President Obama’s leftward shift on budget issues is being portrayed as proof that compromise can’t work in Washington. He gave his all to achieve a grand bargain to fix the nation’s finances, according to this version of history, and was done in by Republican intransigence. His willingness to compromise was a weakness that the opposition was happy to exploit.
This is not correct. Obama’s weakness lies not in seeking compromise but in seeking it with insufficient conviction. Achieving a grand bargain would have taken real steel. Obama never embraced the hard choices nor told the hard truths he promised during his campaign. As with Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, he hedged his bets.
This is not to say that Obama is as culpable as the Republicans are for today’s paralysis. Even a full-court press might have failed, given their intransigence and the high attrition rate of moderates in Congress. But let’s not pretend that the experiment was run.
Obama’s principal first-term priority was a health-care bill that created vast new entitlements along with promising but fragile efforts at cost control and dubious commitments to pay for it all. The most plausible revenue-raiser and cost-controller, the “Cadillac tax” on high-value employer-provided health plans, was unpopular, especially with his base, so the president supported only a watered-down version, and even that will not take effect until after a possible second Obama term has ended.
He vowed to pivot to fiscal reform once health care was in the bag. But he didn’t back the most likely vehicle, a congressionally chartered fiscal reform commission, when his support might have mattered. Instead he created the next best thing — a presidential commission with fewer powers — but when that Bowles-Simpson panel produced a credible plan, with majority bipartisan support, Obama let it twist slowly in the wind.
The budget he submitted in February would not have curtailed the national debt. It avoided serious reforms of Social Security and Medicare, which would have angered his base, and of the tax system, which would have angered just about everyone. In April, after Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) put forward a Republican counterproposal, Obama responded with a campaign-style attack — and, whether intentionally or not, with discourtesy to Ryan to boot.
Only when Republicans were holding the nation hostage in July with their threat not to raise the debt ceiling did Obama enter into serious negotiations. And when those threatened to succeed — when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to $800 billion in increased revenue as part of a deficit-reduction plan — Obama upped the ante, suggesting $400 billion more, and the negotiations blew up.
Now, that last piece of history can be written differently, too. Boehner’s agreement was tenuous and hedged. It’s not clear that he could have brought enough of his party along, and he may well not have been willing to risk his speakership to find out. Reaching a grand bargain depended on a level of trust between Obama and Boehner that wasn’t there.
But one reason it wasn’t there on Boehner’s side, one can fairly imagine, is that Obama had yet to show much willingness to take risks himself. If the speaker saw Obama’s offers to compromise as an effort to show independent voters that he was the reasonable one and to position Boehner as the extremist — well, you can understand why Boehner might have felt that way.
What would it have looked like had Obama truly pivoted toward fiscal reform and staked his presidency on its success? You might have seen an address to a joint session devoted only to that subject, campaign swings demanding that Congress act, angry news conferences calling out those standing in the way — yes, the level of effort that Obama has summoned for his jobs bill but never did for fiscal sanity.
Special-interest groups would have been angry, but voters, who know the country is in trouble and who polls show understand the need for a mix of tax increases and entitlement reforms, might have cheered. Republicans might have felt the heat. Obama might have proved that reconciliation, if firmly pursued, is a mark of strength and a route to popularity.
Naive, his political advisers would no doubt say. And maybe so. But it’s the alternative route that has brought the president a 39 percent approval rating.
No doubt there are many reasons for that, some largely beyond Obama’s control, first among those the economy. But don’t blame his risking all for compromise. When it came to a grand bargain, the president’s sin was timidity, not zeal.