up meetings with Muslim extremists where Obama hugged and broke bread.

    "Tax the rich" is a winner. The Dems need to be on-record as saying they're for it, so they can be punished if they renege. But it'll work, if Obama and the Dems are smart enough to embrace it.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on September 19, 2011 2:04 PM:

    The problem is not with Obama , but everyone staying on message and fighting the Luntz-O-Gram "Class Warfare" and "Job Creators" When ever pressed about Class Warfare Dems just agree Class warfare AGAINST the Middle Class . And let rephrase it Wealth Accumulating Job Destroyers.

  • sapient on September 19, 2011 2:06 PM:

    Thank you wvng for the reality check. I've bookmarked that page and will be sending it frequently!

  • jb on September 19, 2011 2:08 PM:

    Democrats in Congress need to get tough too. Democrats who oppose the WH plans or Democratic leadership should pay a price within the institution -- committee leadership roles, etc. Republicans understand how to maintain a unified front. Time to play hardball.

  • Live Free or Die on September 19, 2011 2:09 PM:

    I like the New Obama and will give him the benefit of the doubt for now. He just needs to keep on going to those bridges and saying that it needs to be rebuilt. He will have to sit the blue dogs down and tell them not to fuck with his messaging.

  • retr2327 on September 19, 2011 2:12 PM:

    “I think this is less ‘Let’s be the grownups in the room and start at the 50 yard line,’ and more ‘Let’s start on our side of the field,’”

    I'm not exactly an expert on football, but it's my understanding (IIRC) that "our" side of the field is the end where the opponents score. In other words, you'd rather start on the 50-yard line.

    What is it with Democrats and messaging?

  • edo on September 19, 2011 2:15 PM:

    Take heart, all ye fickle progressives. It's possible that big O is a little sharper than a whole lot of you and your tea bagging codependents imagine. Your willingness to sell him short at the first bloody nose is something you might ponder. The Repug leaders are certainly afraid of him and made it clear with their single minded determination to deny him a second term. Because I have a sports analogy fetish, I'll use one: If you take your eyes off a crafty boxer during a fight, he will knock you right on your ass. For better or worse, the coming months will be interesting.

  • bubba on September 19, 2011 2:17 PM:

    I will believe BHO will fight when he maintains the fight. We shall see.

    That said, these are very positive steps and measures. I only wish BHO would change the focus just a little bit. Focus instead on how most government spending on infrastructure, police and fire coverage, the military, corporate welfare, etc., etc., etc., disproportionately benefits the wealthy, and not the poor and lower economic classes. Those roads are primarily to allow commerce to occur, which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Police and fire are primarily in place to protect those who own property, more importantly their property, which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. All US foregin activities (nonmilitary as well as military) are there to ensure many things, most of which is access to markets, consumers, and necessary raw materials and product, oil being a big one, which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. So it is simply not wrong and is abolutely right to ask those who benefit the most from these expenditures, the wealthy, to pay a bit more. Enough of this "shared sacrifice talk already.

  • MBunge on September 19, 2011 2:18 PM:

    "the White House appears more invested in presenting what should pass, and less concerned about what might pass.

    It�s the difference between following and leading."

    Oh for pity's sake. If the President had taken the lead of people like Steve Benen we possibly wouldn't have gotten any federal stimulus, likely wouldn't have passed any significant health care reform and almost certainly would have defaulted on the U.S. debt.

    It's amazingly easy to make any President look bad if you assume that everything he accomplishes is the absolute minimum that any President could do and that doing things differently couldn't possibly produce worse results.


  • Tom on September 19, 2011 2:22 PM:

    Obama is systematically destroying the illusions of any short cut to social progress in the USA.
    First, he destroyed the illusion that by electing a cool, hip, smart guy as President, social progress would happen automatically. That illusion is gone.
    First, he destroyed the illusion that social progress could come if reasonable people sat down together in DC and developed good bi-partisan policies. That was an illusion and Obama did not TELL us that it wouldn't work. He SHOWED us. That illusion is gone.
    Now, he is destroying the illusion that some tough speeches and aggressive and progressive framing and the bully pulpit of the Presidency will bring about social progress. We love that illusion and we will see now that it will not work. (The GOP will not let the Jobs Act or the Deficit Plan pass. Hopefully, they will pay a price for that, but I don't think that they will scared or forced into voting for anything they would have opposed last year.)
    Once all these illusions are gone, what is left? Only the truth that relentless, day-to-day mass mobilization, phonecalls, community organizing, street demonstrations and door-knocking and disciplined voting will bring about social progress. Every month has to be like October 2008 for social progress come about. It's taking a while for us to learn this, but we are.

  • Kathryn on September 19, 2011 2:26 PM:

    @ jb ...Your are correct, it's time to lower the boom on Mary Landrieu, Joe Manchin (to think, I sent him money),Ben Nelson and the other DINOs. Phone calls to Harry Reid at 202-224-3542.

    @Hank Roberts... Would also be interesting to know who in the top 400 inherited their wealth and how many jobs have they created other than help with their estates.

    @sickn-effn-tired....When we call Reid, we should mention your term "Wealth Accumulating Job Destroyers". The poor messaging of the Dems is never ending frustrating, can we get some short and snappy phrases please. Cong. Israel was on MSNBC after speech and did not point out that the job creating tax cuts have not created jobs and they've been in effect since 2001 and 2003.

  • Danny on September 19, 2011 2:35 PM:

    Here's a good rule of thumb: people who were asking for the "bully pulpit" a month ago, but write stuff like this today

    Yes, and more invested in what might look good politically and less concerned about what they think should look good politically.

    Such people were never progressives in the first place. Now the president has moved towards a more confrontative political strategy and I think it's fair that those of us who've been asking for one support him in that, whether it leads to triumf or defeat.

    I don't think it's impossible to get the American Jobs Act or parts of it through congress if everyone on our side sticks together and support the presidents proposals. I don't think it's impossible that a better deficit reduction package with new revenue and small changes in entitlements get through because the trigger in place means steep cuts to the Pentagon so lets see what congressmen from military states and districts say.

    The key now is sticking together and working together. Time to take a break from civil warfare and fire at the enemy.


  • Danny on September 19, 2011 2:40 PM:

    Eh, scratch the first part of my previous post. I was just reading sloppily and took a gratuitous dig. My apologies.

  • joel hanes on September 19, 2011 2:50 PM:

    @Hank Roberts

    Re: your pleas for information about the richest 400 Americans

    Let me google that for you

    The Walton heirs. The Kohler heirs. The SC Johnson heirs. The Koch heirs. The DuPont heirs. The Mars heirs. The Kaiser heirs. The Hunt heirs. The Bass heirs. The Ziff heirs. The MacMillan heirs ...

    Yes, there are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg and Steven Speilberg and others who have made their own money by their own genius and effort and luck ... but a moiety of the wealthiest 400 were born with a diamond-encrusted platinum spoon in their mouths, and have never known a day when accidentally throwing away a million dollars would deprive them of any thing whatsoever.

    Yes, there's a class war; and these lucky few have long since won.

  • Left Wing Conservative on September 19, 2011 3:01 PM:

    MBUNG: Sorry but you are wrong. Ron Suskind has a new book out about the Obama White House. Frank Rich and Adam Moss reviewed it today in New York Magazine. Take a look--it will make your hair curl. Obama, who I voted for, donated to and campaigned for, came into office woefully unprepared and then proceeded to hire all the same clowns who worked to deregulate our financial system under Clinton with the addition of T. Geithner (who couldn't even be trusted to pay his own taxes) for his financial team. Obama made a huge mistake and we are all paying for it. I will vote for him again because of the possibility of a Supreme Court spot opening during the next administration but Obama made the typical Democratic presidental mistake of coming into office with such sense of arrogance and insecurity (I'd say Carter and Clinton started this) he was unable to hire the truly smart and good (Alan Kreuger for example). Maybe now he is finally starting to correct those early mistakes but for too many Americans it's too late, they've lost their jobs and their homes and the big banks are still raking in the profits and handing out the outrageous bonuses.

  • Mitch on September 19, 2011 3:21 PM:

    "It’s possible that for many of the president’s critics on the left, it’s too late."

    I like and support Obama but I've been a critic since day one, and would be a critic even if he was far, far to the Left of his current position. It's not my job as an American citizen to blindly support any politician; it's my job to critique them, vote my conscience, and speak with my Congress-people,and fellow citizens, about what I think (and to listen to others when they speak).

    But, seriously, anyone on the left who is dissing Obama right now needs to grow up. He is finally pushing for a Progressive agenda. Yes, it is late in the game, yes it does suck that it takes an Election Year to bring back the old fire. Yes, he has done many things that are disappointing to we on the Left, and he probably will again in the future. I, for example, will not be happy with politics until the Patriot Act is dead and buried - so I may be unhappy forever.

    But if we don't vote for Obmam next year then President Perry will finish the job of making this nation a corporate-feudal state. That's the only fact that ultimately matters. At least with Obama we stand a chance.

  • MBunge on September 19, 2011 3:24 PM:

    "MBUNG: Sorry but you are wrong. Ron Suskind has a new book out"

    1. Yes, let us all bow before the almighty Ron Suskind.

    2. Nothing you've said changes the reality that we were more likely to get NO federal stimulus than to get Paul Krugman's wet dream, that we were more likely to get NO health care reform than a public option or that being confrontational with crazy people over the debt limit would more likely have produced default than some fantastical liberal victory.


  • jjm on September 19, 2011 3:37 PM:

    Obama did choose his economic team unwisely, but: it was basically Bill Clinton's team, and Clinton supposedly did so well with the economy, one would have to ask why not?

    He was also blindsided by very poor economic data, which now show the problems he faced to be twice as large as the 'experts' thought at the time.

    When his adviser Cristina Romer told Wall Street executives they'd have to cut back on making their money on financial shenanigans and start investing in businesses that actually made things, they universally and literally HISSED at her.

    Others he has wanted to appoint to his economic team have been stymied by the Senate confirmation, such as Peter Diamond, a Nobelist and expert on guess what -- jobs!

    For all the 'victories' of the GOP this season, they are at 19% approval, and Obama is at 41% or 42% mainly because he gave them some of what they wanted and that the people HATE.

    So he is more than twice as popular as the Congressional Republicans who would want to defy him on this: which would make him even MORE popular.

  • Derek on September 19, 2011 10:57 PM:

    Sorry Steve Obama is smarter than you and most of his critics on this. If he had been turning up the heat a year ago or earlier this stance would have been entirely ineffective by now especially considering the risk, like the nation actually defaulting.Obama by being ruthlessly reasonable and willing to compromise without actually giving away much, as republicans reflexively dug in their heels, has shown the republicans for what they are to most Americans who dont follow politics as closely as we do.He has positioned himself in such away that there is almost no downside to him going on the attack.