F.A.Q.: How sad should Democrats be about Barack Obama right now?

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Barack Obama. (www.whitehouse.gov)
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A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about how disappointed liberals ought to be with Barack Obama's handling of the debt-ceiling negotiations.

Josh Benson: Who has cause to be unhappiest of all about this debt-ceiling deal that no one likes?

Steve Kornacki: Paul Krugman?

I mean, it's got to be a rough moment for anyone who's spent the last few years making the case that the last thing the country should be doing now is cutting spending. So just seeing a deal that does that—with no revenue component, no new effort at stimulus, etc.—is, unsurprisingly, maddening for him.

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But it can't really be a shock that it came to this. It's not like that kind of Keynesian agenda has been on the radar in D.C. since 11/10 (or earlier). We have a Tea Party Congress now, and this is what you get with a Tea Party Congress.

Josh: What about liberals who aren't Paul Krugman, who are upset because the Republicans in the legislative branch seem to be running roughshod over the White House? Is there something to the notion espoused by some members of the House minority, for example, that the deal Obama agreed to amounted to a surrender?

Steve: I actually don't see how he could have achieved an outcome that was much different from this one. I believed for a while that he basically had two choices: 1., Give the G.O.P. most of what it wants; or 2., try the 14th Amendment solution (if it really would have been a solution ...).

I thought the political logic for trying the 14th Amendment route was stronger than most people seemed to assume, and there was a brief moment late last week when I thought Obama might actually think about invoking it. But short of that, I don't think there was much he could have done, in terms of striking a deal. I mean, think about it: One of the arguments for this being a negotiating failure is that Obama didn't at least put the 14th Amendment on the table, as a way of scaring the G.O.P. into giving up more.

But that would have had the opposite effect. The Republicans would have LOVED for him to do that. It would have spared them having to do anything (no awkward, humiliating Tea Party-arm-twisting for Boehner...); their Wall Street donor base would have been happy (no default); and they would have had the perfect issue to motivate their base going forward: "Now Obama has really done it—he's trampled on the Constitution just so he can spend more money and run up more debt!"

So where was the leverage? It was all with the G.O.P.. Obama couldn't pretend that he didn't think a default would be disastrous. But Republicans could credibly say: "A lot of our members don't think it's a big deal at all ...."

Josh: I suppose the logic behind the idea that he mishandled this is slightly more basic than that. The thinking is basically that Obama needs to have a fight, because his political weakness and the perception of his political weakness are beginning to reinforce each other. So in this case, it would have meant at least being prepared to actually act unilaterally on the debt ceiling. In general, it means going to war with the House Republicans rather than seeking agreement with them. Is there anything to that?

Steve: Well that's why I thought the 14th Amendment might be a risk worth taking. I mean, it would obviously be uncharted territory. The legal, constitutional and political ramifications are completely unknown. It could have backfired terribly and haunted him for the rest of the presidency.

The flip side, though, is that his '12 prospects are looking worse and worse. Basically, the trajectory of every major economic indicator is dreadful right now. For Obama to be a good bet, that needs to change well before Election Day '12. Otherwise, it'll be a very close race, or one in which Obama is the underdog.

My theory is that four percent of the electorate is up for grabs in any election. The rest vote based on their partisan loyalties or are swing voters whose loyalties are determined by the climate (basically, how the economy is doing and whether we're at war). And then there's about four percent (my guess—not a scientific thing) who can really be persuaded. Those four percent look like they will be unusually critical in '12, and my thought was that a dramatic gesture—the 14th Amendment option—might have played well, made Obama look tough etc., and given him a chance to tack on a point or two to his total next year.

Josh: But now you think the only thing that would make him look tough would be if he brought the economy back to life?

Steve: Well, I don't know if he would look tough, but that would make him a slam-dunk for reelection, because all of those swing voters who vote based on the economy would be with him in that scenario.

I don't think the triangulation he's doing really helps him, though. It's sort of a worst-of-both-worlds situation: He's signing off on a deal that he knows is likely to make the economy worse. So to the extent that the spending cuts affect things by late 2012, it decreases the chances that he'll be able to ride the economy to a second term—and increases the chances that he'll be voted out because of the economy. At the same time, I don't think he scores any points for his accommodating posture, despite the fact that there was a deal in the end. Sure, he came across marginally better than the G.O.P. these past few weeks, if you believe the polls, but is anyone really going to remember his press conferences and pleas for bipartisanship? Of course not. Most of this was noise.

Josh: At what point does the refrain about Obama "losing" liberal voters actually come true?

Steve: I think never.

Josh: So what should he be doing that's different? Again, since it seems to be out of his power to change the direction of the economy, what can he do to adjust the way things are going politically?

Steve: It's not possible to answer that question. The only thing he can do to change his political trajectory is boost the economy. He's trying to play the adult in the room to impress swing voters, and because that's always been his inclination anyway. But it just won't work as an electoral strategy if the economy is stalled or regressing next year. (Unless the G.O.P. nominates Bachmann ....) I mean, he's mostly using the Clinton '95-'96 playbook, but the economy was growing when Clinton did that.

Josh: Why does the Tea Party keep winning?

Steve: Because they have leverage that Obama doesn't. Actual Tea Party true-believers account for a sizable chunk of the majority party's caucus in the House. And the Tea Party mindset is now the mindset of the G.O.P. base, as we saw in some high-profile primaries last year. Which makes non-Tea Party Republicans in Congress very nervous. None of them wants to be the next Bob Inglis. And it makes the G.O.P. leadership nervous. John Boehner knows they're just waiting to brand him a sellout, so he doesn't have nearly the power of past House speakers to force hard compromises on them.

Josh: Are liberals wrong to wish for a mirror-image ideological movement on the left, to apply pressure to mainstream Democrats just as the Tea Party is doing to Boehner?

Steve: Well, they're right that, if it existed, it would have a similar effect on the party. But the Democratic Party is just much more diverse than the G.O.P.. I don't think the specific issues and policies that animate elite-level liberal commentators will (anytime in the near future) have the same kind of mass resonance within the Democratic Paty that the Tea Party's messages have with right.

Josh: How do you think the "super committee" fight turns out? Is there any reason to believe the leverage is going to be any different by the time that all gets decided?

Steve: I can't see how it's anything other than more of the same. The White House is pushing the idea that the trigger requirement of automatic defense cuts if the committee's plan dies will force Republicans to get serious about demands for new revenue. But I don't buy it. Sure, there are plenty of Republicans who care deeply about not ever cutting the Pentagon's budget. But there are more, I think, who care even more deeply about never increasing taxes. Those are the Tea Partiers. So if the new committee calls for tax hikes, the Tea Party will revolt. And telling them, "But if we do nothing, we'll lose Defense spending!" won't win them over. Many of them actually WANT defense spending to be cut. In that situation, they'd rather kill the committee's plan and absorb the automatic defense cuts, because at least no taxes would be raised.

Would Boehner go to war with them over that? Even during the Reagan administration—during the Cold War—the G.O.P. was willing to cut defense as part of a debt ceiling/deficit-reduction committee deal.

Josh: Is there any silver lining out of all of this for the Democrats?

Steve: I guess that they protected Social Security from the new committee, and Medicare is only exposed in that doctor reimbursement rates could be cut. They also avoid having to go through this all again in a few months. That's pretty much it.