Why the White House changed course
President Obama’s deficit-reduction plan (pdf) is most interesting for what’s not in it. It does not cut Social Security by “chaining” the program’s cost-of-living increases. It does not raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. Nor does it include any other major concessions to Republicans. Rather, the major compromise it makes is with political reality — a reality that the White House would prefer not to have had to acknowledge.
Since the election, the Obama administration’s working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with Speaker John Boehner.
That was the thinking that led the White House to reward the GOP’s debt-ceiling brinksmanship by offering Boehner a “grand bargain” that cut Social Security, raised the Medicare age, and included less new revenue than even the bipartisan Gang of Six had called for. It was also a theory that happened to fit Obama’s brand as a postpartisan uniter and his personal preferences for campaigning on achievements rather than against his opponents. But though it came close to happening, the “grand bargain” ultimately fell apart. Twice.
The collapse of that deal taught them two things: Boehner doesn’t have the internal support in his caucus to strike a grand bargain with them, and the American people don’t give points for effort.
The administration was initially pleased to see press reports detailing their willingness to compromise and surveys showing the American people thought the GOP far more intransigent. In their theory of politics, that meant they were winning. But they soon learned that voters aren’t interested in compromises that don’t lead to results. Obama looked like a nice guy, and that kept him personally popular. But he looked like an ineffectual leader, and that led his job approval to dip below 40 percent in some polls.
Perhaps the final and most conclusive evidence that the strategy had failed came last week, when Democrats lost special elections in Nevada and New York. Both seats were winnable for the Democrats. Both were lost to candidates who focused most of their fire on the president. It was a far cry from the special election in May, when Democrat Kathy Hochul picked up a Republican-leaning seat by hammering her opponent’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare-slashing budget.
The White House could have been hammering that message since the day the House Republican Conference passed Ryan’s budget. They didn’t. The truth is, they didn’t want to. The president doesn’t think of himself as that kind of Democrat. He believes that there are sensible cuts that can be made to both Medicare and Social Security. He would like to win by governing effectively, by cutting deals with the other party, by making Washington work. He doesn’t want to run a generic Democratic campaign hammering Republicans for being willing to cut Medicare even as they cut taxes on the rich.
And for the last few months, he gave what Sarah Palin might call “the hopey-changey thing” a shot. But it failed. The choice, it turned out, wasn’t between winning by making tough choices and hard compromises and winning by running as a populist. It was between losing because he was unable to get Washington to make tough choices and hard compromises and trying something else. So now the White House is trying something else.
The new theory goes something like this: The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it’s more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise that takes some of the Democrats’ most potent attacks off the table.
But the second-best outcome isn’t necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It’s looking like the strongest leader in the room. That’s why Obama, somewhat unusually for him, attached a veto threat to his deficit plan: If the supercommittee sends him a package that cuts benefits for Medicare beneficiaries but leaves the rich untouched, he says he’ll kick the plan back to Congress. Rather than emphasizing his willingness to meet Boehner’s bottom lines, which was the communications strategy during the debt ceiling showdown, he’s emphasizing his unwillingness to bend on his bottom lines.
That isn’t how the White House would prefer to govern. It’s not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let’s admit it, politics-as-usual. It’s the triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. But it’s also the only option they have left.