Understanding Obama

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 10:51 AM EDT

Josh Marshall asks a question that I've been asked via email a few times:

There are many things I do not understand about the progress of this so-called debt negotiation. But of many here's one that perplexes me the most. If Hill Republicans will not allow the government to continue borrowing money beyond the current statutory debt limit, I think there's probably a decent constitutional argument that the president must shut down parts of the government....And the most logical places to start are with Social Security payments and Medicare reimbursements. Stuff like cutting Social Security checks in half starting the following week.

There are plenty of ways you could piece it together. But I think it's fair to say that there's no way to do it without immediate and huge cuts to entitlements and the military. Discretionary spending just isn't a big enough piece of the pie. So why the adamant refusal to put this in front of the public?

I think that this fundamentally misjudges Obama. Eventually things may come to this, but the fact is that he genuinely wants a deal. If he can't get one, then obviously he wants to maneuver things so that Republicans get the blame. But that's a fallback position. His primary position is that he really, truly wants to make a significant deal that includes both large spending cuts and moderate (but still substantial) tax increases. Once you understand this, a lot of seemingly inexplicable things suddenly make sense.

So why isn't Obama making it clear that Social Security checks will dry up if Republicans refuse to do a deal? Because that would put pressure on Republicans to simply cave in and raise the debt ceiling. But that isn't what Obama wants. He wants a deal.

I don't know all the reasons for this. But my guesses are fairly conventional. (1) Obama truly believes that the long-term debt is a problem, and this is a good opportunity to do something about it with bipartisan cover. (2) He wants Republicans on record as supporting a tax increase. Why? Perhaps he believes that once he's forced Republicans away from an absolutist position, that position is gone for good and it will make future negotiations less hostile. (3) He's courting independents, and independents want a deal that gets concessions from both sides.

But the reasons don't matter much. Just do this: whenever you think Obama has done something dumb or weak-minded or inexplicable, remind yourself that he doesn't necessarily have the same goals as you. He sincerely wants a deal that involves concessions from both sides, and once you understand that his actions will suddenly seem a lot less dumb, weak-minded, and inexplicable. In fact, they'll seem pretty obvious.