What Were Obama’s Real Options?

Aug 1 2011 @ 10:35am

It’s worth asking. The inarguable fact is that he is presiding over a debt of massive proportions in a weak economy – and the debt is scheduled to get far, far worse over the next decade. Most Americans favored a blend of tax hikes and spending cuts to move us toward fiscal sanity. But the GOP successfully stuck to its refusal to allow any more revenues, and Obama was ambivalent enough about new taxes in the middle of this low-growth recovery to allow them to get their way. In a negotiation where one party is insanely committed and the other is marginally ambivalent, we all know who wins.

He really had only one other option, as PM Carpenter notes: insist on a clean debt ceiling rise and promise to use the 14th Amendment to enforce it against GOP intransigence. Apart from the constitutional question, this would easily have made him look like the big spender in a debt-ridden country and made him more vulnerable next year. More to the point and to Obama’s character and temperament, I just don’t think he could do that and remain a responsible president. In a battle for the votes of ideological purists on the right and the left, Obama would have lost to the GOP, and lost his own critical brand as the mediator, the non-ideologue.

The fundamental constraint is that the debt is so high. He’s not really responsible for the vast majority of that, but that’s the way the gluten-free cookie doesn’t crumble. Some may believe the debt should go much higher to help the recovery along. But I see no political way to pull that off. Again: the debt is so high.

This is a not entirely apposite analogy, but I remember once trying to negotiate cutting an article to size at TNR. The author, a pompous law prof, produced a long, arcane piece that could do with lopping off about a third. I did so, with minimal damage to the core argument. But the author resisted. He told me he had just recovered from heart surgery and the stress of having his article cut might precipitate a heart attack. I’m not making this up. What did I do? I reinstated the whole article and ran it. I was not willing to be responsible for the death of another human being over 300 words.

I gave in. Sometimes, when dealing with fanatics, hostage takers or ornery authors, it’s what you’ve got to do. And to be fair to the GOP, they ran on a platform like this and won back the House. They have a legitimate place at the table even if they used it for blackmail. Obama surrendered because he really had no adult, responsible choice but to fiddle with the terms of surrender. The president is not a dictator. Nor should he be.