Sequester: The Tragic Folly of President Obama’s Tried-and-Failed Negotiating Strategy, Pt. 1
On the heels of an inauguration speech widely celebrated by liberals and progressives, President Obama almost immediately fell back into some of the same patterns that hampered his first term agenda. Despite a more aggressive posture, a candidate who talked a good game about changing the country proved reluctant to alter his own governing style to meet the challenge.
Bob Woodward’s criticism of Obama as a naïve bystander who leaves the real work of cutting a deal to Congressional leaders, such as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, is overblown and reeks of sour grapes. However, the veteran journalist is on to something in questioning the President’s dealings with Congress. While far from an unmitigated failure, President Obama continually adheres to a negotiating strategy that places Democrats on the defensive and gives an obstructionist Tea-Party-inspired G.O.P. the upper hand.
Obama’s bargaining approach is based on the key misconception that given the right conditions, Republicans will be open to compromise. The President’s rhetoric leading up to the 2012 election was a good indicator of this flawed assumption. Asked how he would handle Congressional gridlock in a second term, Obama contended that the G.O.P.’s “fever would break” and that, forced by a decisive election to accept four more years of a Democrat in the White House, they would be more open to compromise. Even when this prediction proved wrong, the President reprised the argument to justify settling for less in the debt ceiling negotiations.
In ordinary times, expecting the opposition to heed a clear-cut electoral mandate is sound politics. When Reagan won election in a landslide in 1980, House Speaker Tip O’Neil allowed Republicans and Southern Democrats significant leeway to alter the tax code and cut government spending as part of the “Reagan Revolution.”
In 2000, despite a contentious election in which Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election (at least according to the Supreme Court), Congressional Democrats largely acquiesced to President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies, despite major reservations. In both cases, the opposition party temporarily set aside partisanship so that government could function.
Yet, if the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency have proven anything, it is that the structural imperatives of the contemporary G.O.P. makes it pathologically unwilling to give an inch, even to avoid a crisis. Dismal approval ratings and an electoral trouncing have done nothing to temper the radicalism of the Tea Party and the decisive influence it exerts on the House Republicans.
The combination of ‘gerrymandered” safe districts and the fear of being “primaried” allows a small minority of ideologues (John McCain’s “wacko birds”) to enforce lock-step ideological discipline on a local level, enabling the House Republicans to turn up their noses at the national election results. If anything, defeat has only rendered them more bitter and recalcitrant.
There are tools for the executive branch to deal with an entrenched opposition, but Obama has been reluctant to use them. Instead, he has chased ever-elusive compromises that have allowed Republicans to demand concessions that run counter to liberal values and the will of the public.
Time and time again, the president has proven unwilling to take short-term risks to maximize the chances of favorable outcomes in the long term. Obama’s first major tactical error following his re-election came in late 2012 at the conclusion of the fiscal cliff debate.
With the prospect of not reaching a deal before the deadline appeared likely, Vice President Biden caved on the “non-negotiable” condition of tax increases on those making more than $250,000, instead settling for $450,000.
With the political winds at his back after a sound victory over Romney and the public overwhelmingly in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy, he clearly held the advantage. All the President needed to do was hold fast, even if it meant allowing a frightening but almost certainly temporary fiscal plunge and an across-the-board expiration of the Bush tax rates.
Furthermore, by many accounts, Boehner was prepared to accept Obama’s tax increase if push came to shove and the U.S. went over the fiscal cliff. Alas, a panicked Obama administration, unwilling to play chicken with the economic recovery now to help it later, settled for a deal that yielded, at best, a modest symbolic victory.
Responding to criticism from liberals unsatisfied with the less-than-expected revenue increase, Obama and his defenders argued that forcing Republicans to raise taxes once would set a precedent for future concessions. Once again, “the fever would break.”
As it turned out, the G.O.P. was one step ahead of Obama, agreeing to a short-term deal not out of any newfound willingness to compromise, but because they knew the political conditions leading up to the sequester would be more conducive to their familiar strategy of obstructionism.
In fact, the G.O.P. was all too willing to allow across-the-board cuts, even in military spending, to achieve their long-stated goals of balancing the budget on the backs of the 99% and depriving the President of a political victory.