Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Deals and Failures and Obama's New "Strategy"

All bargaining is not alike; different negotiations call for different strategies. During the debt limit debate, the default -- if nothing at all passed -- would have been a total disaster for Barack Obama and the Democrats. On both Obama's jobs bill and his new deficit reduction plan, the default -- if nothing at all passes -- is not a total disaster for Barack Obama and the Democrats. That is almost certainly what's driving what everyone perceives as a more aggressive strategy from the White House.

I said this yesterday over at Greg's place, but I don't think I wrote it very well, because Doug Mataconis read it as a claim that Obama can use his leverage here to win his jobs bill. That's not what I meant to say, particularly; it's not that I think Obama necessarily has a lot of leverage to get what he wants, but that House Republicans have much less. In other words, not that Obama should "win" this one, but that it was inevitable that he was going to "lose" the last one -- the only question was how, what, and by how much. Obama could have been as aggressive as he wanted to be over the debt limit, but eventually he needed to cut a deal with Republicans -- and most Republicans didn't feel that they needed to cut a deal with him, and they had a significant electoral incentive to feel that way. This time around, when it comes to the Joint Select Committee, there's no obvious electoral reason for either side to care whether the trigger is invoked, regardless of the substantive concerns they may have (which, as I see it, are pretty much a push anyway).

In keeping with what I was saying earlier about people not knowing their own motivations...Ezra Klein had a reported piece about how the new WH aggressive posture on the deficit is a deliberate strategy, derived from what they have learned over the course of the year and in particular from the debt limit negotiations. And I'm sure that he has it right: this is, let's say, exactly how White House staff see it. They've learned something, and they've changed their strategy accordingly. But that doesn't necessarily mean that their self-description of the causal chain here is accurate. It's perfectly possible -- and in my view, likely -- that what's really happening is that given that the bargaining context has changed, what makes sense to them has changed, and that they see that as "learning" when it's actually just holding a different hand.


  1. Lot of words, but not much clarity.

    Some months ago, Obama's 2012 budget got rejected 97-0 in the Senate. He's since kicked and stomped his feet and thrown tantrums, and been ignored by all, and here we are today.

    Now, it seems everything's happening despite him, and around him. His smarter advisers are desperate to find a way to get out in front of whatever happens around and despite him, because absent that, the moving vans show up in front of the WH exactly 16 months from today.

    And you may not get anybody on the record saying it, but 2/3 veto overrides will be broached to the poor man, if he doesn't consent to what happens around and despite him. The congresscritters want to get reelected, remember, even if he disappears.

    He'll sign whatever appears on his desk, same as when Pelosi ran the House. And unfortunately for him, he's not smart enough to maneuver his way to gaining political advantage during that process, and it will inevitably make him weaker.

  2. I do not understand why Obama couldn't have 'won' the debt debate using the 14th amendment ploy.

  3. Well, I don't see why, to get back to the original subject, the changes in White House strategy have to be seen as either "learning" or a different hand. It is almost certainly both. The hand has changed, and the White House has learned some things. These factors, and doubtless others besides, feed into a very complex and murky process that results in strategic change. It is certainly worthwhile to identify the various factors in the process, but absent a lot more data trying to determine which has been more influential seems a futile mission. Indeed, I think it is quite correct that the members of the President's team, and Obama himself, probably could not articulate the process and reasoning very well. They, and we, are simply much to close to the events, both in time and emotion, to make those kinds of evaluations. In a lot of ways we are just now starting to properly understand the Ford Administration, much less anything after 1976 or so.

  4. Yes, it's probably a bit of both, with the different hand aspect being underappreciated perhaps by the players in private but certainly by the media.

    I would also say that the learning that went on during the debt standoff probably had almost nothing to do with learning that the GOP was intransigent. Everyone following politics already knew that, Dem and GOP. The learning occurred in seeing what low-information or confused heuristic-driven independent voters would or wouldn't care about. Perhaps political scientists and some pollsters already knew the answer to that question, but there's every indication that key politicians and the media were genuinely surprised by the failure of the president to receive pub-opinion credit for projecting "being reasonable" and by the failure of any pub-opinion aspect to seem to have leverage going forward.

  5. PF, I think you are right about the learning aspect being more learning about voters as opposed to learning about the GOP. There seems to be a problem in the media and in certain political circles with regard to the difference between personal approval and job approval. As Ezra Klein has rightly noted, people came away from the debt ceiling debacle with high personal approval of the President, that is they think he's a good person with good intentions. But that is not the same as approving of his leadership skills or the way he is doing his job. One would think the lessons of Clinton, who had at one point low personal approval ratings but high job approval ratings, would have some bearing here.

    With regard to the surprise that Obama did not get more credit for being reasonable, I think it was Ruy Texeira that lamented Obama's "obsession" with independents -- that is with voters who aren't reflexively partisan and who closely follow the ins and outs of the Washington process to see who is trying to do the right thing. The problem is that such a population doesn't exist in any numbers that make a statistical difference. Most voters are reflexively partisan (even most so-called independents) and the voters that aren't care very little about the ins and outs of the political process, but only make their decisions based on very broad factors such as war, peace, prosperity, clear and effective messaging, and a general sense of who is on their side. It is therefore unsurprising that Obama received no credit for being reasonable. The partisans are fixed in their constellations over the short to mid-term, and being reasonable and the adult in the room is not the kind of thing that attracts the attention or approval of the actual independents.

  6. Anonymous: "I think it was Ruy Texeira that lamented Obama's "obsession" with independents -- that is with voters who aren't reflexively partisan and who closely follow the ins and outs of the Washington process to see who is trying to do the right thing. The problem is that such a population doesn't exist in any numbers that make a statistical difference. Most voters are reflexively partisan (even most so-called independents) and the voters that aren't care very little about the ins and outs of the political process"

    That statement is contrary to my experience. Can you defend it with something other than blatant assertion? Most independents that I know are independents because they are sufficiently well informed to be disgusted with the self-serving behavior of both major parties. Both major parties clearly have loyal cores of voters that are largely uneducated but vote for "their" party because they have become convinced that their interests are thus best served. Can you identify a similar demographic that tends independent?

  7. Sullivan, The Pew Foundation has done a series of studies and in-depth analyses of independents as part of their examination of the electorate as a whole. I believe their latest look at independents appeared last year and may be available at their website. The point their numbers drive home is that, whatever their rhetoric and stated reasons for independent status, the large majority of independent voters do not exhibit voting behavior that is in any way distinguishable from that of committed partisans. Only a small sliver of the electorate, and a very distinct minority of independents, fit the "true" independent label as described above. I am not aware that the Pew findings have been contested by most other pollsters or political scientists.

  8. Wait, so what I'm reading here is that Obama was robbed of all the credit he obviously deserved for mouthing "balanced approach" so many times?

    I mean, the Left has sent spending rocketing up to +25% of GDP, and for 2 years the lefty Congress was too cowardly to deal with taxes, but now suddenly they're whimpering "balanced approach" in every tweet tapped, as ruse to get their opposition to do what they themselves were too cowardly to do... FOR YEARS?!?


    Sorry, but bleating "balanced approach" isn't good governance, and the Left got ejected from office last November because they'd proven unfit to govern. That tax shirking was only a part of it, but it was a big part.

    And bleating "pass this bill" every 30 seconds is another example of someone unfit to govern.

    Sound bites. Talking points. Memes. That ain't good governance, sorry.

    And now, Obama is a bystander, same as you and I. It's too bad, but he stood around for 2.5 years, and now that's how he's going to finish his term. Nobody will listen to him, now. Their own political careers can't prosper, if they support this political neophyte.

    Now, he's gotta find a way to benefit from what it is that's going to happen anyway, no matter what he says and does.

  9. Anonymous - Thanks for the citation; Pew is certainly a reputable source. I'll check it out. In the interim, however, I have one question: if "the large majority of independent voters do not exhibit voting behavior that is in any way distinguishable from that of committed partisans", then what explains the huge swings in the independent vote in the last three general elections?

    (Off topic: You might want to consider posting as something other than "Anonymous". While I did not agree with the post on which I initially commented, it was relevant and rational, as was your response to mine. You really don't want people to confuse you with some of the "Anonymous" posters on this site.)

  10. Sullivan, thank you and I will consider posting under another name when I have time to consider which account to use as the link. Meanwhile, to answer your question, I think we should remember that "large swings" are relative phenomena. That is, even though most independents are in fact disguised partisans, that does not mean that all of them are. The movement of those that are not, while the movement of a distinct minority, can result in swings that, by American standards, are significant. However "relative" and "American Standards" are the operative words. Even in circumstances where we see largish shifts, the majority of independents, like the majority of voters, remain with their predictable preferences. Also, I would hesitate to use the last three elections as a standard -- coming off of an unpopular war and the onset of the worst economic crisis in two generations the pot was boiling at a furious rate and things were probably more fluid than is normally the case. Does that still pertain? I think the evidence is ambiguous: some evidence such as Congressional approval ratings suggest things have become even more fluid. Other evidence, such as the generic Congressional ballot, suggests that things have stabilized into a more normal configuration.

    Perhaps a better proposition would be to ask what motivates "swing" independents to change their vote? Once again, I think that Pew and others show that looking at those independents that are "true" independents, we see that they have strong subdivisions as well. Some of them really do pay close attention to politics and policy and attempt to carefully parse out who is trying to be responsible and do good. A larger portion, however, seems to be fundamentally uninterested in politics and disconnected from process. They vote based on very broad and shallow "takes" on the country's situation, mainly economic but with other factors playing in as well.

    So, in short to go back to my original posting, I think what Texeira and others were criticizing the White House about was that they were obsessed not just with independents but a certain kind of independent -- those that carefully follow politics and policy and try to parse responsibility and reward good behavior. The problem is that those voters are a minority of a minority. They are a minority of true independents (most of whom vote based on broad economic issues among other things) and true independents are a minority of independents (most of whom are indistinguishable from partisans in their voting behavior). I said that they kind of voter the White House wanted to influence doesn't exist in enough numbers to be statistically important and I probably overstated the case. It would be better to say that there aren't enough of them to significantly effect electoral outcomes except, perhaps, in extremely special circumstance (and who knows, to be fair if the GOP nominates Perry and his approval ratings in the general electorate continue to follow a downward trend, we may have such an extremely special circumstance, but then again we may not).

  11. Anonymous -

    Thanks. You make some interesting points.

    I do agree that many who describe themselves as independents probably vote consistently with one party. They do not identify with the party not because they have substantial differences in political philosophy, but rather because they disapprove of the total lack of ethics evident in the tactics employed by party leadership, and by the fact that party leadership seems to consistently put party interests before national interests. I think this is true for both parties. On the Republican side, I suspect that there are also a lot of "Republican independents" that just can't stomach the current influence of the religious right.

    As for what motivates those that you would consider "true independents", I can only speak for myself and a few others that I know personally. We are well read and well educated. We just happen to believe that neither major party has a monopoly on good ideas.

    As for the influence of "real independents" - we may be relatively few, but the last three elections show that we can make a significant difference. Unless they have reason to believe that will not be the case in 2012, the parties would be well advised to not write us off. (Personally, I can't prove it, but I see the recent swings in the independent vote as having been driven by unhappiness with Congress - gridlock when power is split, and agendas well out of the mainstream when power is held by either party. Given Congress' approval ratings, I do not think this unhappiness with Congress has diminished one iota.)

  12. Sullivan, you make some interesting points as well. I agree that unhappiness with Congress is very real, but the question is how that will translate into voting behavior. Will it mean a backlash against Republicans, who after all have been the ones driving most (but not all) of the delay and gridlock over the last few years? Nothing in the generic Congressional ballot or the results of the last special elections suggests that. Will it result in a working Republican control of both chambers? That seems likely, although polls would suggest that Republican policies don't align with the wishes of most voters. Will the Democrats benefit? That does not seem a very probable outcome, even though what the Democrats are "selling" in terms of policy aligns, in general although not invariably, more with the stated preferences of the electorate than do the policies advocated by Republicans.

    My question is this, how will the electorate react to the most probable outcome of the 2012 election, which is a Republican president and Republican control of Congress, given that the public does not seem to favor Republican policies, particularly not when one asks specific questions about specific programs?

    Sigh. I guess I have become rather jaundiced about all of this, given that the public seems spoiled and petulant and, frankly, not very impressive in its electoral decisions. When the Democrats are in control and pursue the policies they campaigned on, the public recoils and cries that "we didn't want that! You weren't supposed to spend so much money/pass a healthcare mandate/talk about raising taxes!" When the Republicans are in control and pursue the policies they have always openly advocated and campaigned on, the public recoils and says "we didn't want that! Leave the safety net alone! Don't you dare touch Medicare and Social Security! Why in the world are you protecting rich people from tax increases?" When the public votes for and gets divided government, with the entirely foreseeable and even openly discussed result of gridlock, they recoil and say "we didn't want that! Why can't you people get anything done? We have all these problems! We want action!"

    In short, the public wants the budget to be balanced without losing any services that they favor (which are most of them) or taxes going up on anyone but the extremely rich; they want health care to be readily available and affordable for everyone without any rationing or mandates; they want the economy to be booming and everyone to have good jobs with good wages and benefits but are suspicious of unions, government activism, trade agreements, and easy credit; they want safety and equality and fairness but are extremely suspicious of both regulations and corporate ethics; they want local control but hefty federal backstops in the case of emergency and necessity (which means, in practice, when they want the money to do something); they hate Walmart but want convenient shopping and cheap products; they decry sloth and taking advantage of the system while elbowing everyone else out of the way to get their own check; they cry out for civility while demonizing anyone who does not look like them, has different political preferences, or who makes more money or has better benefits than them; they readily practice the politics of division and hatred while screaming "racism!" or "sexism!" or "socialism!" or "class warfare!" at anyone who dares to criticize them. And in this they are no different than their neighbours or friends or relatives or ancestors. However, it is not surprising that they are always angry and unsatisfied, and one should not expect that America is any more immune from the bad effects and results of this than any other country that exists or has ever existed. And some of those results are very, very nasty indeed.

  13. Wow. That's the most accurate description of the American electorate that I've seen in quite a while. Discouraging, isn't it. To garble a quote from someone I can't remember: "The best argument against democracy is a ten-minute conversation with an average voter."

    However, I'm not quite as pessimistic as you seem to be. As low as the public's opinion is of the Democrats in Congress, I think it's probably lower of the Republicans, and I think the latter may take some losses in the House, if for no other reason than the fact that they have more seats in play and it's not going to be a great year to be an incumbent. The Democrats are almost sure to lose a few in the Senate, for much the same reason. Big picture, I think we're going to continue to see regular shifts in power on the Hill until they all learn to play well together. The voters do want the moon, but they will settle for reasonable compromise.

    I don't consider Obama a lost cause. Yes, his job rating is down, but his personal popularity remains fairly high, and for the Presidency, personal popularity matters. We want to have a leader that we like and respect, even if we don't always agree with him. If the Republicans are dumb enough to nominate Perry or someone else of his ilk, I think Obama has a better than even chance, even with the bad economy.

  14. Sullivan, we will see. I expect that you are right about Congress, with the Republicans losing a few in the House and gaining in the Senate. However, given the current margins of control in the two chambers, that means Republican control of Congress. The problem is that they, and the Democrats as well, will take that as unanswerable evidence that obstruction and intransigence work, which is a very ominous development. Whoever wins the Presidency, the level of dysfunction is likely to skyrocket.

    With regard to Obama's chances I hope you are right, but honestly I am pessimistic. Unless the political environment shifts, I think Romney would be in a very strong position. With regard to Perry, I think the public in it's anger and frustration might well look past his numerous flaws. After all, nice as it would be to think that the Republicans would not nominate, and the country would not elect, an inept, divisive, arguably doltish governor of Texas, history tells us otherwise - and conditions in both 2000 and 2004 were in some ways much better for Democrats than they are likely to be in 2012.

  15. Anonymous -

    I'm not at all sure what lesson politicians will draw from the next election if it goes as we both seem to expect. In my view, both parties are guilty of obstructionism and intransigence (although I will give the Republicans an edge there). If we keep throwing out incumbents, sooner or later they are going to figure out that most voters don't like that. They do seem to be talking about that more lately.

    You're right - if the election were held today, Romney might well beat Obama. However, while that would not be my preference, I could live with that. He's talking conservative for the primaries, but his record is fairly moderate. My concern would be his ability to stand up tp Congress.

    Having been born and raised in Texas, I'm all too familiar with Texas politics. Perry is anything but Bush. Sure, Bush (43) was fairly inept - not as stupid as painted by the press, but no genius and prone to listening to bad advice. On the other hand, he was sincere. As screwy as some of his policies were, he believed that they were right. I think he won in 00 because he was not running against Gore - almost a nonentity - but against the ghost of Clinton. The voters wanted someone that they could trust. (No, I'm not a Clinton basher - but honesty was clearly not his strong point.) Perry, on the other hand, is anything but inept. He's a shrewd politician. Fortunately (from my point of view), he comes off as a bit of a snake-oil salesman. That may play with the rubes, but moderates are not going to buy it. Barring really bad economic developments, I don't think he can beat Obama.

  16. Sullivan, I also have spent several years living in Texas, although I do not live there now. I would have to say that it continually surprised me how many people disliked Perry and how he kept winning. Texas, unlike the stereotypes, has plenty of moderate and intelligent people inside its borders, so I am not as sanguine as you about the good sense of moderates coming to the rescue.

    I agree that Romney himself is rather an attractive man, in part because one suspects he doesn't believe half of what he says. If he were to win and face a Congress with two closely divided chambers, I think the results ... would not be too different than what we have seen the last two years. We would have a President who is distrusted by the activist wing of his own party facing an opposition party stinging with resentment, eager for revenge, and not-terribly concerned about making life easy for him. We would also have a President whose instincts are to try and make peace and make deals, with the result of not winning over the opposition and annoying his own supporters. Unfortunately, that might be the best we can hope for.

  17. Concur. Sad, but probably true.


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