Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"The Public Option Debate All Over Again"

Fascinating press conference today from Barack Obama.  His comments at the end about purists were, from my perspective, absolutely correct, substantively. 

The truth is that there are a lot of people who just don't accept that the President of the United States can want something, fight for it, fight effectively and correctly, and still not get it.  If it doesn't happen, it must have been -- in Obama's words -- a "betrayal."  Those people are wrong.

And yet it's awful hard to believe that calling people out on it -- his allies, the activists within the Democratic party --  will do him any good.

One can never tell, with politicians, what's "real" and what's for show, but his answer sure sounded like a lot of frustration coming through in a way that won't help him with the rest of the nation, but really will cause trouble with people he needs support from.  Perhaps it was what polling and focus groups say people want to hear, but my money is on frustration.

All in all, one of the more interesting presidential press conferences.  It's good to see that the format can still work.


  1. I, for one, wanted to hear Obama say this, particularly because I'm not sure if the "union" is worth a political system in which not all people have equal representation (due to the Senate). But, that's a very different conversation, one I wish we would talk about more.

  2. The problem is that Obama could (1) want something, (2) fight for it, (3) fight correctly and effectively and (4) not get it, but only (4) is public. And as a consequence of only (4) being public, the Press Office decried (1) and (2) as really have been true and therefore negating (3).

  3. But (3) is only "negated" if you basically discount JB's entire point. Which is fine, you don't have to believe him, but I find it hard to swallow that someone can only ever lose when they make active mistakes.

    Though this Blackhawks' season could convince me otherwise.

  4. Jeff,

    I basically agree with you. However, on this one my caveat about never knowing what a pol is really thinking is pretty strong, because what he's saying is definitely what focus groups and polls reward. I'd say well over 99% of Americans think that elected officials should focus on policy and ignore politics.

  5. President Obama spoke with frustration about last year's fight over the "public option" and how he doesn't get credit for health reform on the left because of the lack of that option. The problem is that *I don't remember seeing him fight for the option.* For much of the yearlong healthcare debate, the president let Congress take the public lead and wrestle with the issues. When he emerged to make the case for a health reform law, he quite explicitly signaled his surrender on the option. Liberals never got the sense he fought and then compromised. All we really saw was the compromise.

    Again on taxes: Obama ran for president promising to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and end them for the rich. And he made, in my view, a persuasive case for that approach. But in recent months, as the clock ticked toward midnight, the president wasn't very visible in making the case again and now. He became most prominent, at the end, when he was showing frustration and disgust with the deal he himself had signed off on.

    Behind the scenes during the fight. Visible during surrender and compromise.

    Combine that public face of leadership with Obama's seemingly pre-emptive concessions on offshore drilling and freezing the pay of federal workers, and the overall impression President Obama gives is that he's most comfortable in accommodation mode. If the president wants the respect of the "professional left," he's going to have to show early, persistent and visible leadership on some issue that's dear to liberals. We might even forgive him if he compromises a bit in the end. But we want to see him fight.

  6. Eh, he made clear, public stands for both of those things. He talked up the PO at every one of his "barnstorming" events, and even gave it extended time in his address to Congress. And he's consistently used very strong language to condemn the Republican tax cut position (yesterday wasn't the first day he said "blackmail"). I think the problem is, he didn't issue veto threats (even privately, I assume). I guess it's fair to argue whether or not it's really a fight if he's not issuing veto threats, but I wouldn't have wanted him to on HCR, and can't say I would for sure here, either.

    The thing is, if all we're demanding is to see him "fight!!!", well, we're in danger of ending up easily- and merely symbolically- placated.

  7. Unless I'm going blind, I don't see my comment here anymore for some reason, even though it must have posted because JB has replied to it. Well, to save future historians the arduous labor of reconstructing the thread, my point was that Obama contradicts himself when he says his "job" is not to "play games" but to do everything possible to boost the economy and help struggling families. That dismissiveness is the problem: He doesn't understand that the the so-called "game" includes things like tough, smart negotiating and messaging, and that the job of presidential leadership is to play that game well.

  8. It's simple.......they should have done the tax cuts two years ago......as soon as he came into office with the new congress.....PASS THE BILL. But they didn't. And this is what you've got.

  9. Good line from Matt Yglesias: "ask yourself about a theory of change in which Republican intransigence is rewarded with lectures to liberals about the evils of intransigence."

  10. Re: Yglesias' comment, that's only true if you focus only on what he said about his liberal detractors. He called Republicans hostage-takers, not liberals.

    The left really needs to curtail its collective vanity and self-absorption.

  11. All the threatening to get medieval on somebody's ass in the world by Obama wouldn't have changed the fact that, since the Republican Party began its systematic destruction of Senate norms and customs in 1993, 60 votes are required to get routine and completely non-controversial spending bills completed, much less get landmark legislation passed. The 60-vote threshold had the deeply unfortunate side effect of putting Joe Lieberman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ben Nelson in prime position to extract their pound of flesh from health care reform. That meant the public option had to go. That was the lay of the land.

  12. Guys, refeshing, well stated and thoughtful commentary. Very civil as well. Nice to see. Thanks.

  13. Is it weird that Anon 6:16's talking about Joe Lieberman "extracting [his] pound of flesh" sounds ickier to me than saying the same about Ben Nelson? (Not that I think Anon is actively alluding to Shylock at all -- just that the accidental resonance makes me a little uncomfortable.)

  14. he's lost me. game over. I for one welcome my Palin overlords.

  15. I remember the first time I saw Obama pointedly refuse to promise that he would veto any tax bill that didn't sunset the Bush cuts for the top 2% Can't say exactly when, but it was early. It was indeed very like watching him damn the public option with faint praise. I suspect that very early on he chose the deal he just got:instead of the sunset for the top 2% and no further stimulus, a raft of stimulative measures helping the hurting and middle class, dearly purchased with the GOP's sop to the wealthy. That extra bit of defibrillation, along with the Fed's QE2, was worth a high price to him.

  16. Jeff is absolutely correct and the problem isn't limited to just Obama.

    The Democratic party leadership, elected officials, consultants, etc. just don't get the game they are playing in. Republicans play to win, they are just as ruthless with each other (see College Republicans) as they are with everyone else.

    Obama doesnt get the theatrical, symbolic aspects of negotiating in public. Keep the public emphasis and messaging clear then cut a backroom deal and explain it one time. This technique of telegraphing every compromise to all parties well in advance is extremely poor gamesmanship and strategy on his part.

    There are the facts that need to be dealt with -fine. But there is also the role playing, empty symbolic gestures that are required to keep the base motivated and your political opponents guessing.

    He'd better pick up the pace or he's done.

  17. What I have not yet heard from any liberal pundit/politician angry with Obama is how, exactly how, he could have fought for his preferred policy and won in the face of 42 Republicans willing to bring the Senate's agenda to the halt if their demands were not met. Don't blame Obama for capitulating to the reality of Senate rules and a cohesive minority party perfectly willing to stand their ground and let all the cuts expire and blame it on Democrats. That's bad politics and probably bad policy given the economic climate. From my perspective he did one hell of a job extracting HUGE Democratic priorities from the Republicans. Which would you rather have, progressives: a tax increase on all Americans in the middle of a teetering recovery, or the bitter pill of more tax cuts with the rich coupled with better-stimulating measures that are going to increase the chances that your guy gets re-elected? Suck it up and fight like hell in 2012; at least afterwards Obama will be in a better negotiating position and probably more willing to take a symbolic stand and let all the cuts expire if the Republicans play their same game. Take the long view, for once.

  18. Ditto @The March. The liberals have really gone around the bend these days -- they remind me of the Tea Partiers, all that blind, vague rage and anger and totally gone missing from reality. Get. A. Grip.

    I thought the presser was great -- it will play well in Peoria I predict. He said everything about the Republicans that I'd want a Democratic Pres to say, and the tax deal wasn't bad.

    The early write-ups on the presser were *much* better than the overnights on the tax deal, which had a blood-in-the-water quality to them.

    These histrionics from the Huffington brigade are very tiresome.

  19. I want to echo a bit what Colby said: Obama certainly has come out and said publicly, repeatedly, some of the things that people are upset with him for never saying. I don't know if that's a failure of the WH communications team, or of Obama, or a condition of how politics works these days, or what.

    I do think, and I think ASP has said this before, that Obama is certainly guilty of doing a terrible job in the care and feeding of his liberal supporters. And I say that as one who, again, fully agrees with his critique today of purists. But why is he saying it? And what, symbolically, does he give people who are (necessarily, IMO) frustrated?

    As for the rest...I'm very tempted to agree with Anon 5:26 (they should have dealt with this in spring '09), although I'd want to get better reporting before being certain that was correct (I can think of some possible reasons it might not have been), and to have a better sense of how to apportion blame for it.

  20. Do we want political courage in our leaders, or do we want them to give us what we demand in largesse? If we only have pandering from our elites, that's because the message they get is that the way to stay in power is to pander. We're not a courageous people any more, if we ever were.

    All I've seen so far convinces me that we are a nation that wants to eat the ice cream and never the vegetables.

    And we are going to reap the whirlwind.

  21. "The truth is that there are a lot of people who just don't accept that the President of the United States can want something, fight for it, fight effectively and correctly, and still not get it. If it doesn't happen, it must have been -- in Obama's words -- a "betrayal." Those people are wrong."

    I'd agree with you except that I've seen no evidence that Obama has fought for let alone fought effectively for his supposedly desired tax policy. At no point have I heard him say, "I will veto any extension of the tax cuts for the rich." There aren't enough votes for those tax cuts to override his veto. If he had used that leverage, he could at least have limited their extension to something like what Senator Schumer proposed.

    I can somewhat accept the logic of agreeing to the temporary extension of the upper income income tax cuts as stimulus even though it's pretty weaksauce stimulus, but then there's the estate tax extension that's completely unjustified.

  22. What I don't get - the original tax cuts were passed with 51 votes under reconciliation - couldn't they have just passed the tax cuts for under $250K (everyone still gets a cut - even the rich) the same way? They'd have to be temporary, but that's what they got anyway... then make the Republicans vote to block unemployment benefits - win-win.

  23. What I don't get - the original tax cuts were passed with 51 votes under reconciliation - couldn't they have just passed the tax cuts for under $250K (everyone still gets a cut - even the rich) the same way?

    Congress decided not to write a budget for this year, so it precluded them from having the reconciliation option. IOW, Congress decided on their own to close that door and not have reconciliation available as a tool if they needed it.

    As with so many other things in this fiasco, Congress shot themselves in the foot, but somehow Congress' bad decisionmaking and poor planning is all Obama's fault.

    - Mnemosyne

  24. Jonathan, RE: Spring '09 for eliminating the 250k+ tax cuts, you have to remember at the time the economy was still looking like the end of days, and any talk of raising taxes on anyone at that point would have been both bad policy and terrible politics.

    The current economic conditions still make any tax increases highly contestable, though I happen to agree it would have been better to let the top 2% cuts expire.

  25. I don't understand what's to prevent Republicans from coming back to voters in 2012 and declaring victory: the compromise bill worked, we didn't tax job creators, and now have less unemployment. The White House has been floundering trying to find and control the message (and at the same time pass substantive legislation), but in this instance, they just handed the 2012 election to the Republicans. Nobody cares about good policy, all that matters is the bait and switch, and whether your heartfelt comment about jobs will be remembered in the voting booth.

  26. Jim,

    Perhaps. And in Spring 09 he only had 58 Democrats. OTOH, he was at 60% approval and a lot of people were a lot less interested in giving a fair hearing to GOP ideas about sound economic policy.

    Not to mention that he would have been talking about raising rich people's taxes in 2011, after (he would have said at the time) the recession was over. Or he could have put that part of it on a trigger, or something -- remember, everyone has always agreed that a stand-alone bill with only the rate cuts for >250K would be a loser.

    Anon 10:55,

    Republicans will say that - but (1) FWIW it's silly on the face of it, because the rates have stayed put since 2001/2003, and (2) it doesn't matter; if the economy is good Obama will get the credit, whether he deserves it or not.

  27. BTW, if the Dems don't start spinning the hell out of today's vote to deny seniors another $250 SocSec check (cost: $14B) right after the GOP insisted millionaires get to keep their tax cuts (cost: $70B per year!), they ARE feckless.

  28. "What I don't get - the original tax cuts were passed with 51 votes under reconciliation - couldn't they have just passed the tax cuts for under $250K (everyone still gets a cut - even the rich) the same way?"

    As a result of that event rule changed to require that reconciliation could only be used to reduce 10 year deficit. A tax reduction for everyone under 250K- which is what would be needed obviously increases 10 year deficit.


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