Friday, July 29, 2011

"If you’re going to cave, tell us right now..."

In early July, when Obama suddenly injected Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid into the deficit and debt negotiations, many, perhaps most, Democrats were dismayed. They believed that the President was offering up the poor and the needy as a negotiating gambit. (His position was that if the Republicans would give on taxes, he’d give on entitlements.) A bewildered Pelosi said after that meeting, “He calls this a Grand Bargain?” And she came down firmly against any changes in those programs that would hurt beneficiaries.

Moreover, the Democrats had their own political reasons for opposing reductions in Medicare benefits. They had had great success in campaigning against Paul Ryan’s bizarre proposal, adopted by the House (despite even Boehner’s expressed misgivings), that would turn Medicare into a voucher system. According to Ryan’s plan the government would give future eligible Medicare recipients $6,000 and let them shop for private insurance. (Good luck.)

Having made Ryan’s proposal the centerpiece of the campaign, the Democrats had recently won a special election in a New York district that had been held by the Republicans since the 1950s. The Democrats believed they were onto a good thing.

The question arises, aside from Obama’s chronically allowing the Republicans to define the agenda and even the terminology (the pejorative word “Obamacare” is now even used by news broadcasters), why did he so definitively place himself on the side of the deficit reducers at a time when growth and job creation were by far the country’s most urgent needs?

It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.

That explains a lot about the course the President has been taking this year. The political team’s reading of these voters was that to them, a dollar spent by government to create a job is a dollar wasted. The only thing that carries weight with such swing voters, they decided—in another arguable proposition—is cutting spending. Moreover, like Democrats—and very unlike Republicans—these voters do not consider “compromise” a dirty word.

The President proposed at least two modest plans for stimulus spending, someone familiar with all these deliberations told me, “but he’s not as Keynesian as before.” This person said, “If the political advisers had told him in 2009 that the median voter didn’t like the stimulus, he’d have told them to get lost.” By 2011, in his State of the Union address in January he moved from jobs creation (such as the stimulus program) toward longer-term investment.

The speech Obama gave on April 13 marked his conversion to fiscal centrism; to being the fiscally responsible Democrat. In that speech he stated that he wanted to reduce the debt by $4 trillion—thus aligning himself with the Republicans—but also asked for revenues to partly offset that reduction. It was all about reelection politics, designed to appeal to this same group of independents. “And that’s why,” I was told by the person familiar with the White House deliberations, “he went bigger in the deficit reduction talks; bringing in Social Security is consistent with that slice of the electorate they’re trying to reach.” This person said, “There’s a bit of bass-ackwardness to this; the deficit spending you’d want to focus on right now is the jobs issue.”

This all fits with another development in the Obama White House. According to another close observer, David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who officially joined the White House staff in January 2011, has taken over. “Everything is about the reelect,” this observer says—”where the President goes, what he does.”

Plouffe’s advice to the President defines not just Obama’s policies but also his behavior. Plouffe tells the President, according to this observer, that the target group wants him to seem the most reasonable man in the room. Plouffe is the conceptualizer, and Bill Daley, the chief of staff who shares Plouffe’s political outlook, makes things happen; Gene Sperling, the director of economic policy, and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, are smart men but they come out of politics rather than academia or deep experience in their respective fields. Once Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, departs later this summer, all of the President’s original economic advisers will be gone. Partly this is because the President’s emphasis on budget cutting didn’t leave them very much to do. One White House émigré told me, “It’s not a place that welcomes ideas.”

Because of the extent to which the President had allowed the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, the attitude of numerous congressional Democrats toward him became increasingly sour, even disrespectful. After Obama introduced popular entitlement programs into the budget fight, a Democratic senator described the attitude of a number of his colleagues as:

Resigned disgust at the White House: there they go again. “Mr. Halfway” keeps getting maneuvered around as Republicans move the goalposts on him.

According to a report in The Hill newspaper in late June, the tough-minded, experienced, and blunt Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California told Obama in a White House meeting that he’d asked several Republicans about their meeting with him the day before, and, “To a person, they said the President’s going to cave.” Then the congressman said to the President of the United States, “And if you’re going to cave, tell us right now.” The President was reported to have been displeased, and responded, “I’m the President of the United States; my words carry weight.”

What Were They Thinking?
Elizabeth Drew
August 18, 2011

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