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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 07/22/2011

Principles for the president

Barack Obama is taking quite a bit of heat from liberals right now, as he continues to negotiate a debt limit/deficit deal with John Boehner and, more or less, anyone else willing to negotiate. Paul Krugman probably voices the liberal panic best, asking (in an item entitled “Conceder in Chief”): “What evidence do we have that Obama knows what he’s doing?”

The problem is that it’s awfully difficult to analyze a poker game when no one has seen the cards yet, and reports of the bidding are not to be trusted. Is the problem (that is, what would be a problem for liberals) that Barack Obama truly cares more about deficit reduction than he does about liberal priorities? Perhaps. Is it that Obama is desperate to avoid default and willing to do whatever it takes to avoid it — even things he personally would agree are terrible policy? That’s possible, too. So I don’t want to judge the president’s choices, at least not yet.

The one thing I’d remind liberals is that most, if not all, of this is a straightforward consequence of the 2010 election: The House really is this wacky, and the truth is that whatever happens will still be very far from the median House position. But of course that doesn’t mean the president didn’t, and doesn’t, have choices, and it doesn’t mean he’s making the best ones.

The one thing I’d remind liberals is that most, if not all, of this is a straightforward consequence of the 2010 election: The House really is this wacky, and the truth is that whatever happens will still be very far from the median House position. But of course that doesn’t mean the president didn’t, and doesn’t, have choices, and it doesn’t mean he’s making the best ones.

What I’d tell the president, if he were seeking advice is that he’s probably correct that an economic cataclysm caused by the GOP-manufactured debt-limit crisis would probably, although not certainly, cost him in the 2012 elections; beyond that, if would of course be terrible for the nation. Finding a way to avoid it is his most urgent job. Beyond that, the president should try to get the best possible policy results. How does a president do that? He should worry about himself, as the presidential scholar Richard Neustadt advised. He should worry, in particular, about how any deal would affect his reputation with others in Washington. Will he be seen as double-crossing his friends? With capitulating to his opponents? If so, he’s going to find the rest of his term that much harder. Not only that — Neustadt’s claim, which I think is basically correct, is that worrying about his own reputation is the best method presidents have for finding clues about what policies might really work.

The alternatives for a president to worrying about himself are to either do what he thinks is right — a dangerous choice, because presidents are not experts at most things — or even worse, to try to do something big and durable for its own sake. In other words, worrying about Rushmore, not negotiating next month’s appropriations bills. If that’s what’s driving Obama (and again, it’s really hard to guess from what we know now), then the liberals are right, and he’s fallen off the rails pretty severely. 

By  |  10:50 AM ET, 07/22/2011

 
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