Why Obama Negotiates

| Mon May. 16, 2011 3:15 PM PDT

Why is Barack Obama allowing Republicans to make demands on him as a condition of raising the debt ceiling? The other day I suggested that it was because he wants Republicans to make demands on him. And why is that? Partly I think it's because he genuinely wants to address spending levels but wants Republican cover for it. Greg Sargent says the other half of the answer lies in Obama's desire to win back independents:

As David Axelrod said in a recent interview with bloggers, after the midterms Obama’s advisers concluded that they needed to get back to “first principles” and recapture what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined Obama’s first principles as follows: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”

It seems clear that Obama and his advisers think laying down a firm marker — playing the game the way Republicans do — makes him sound like just another Washington politician. Saying “no,” as Krugman puts it, risks miring Obama in the same mud as all the rest of the partisan mud-slingers on both sides. The health care wars left Obama splattered with that mud. Signaling openness to compromise at the outset while articulating general principles as opposed to bottom lines — whatever it does for the Dems’ negotiating position — is central to Obama’s political identity and is the best way to recapture the aura that propelled him into the White House in the first place. It might be called “Beer Summit-ism.”

I think this is about right. My guess is that Obama views the lame duck compromise last year as both a policy and a political win. And I think he's probably right. Likewise, he also views some modest combination of spending cuts and revenue increases (probably via reductions in tax expenditures) as both a policy and a political win, but by making Republicans go first he gets cover for his left flank and gets to seem like the reasonable compromiser. Lefties won't like it but their grumbling will be mostly pro forma, and independents will be impressed.

And Republicans would be wise to go ahead and agree to something. It might be a political win for Obama, but frankly, they don't seem especially serious about trying to win the presidency next year. Might as well give Dems a political win now when it doesn't really make much difference.

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