Obama is Bad at Losing, Budget Edition

At the end of last year I wrote a post about how President Obama is bad at losing. I like that conceptual model because the idea that President Obama is bad at losing – that he loses in a way that conflicts his base, concedes too much to his opponents and doesn’t leave liberalism in a better position to fight next round  – is robust to many different ideas about the current state of the Democratic Party. Regardless of whether or not you think President Obama is a progressive surrounded by failing institutions, a Rubinite centrist who puts on a good show, a political neophyte who is perpetually getting rolled by his adversaries or someone who hates fighting and prefers either floating above the fray or getting the half-a-loaf quickly, the way he is losing his battles should worry you about the longer-term project of liberalism and the Democratic Party.

The idea that Obama is terrible at losing jumped back at me now that we’ve gotten to another loss. The budget deal was a huge win for Speaker Boehner. Let’s chat the proposals that had been offered:

(Source: Ettlinger, Linden, Center for American Progress)

As many have pointed out, the entire battle has taken place on Boehner’s terms. Not just in terms of numbers, where the battle was between the Republican leadership’s numbers and the Tea Party’s numbers, but in the whole idea of government. Obama’s recent actions, from securing extension of the tax cuts to freezing Federal pay to now celebrating the cutting from discretionary spending, only finds a cohesive unity from the perspective of conservative governance. From visiting Roosevelt Institute fellow Corey Robin’s Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom, on the similar battle on the budget last fall:

When right-wing ideas dominate, we get right-wing policies. After the midterm elections in November, it seemed the most natural thing in the world—to the right, the media, Obama and parts of the Democratic Party—to freeze the pay of federal workers and extend the Bush tax cuts for two years. Incoherent as policy—the first presumes that the deficit is the greatest threat to the economy; the second, the lack of consumer spending—it makes sense as ideology. The best (and only) thing the government can do for you and the economy is to get out of your way.

And Obama takes a loss and declares victory. As Ed from ginandtacos points out, Obama’s language of “Like any worthwhile compromise, both sides had to make tough decisions and give ground on issues that were important to them. And I certainly did that” manages to be vacuous, appeasing no one on either side while continuing to celebrate compromise as an ends instead of a means. Ezra Klein noted that by “celebrating spending cuts, they’ve opened the door to further austerity measures at a moment when the recovery remains fragile. Claiming political victory now opens the door to further policy defeats later,” which is absolutely correct. By ending this battle on these terms he now has to enter the next battle on these terms as well.

The problems keep coming. This narrative concedes the idea that the government has become a power-hungry Leviathan since the financial markets crash of 2008, when instead the true story is one of automatic stabilizers like unemployment insurance kicking in while tax revenues plummeted. Governments run deficits in recessions. That’s what they are supposed to do. We passed a stimulus that was mostly tax cuts and stabilizing the collapsing state budgets. This life support function of the government in bad economic times is crucial and something worth celebrating, and this move signals we are further along in the recovery and have more pressure on our borrowing costs than any numbers would support.

Personally I’m more interested in the bidding on cuts without any public understanding of where these cuts are going to come from. I’m under the impression that many Democrats don’t know where they are going to come from either yet. Why weren’t the topic of the cuts discussed, if not leaked? The justification from places like Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, who told Dylan Ratigan “If Boehner starts identifying cuts, special interest will rev up. I think he’s right not to identify these cuts,” is a bad one, because it undercuts both the absurdity of these cuts at this time, helps perpetuate a false distinction between “social issues” and fiscal policy and removes the actual groups impacted from the Democratic process. Instead of the government doing necessary things spending here is just dolloping out favors to special interest groups.

Things like the funding of the Special Olympics were on the chopping block. The moment the cuts are named one can create a narrative surrounding (a) the absurdity that slashing the Special Olympics will fix the budget, (b) that these are debates surrounding the appropriateness of each program rather than displaying seriousness by taking out special interest groups and (c) puts groups into motion defending programs. Planned Parenthood helped fight off an attack through a rider because it was able to mobilize, but it mobilized because it knew it was at risk. Planned Parenthood knows that there’s no real difference between so-called social issues and fiscal policy, and so does the Right.

But yes, Obama has declared victory. A few more victories like this and we are big trouble.

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8 Responses to Obama is Bad at Losing, Budget Edition

  1. Petey says:

    “Regardless of whether or not you think President Obama is a progressive surrounded by failing institutions, a Rubinite centrist who puts on a good show, a political neophyte who is perpetually getting rolled by his adversaries or someone who hates fighting and prefers either floating above the fray or getting the half-a-loaf quickly”

    I’ll take none of the above. How ’bout:

    A sheer political opportunist who doesn’t care one whit about policy or about the future of the Democratic Party.

    That’s the one that’s always fit the evidence best for me.

    Beyond that quibble, I do appreciate your “Obama is bad at losing” frame. However, if you take my characterization of Obama as someone who doesn’t care one whit about policy, doesn’t care about the future of the Democratic Party, and doesn’t care about the greater progressive project, then giving Boehner a win starts to make more sense.

    The administration high command only cares about one future election – the top of the ballot in 2012 – and doesn’t really care about what Obama gets accomplished in terms of policy while in office. Seen in that light, giving Boehner a win also gives Obama a win. The only losers are the American people and the Democratic Party.

    Lots of folks have made the Obama = Eisenhower comparison before. But it’s worth remembering just how weak the Republican Party was when Eisenhower left office. And it’s worth remembering just how much the Democratic Party was able to accomplish in the decade after he left office.

    We’re likely in for some grim years ahead, both in terms of policy, and in terms of election results.

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  3. chris says:

    Isn’t this post in some tension with your previous one? Assume Obama agrees with you about the economic effects of a shutdown. Doesn’t that give him a responsibility to the American people to avoid one, even at the price of sacrificing things he would otherwise favor?

    It’s one thing for the Tea Party to juggle dynamite believing that it is harmless, but if Obama understands the economic importance of avoiding a shutdown then his negotiating position is worse because he is stuck playing chicken with a suicidal maniac. That’s not something he can fix by being tougher.

  4. Jake says:

    Not even Nate Silver can make this deal look good, as hard as he’s number-crunching.

  5. gaius marius says:

    my picture of obama might be naive, but i agree that he seems to value compromise as an end unto itself.

    someone should tell him that the reason compromise has the positive reputation it does is that deals haggled at frought ends by two (or more) dedicated parties willing to risk much to get what they want not only tend to be carefully constructed but also instill as much fear as confidence in both sides.

    compromises reached easily by the forbearance of one side in the end do the opposite — they are sloppy in construction and reinforce the hubris of the winner, who sees the loser as weak. these work only when the forbearing party is unquestionably stronger, when the act can be seen as charitable. that isn’t the democratic position.

    i respect the intuition that compromise is particularly valuable now, in part because i think (as obama might) that the american people have forgotten how civil strife can infect the public discourse and lead to disaster. but he has to realize that his ease of concession isn’t reducing the likelihood of political violence — it’s raising it.

    • calmo says:

      “naive” picture worries gaius at the outset and worries right to the end too…consistency you can trust!
      No doubt about O’s enemy: Dems who do not see the ‘Yes we can’ man …nope, they hear his devotion to compromise but they see and hear other prominent voices (Krugman esp) describe this as a cave-in.
      Can one respect “intuition”? Not under this kind of examination..or any that threatens to derail this train already in motion –so we can talk about it later after the crisis is past and celebrate the diplomacy, statesmanship and of course, the compromises that led to this triumph.
      So much depends on the cutanpastes of the Big Pipes: can we have a clip of the celebration party at the GOP HQs?

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