The problem with Obama’s ‘go-big’ debt ceiling strategy


The “big deal” debt solution between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seems to have fallen apart after initial optimism last week. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, writes Ezra Klein: All that hope for a deal in the offing was built, at least in part, on the false belief that John Boehner is a reasonable man and will help to close the deal, even if the rest of his party is driving a much harder line.

But there’s another reason the “go-big” strategy had a long shot, even if President Obama is still pushing for it on Monday morning. Usually, breakthrough accomplishments happen after a series of smaller deals help to build trust, bridge alliances and create a foundation of confidence between two opposing parties. Going for the ‘big’ when there’s been almost no ‘small’ is not the way most compromises get made.

Don’t get me wrong: Our current situation calls for grand thinking. Aiming for powerful solutions and sidelining the small-bore is what we expect from people we call leaders in a time of crisis. The country faces the potential for market panic, a ticking time bomb of financial catastrophe, and $14.3 trillion in debt that must be grappled with immediately.

But actually expecting such big deals to succeed when there’s been almost no history of small agreements upon which to build them is far-fetched, indeed. Yes, the government managed to avert a shutdown in April. Still, that was an act of political desperation on both sides, in which the timeline went to the wire, the political consequences were too great, and both sides seemed more relieved a shut down had been averted than pleased with the actual concessions and deal-making that took place.

I’m not an expert on political history, but the two sides trying to negotiate the debt ceiling are surely further apart (not only on the issues, but on relationships) than our two-party system has been at least in recent memory. The fact that President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner had never met in a non-work setting before their much-publicized “golf summit”—much less that their respective parties have what’s surely one of the worst records of bipartisan legislation and action leading up to the debt-ceiling debate—does not bode well for trying to take on tax reform, Medicare spending and a multi-trillion deficit in one fell swoop.

I commend the president and Speaker Boehner for trying to pull together “the largest possible deal,” as the president called it in his Monday press conference. Maybe there’s still a chance something that doesn’t kick the can down the road a little further can be done. But given the lack of trust and the missing history of small wins—those usual building blocks of grand compromises—I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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