I see a discussion has broken out among liberal bloggers over one of the perennial mysteries of the Obama presidency: Why won’t he draw hard lines in negotiations? Why won’t he say No to hostage takers?
With it looking more likely that Obama and Dems may walk away from the debt ceiling talks with a bad deal, Matthew Yglesias lays the blame on Obama for squandering an opportunity early on to “dig in his heels and simply refuse to compromise.” Jon Chait seconds this, arguing that Obama failed to anticipate just how prepared Republicans were to use the debt ceiling to hold the country hostage.
Kevin Drum dissents, saying it’s inconceivable that Obama and Dems wouldn’t have anticipated these things. Instead, Drum says, Obama wanted to get drawn into negotiations where he could cut spending and blame the mean old Republicans for making him do it.
I continue to maintain that the explanation for Obama’s conduct is right out there on the public record. His advisers have made his thinking on these matters very clear. Right after the 2010 “shellacking,” they concluded that their number one political task was to win back independents. How? As the Post reported at the time, “they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.”
David Axelrod recently spelled this out, claiming that after the midterms Obama and his advisers decided they needed to return to what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined that this way: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”
Obama and his team concluded that the messy and noisy passage of a raft of ambitious initiatives muddied up his image as a post-partisan conciliator who was elected because he promised America he wouldn’t get caught up in the partisan food-fights of old. Obama hoped — perhaps naively — to maintain this promise once the honeymoon ended and the serious fights over real legislation began. He tried summit after summit, to no avail. He was forced to pass his entire agenda over near-unanimous Republican opposition. All the mud that got kicked up in the process sullied the aura that lifted him into the White House in the first place.
Obama and his team decided the best way to recapture his central political identity — even at risk of weaking Dems in negotiations — was to re-emphasize his role as a conciliator who simply refuses to accept that Washington needs to be the way it is and who won’t ever abandon his faith that differences can be bridged. This was his original vision of the presidency in any case, and it was only confirmed for him and his team by the lift he got in the polls after the Bush tax cut deal. Obama doesn’t draw hard lines because he doesn’t want to be seen drawing hard lines. He doesn’t refuse to compromise because he doesn’t want to be seen refusing to compromise. This simply isn’t how he thinks the presidency, or at least his presidency, should function.
I’m not endorsing that view. I’m just saying that the answer to what may be the central conundrum of his presidency seems pretty obvious. It’s who he is.