Obama's Great Expectation

As we watch the debate that has dominated Washington for the last couple of months, it's hard not to think we've found ourselves in some satirical play about the absurdity of contemporary politics. Today -- four days before we hit the debt ceiling -- House Speaker John Boehner is expected to bring his deficit-reduction plan to a vote after finally whipping his caucus into shape, but the plan is considered a no-go in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid and 57 other senators have threatened to veto it. It shouldn't have been surprising that the best summation of the situation came from a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Congress Continues Debate Over Whether Or Not Nation Should Be Economically Ruined."

When we look back on this period of insanity, we will see that the moment essential to understanding what happened came on December 7, 2010. A month after the Republicans won the House in the midterm elections, but before the new members had taken office, President Barack Obama negotiated a deal to continue benefits for the long-term unemployed in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts as Republicans demanded. During the press conference announcing the deal, a reporter asked whether the White House had considered including an increase in the debt ceiling, since not doing so would give the Republicans a good deal of leverage once the ceiling was reached. At first, Obama seemed puzzled. "When you say it would seem they'll have a significant amount of leverage over the White House, what do you mean?" he asked.

The reporter replied that the Republicans could refuse to raise the ceiling unless they extracted painful budget cuts, to which the president said, "Look, here's my expectation -- and I'll take John Boehner at his word -- that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen. And so I think that there will be significant discussions about the debt-limit vote. That's something that nobody ever likes to vote on. But once John Boehner is sworn in as speaker, then he's going to have responsibilities to govern. You can't just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower."

Oh, but you can. Eight months later, it is clear that Obama drastically underestimated the damage the Tea Partiers, whose hands firmly grip the rudder of the GOP, are willing to inflict on the country to serve their ideology. He failed to realize that when someone says about today's Republicans, "Well, they'd never go that far," one should always reply, "Yes, they would." Nothing is more dangerous than a fundamentalist with visions of righteous carnage dancing in their eyes, and the party's right wing is in a rapturous frenzy. Tell them that if we don't raise the debt ceiling, we'll have to shut down nearly half the government -- which would mean closing the courts, shuttering the FBI and CIA, abandoning border-patrol posts and air-traffic-control towers and a thousand other things -- and they can barely conceal their giddy smiles. Obama may believe that Boehner has no desire to send America into default for the first time in history, and he may be right. But Boehner is a man hanging on to power by his fingernails. And any deal he makes can't be sold to his own caucus.

So for the moment, Boehner pretends to negotiate. He goes to the White House; he walks away. He says he wants a deal, then he refuses to return the president's phone calls. At the last moment in negotiations last Friday, he apparently demanded that any deal include a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual insurance mandate. When you demand that as the price for an agreement the other party undo the most significant piece of social legislation it's passed in four decades, you're doing it because you know its leaders will say no. It would have been hardly more serious to demand that Obama appoint Sarah Palin his vice president, then immediately resign.

As long as you don't care about the substance of what this is all about -- whether Republicans can be persuaded to let the hostage go with merely draconian cuts to government, or whether they'll manage to extract truly nightmarish cuts -- you could see things developing positively for the White House. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans view Obama as the responsible one and that Republicans look intransigent. It's possible that Obama has shrewdly manipulated the situation to produce just this outcome. Maybe he'll get a "grand bargain" on spending and taxes, but if not, at least he'll come out smelling better than the other side. In liberal circles, this is sometimes referred to sarcastically as the "eleven-dimensional chess" argument: Despite appearances, Obama's strategic thinking is so sophisticated that he operates on a level the rest of us can barely comprehend.

Maybe. But we've arrived where we are not only because Obama seemed to misunderstand the nature of today's Republican Party but also because he made a decision that he was no longer even going to try to do anything significant about the country's abysmal job situation. It's true that every once and a while he gives a speech about a worthy idea like a national infrastructure bank, which then promptly gets forgotten. But the biggest thing he wants to do between now and his re-election campaign is reach a huge deficit-reduction agreement. Perhaps the administration has simply grown fatalistic on jobs, believing that none of the limited number of things it can do to promote growth will be able to pass a Republican House. So the administration has adopted the Republican position that it's a good idea to pull money out of an economy that is still struggling.

It didn't have to be this way. Six months ago, Obama could have said, "We are not going to cut the deficit now; we're focusing on job growth." Politics is about choices, and that would have been a debate Democrats could win on the merits: Choose between creating jobs and cutting deficits. How would Republicans have responded? By saying that the deficit is an existential threat, and then by taking the country's economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Which is what they did anyway. Obama lost the argument by deciding not to have it at all. So while Republicans are riven by internal dissent, with the American public increasingly disgusted at their behavior, in the ways that really matter, they've already won.

Let's assume that one way or another, the ceiling is raised before the deadline of August 2 (when the government will no longer be able to pays its bills). At that point, Obama will proudly come before the cameras to assure Americans that the ship of state has been righted and is sailing steadily forward once more. Pundits will praise him for besting his opponents, who look more reckless and unworthy of power than ever. Obama's approval ratings may even tick up a point or two, for now. And all over the country, Americans will say, "So what? When am I going to be able to get a goddamn job?" And Washington will have no answer.

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