Obama's Debt Negotiations: An Untransformational President

Liberals thought they were getting a transformational president. Instead, they’re saddled with Mr. Reasonable.

Remember back when Barack Obama talked about being a transformational president? You know, how Reagan was one, Clinton wasn’t, and Obama himself would be? Whatever happens in the ongoing debt negotiations, whatever happens in the next election, we already know that this is a fantasy. The news that Obama is willing to place Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid on the poker table reveals yet again, and more starkly than ever before, what’s most important to him. It’s not to lead. It’s not to fight. It’s not even to win. It’s to be the most reasonable and unflappable person in the room. Obama will not be a transformational president unless the transformation starts in his own DNA.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze the president too much. I’m familiar with the theory that emanates from Janny Scott’s book about his mother—how the important thing in Indonesia, where Obama spent crucial socializing years of his childhood, is show that your small-minded foes haven’t rattled you. I’m deeply sympathetic with the mental and emotional armature that must be donned by a young black man growing up in a white household and mostly white world—the need to prove that one is superior, and the need to do so quietly, in a way others have no choice but to respect.

In many walks of life, these would be outstanding qualities. Obama would, like his brother-in-law, make a good college basketball coach. But in this White House at this point in history with this much at stake and facing this perfervid opposition, these qualities are serving him and the Americans who want to believe in him very poorly.

They certainly aren’t the qualities of a transformational leader. Transformational leaders fight and draw lines in the sand. I’ve been stunned, both in the spring during the government shutdown negotiations and now, that Obama has hardly ever gone to the American people to insist firmly that there are some things he would never abide. (He did so once, back in April, when he said that he would never again extend lower tax rates for upper-income Americans.) In these recent crucial weeks, the president has hardly said a word about what is sacred or inviolate.

Perhaps centrist conservative David Frum puts it best:

Obama never publicly branded the debt ceiling as "if the Republicans force this country into bankruptcy." He issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue. He did not warn that he would manage any crisis in ways that Republicans would not like. ("If the Republicans in Congress deny me the authority to pay everybody, then I'm going to have to choose some priorities. I don't think it's likely that Texas-based defense contractors will find themselves at the top of my list.")

Could you imagine Obama issuing a threat like that? Never. Why? Because it wouldn’t appear to be reasonable. And so, instead, the president has appealed again and again to Republicans’ sense of civic responsibility. As Frum goes on to comment, “good luck with that.”

Maybe this will work out, adding entitlements to the negotiations. Maybe it really will get Republicans to move on tax expenditures and break the logjam. And maybe, depending on what specifics emerge, it won’t be such horrible policy. A switch to a “chained” Consumer Price Index would mean only a few dollars of reduction in benefits a year for most Social Security recipients, at least at first. And it would raise revenues because the marginal tax brackets would be tied to it as well (there is no short way to explain this; start here if you’re interested). So it could be that Obama knows what he’s doing.

But it doesn’t seem very likely. Oh, I know the arguments. He has to win back independent voters, and they’ll be impressed if he is seen as having orchestrated a deal. He thinks about substance, whereas congressional Democrats, are parochial little martinets who have the luxury of playing to their base. There is truth in all these assertions. But I can guarantee you that ever since the House and Senate voted for Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have been desperate for some action they could cling to that would take it out of the conversation. A bipartisan agreement “strengthening” Social Security and Medicare—placed before them by Obama himself!—is more than they could have dreamed.

Obama might end up being Reagan-like, but not in the way he used to mean it. Now that I think about it, Reagan-like would be an improvement. Reagan at least raised Social Security payroll taxes and cut benefits only to future retirees, and only way, way down the road. Obama is cutting those taxes and (probably) cutting benefits now, and taking his fellow Democrats’ best campaign issue (the Ryan budget) out from under them. It's all quite reasonable--but I don't think it's the kind of transformation most of his 2008 voters had in mind.