Monday, November 7, 2011

Guest commentary by HC: Obama 'gave' too early on the deficit

Re the Dem-Rep deadlock over deficit reduction and Obama’s strategy: his grand-bargain offer to cut entitlements (compromising a basic Dem principle, and indeed embracing a Rep one), if only the Reps would raise taxes (compromising their basic principle), was a bad mistake for at least two reasons.

First, it relied on a strategy of public shaming ("look, we are being flexible, now it is your turn") that does not work with stubborn and proud people, indeed only makes them more so.

But more important, once the offer to cut entitlements was out there, the public soon forgot that it was a great sacrifice by the Dems. The result was an asymmetry in perception whereby it was only the Reps who ever had a clear and principled position, so why should they abandon it? Plus their position is three words ("no new taxes" or "starve the beast") while the Dem position involves more and longer words.

If Obama had hung just as tough as the Reps, at least in public, the stage would now be set for a private deal in which each party could save face with its constituents by saying it was only giving something because the other was. But since the Dems "gave" too early, and too publicly, the Reps will just look weak if they give now. And the reason Obama gave too early, as we know from inside accounts, was that he was unwilling to take things to the brink. Bad way to negotiate with someone intractable. If he had never offered anything but a populist line about changing an unfair tax structure that benefits the rich and corporations at the expense of working people and the safety net and stimulus, he would be in a much better bargaining position. Instead, he has come to that message too late, and it is now muddied by his standing offer to cut social programs, so instead of looking bold (which his offer actually was, but only a great rhetorician, not Obama, could have sold it as such), he has both emboldened the Reps and alienated his base.

(Underlying dynamic: libertarianism is historically stronger than populism in the USA, or at least so Obama believes, and believing is what counts.)

So no matter how many experts and reasonable Reps point out that Boehner and company are holding the country hostage, the latter have no reason to compromise. Instead they can just hang tough and look strong while Obama looks weak and unprincipled (which is always the fate of the premature compromiser). And everyone knows that a "weak" president is to blame for everything.

Obama looks so weak at this point that if the Reps do give in at the last minute, they might look like heroes in comparison. But even that will not tempt them, because they are looking strong now and the economy is going to hell "under Obama" so why fix it if it ain’t broke?

-- HC

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