Why Is Obama Such a Wimp?

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 10:48 AM EDT

There's a fair amount of armchair psychoanalyzing here, but Bruce Bartlett has an interesting theory today about why President Obama continually thinks that pre-emptive compromise will bring Republicans to the table: it's because he never had the pleasure of negotiating with either the Soviet Union or Big Labor, a pair of opponents who could very quickly disabuse presidents of the idea that nice guys finish first:

Consequently, Obama has really been caught flat-footed by the Tea Party era Republican Party. He believed it would respond positively if he offered it half a loaf on just about every issue.

For example, some 40 percent of the 2009 stimulus legislation consisted of tax cuts even though his economic advisers knew that they would have almost no stimulative effect....Obama offered Republicans another half-loaf by putting forward a health reform plan almost identical to those that they and conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation had proposed in the 1990s....Last December, he caved in to Republicans by supporting extension of the Bush tax cuts even though there is no evidence that they have done anything other than increase the deficit....Foreseeing that Obama lacked leverage in the debt negotiations that everyone knew were coming, I tried to give him some by explaining why the 14th amendment to the Constitution gave him the authority to disregard the debt limit if the Treasury runs out of cash, as it will next week....But on July 7, the Treasury Department publicly ruled out the idea.

....I think if Obama had the sort of experience that Cold War presidents had in dealing with the Soviet Union or that corporate executives and union leaders had in negotiating labor contracts he wouldn’t have been so naïve about the Republicans, who have never hidden the fact that their only objective is defeating him next year regardless of the cost. It’s not too late for Obama to play hardball, but I fear that it is just not in his nature.

Maybe there's something to this — though I'd note that neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush had any experience with communists or union leaders either. My biggest objection, though, is that I'm not sure it would have mattered. If Obama had negotiated with nerves of steel, would he have gotten better deals throughout his presidency? I don't think so. Unlike labor bosses and Soviet bosses, who could be pressured because there were things they wanted that a president could provide, Republicans — and especially tea party Republicans — want nothing that Obama can feasibly give them. If Obama had been tough as nails, they would have followed a path of total obstruction and nihilism anyway. Maybe some details here and there would have changed, but on the whole it just wouldn't have made any difference.

So I guess I'm open to this idea, but not sold on it. Tougher negotiation with centrists in his own party might have moved the needle a bit, but I doubt that Obama ever had any real leverage over Republicans. So, since banging his shoe on the lectern wouldn't have worked, he decided to give compromise a try. It didn't work, but I'm not sure he really lost anything by it.1

1And electorally, it might still be a winner. Obama believes that his reelection depends on votes from independents, and he further believes that independents react well to a conspicuous display of reasonableness. He might be right.

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