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Leave Barack Obama Alone

The debt ceiling debate has widened the progressive-centrist rift in the Democratic party, as liberals vent their frustrations at the president. In practical terms, it’s misplaced.

Barack Obama Joe Biden White House

 

“Democratic control is a lot more similar to what you get with divided government.” —economist Noel Johnson

Eric Zorn asks the question many of us are asking: is Barack Obama a bad negotiator, or a moderate?

I’ve spoken my peace, but ultimately: who knows what moderation lurks in the hearts of men? Maybe it’s time for the left to focus the heat not on Obama, but on Congress.

Consider: neither the GOP nor the Tea Party is overwhelmingly powerful. The GOP has only a majority in the House. And the Republican leadership in the House has, it would seem from the debt-ceiling debate, less control over the Tea Party caucus than the Democratic leadership has over even its most left-leaning members. So little, in fact, that David Corn makes the compelling argument that Nancy Pelosi basically did John Boehner’s job for him during the endgame.

(My theory for the purpose of the Super Congress: it’s more like the “please be quiet and let us drive the car” Congress.)

But it turns out having an intransigent caucus willing to risk establishment scorn actually leads to a powerful negotiating position. Which leads Ezra Klein to argue that the White House needs to negotiate more like the GOP.

Unfortunately, the White House has shown no instinct to do so. It doesn’t seem to be part of Obama’s personality; it’s never really been a part of his political calculus; and the president really isn’t a good person to look to for ideological variety, since he or she is elected by the whole of the country, and will lean towards the center for the same reason pop music does. Whatever the reasons, the odds simply aren’t good.

What the Tea Party has cleverly done is work with the system as it’s designed: the House, elected as it is from regions, gives individual citizens, or at least smaller voting blocs, more leverage within Washington. And as a recent Pew poll shows, Tea Partiers just outworked their counterparts on the left during the budget debate. And the arena they won in was the House; it’s the only arena they have right now. I can’t help but think some of that has to do with progressives’ focus on the president.

The best post I’ve read about this comes from No More Mister Nice Blog, where the author points out that centrist Democrats have proposed both a Balanced Budget Amendment and attempted to gin up a fight over the debt ceiling well before it crossed the minds of the Tea Party caucus. Even if Obama has a secretly bleeding heart, he’s only the last step in how a bill becomes a law.

I get why progressives are mad at the president, and perception of his liberal bona fides aside, he’s been slow to move on some of his actual stump promises. But the White House isn’t the most effective vessel for that frustration, as the Tea Party has shown where the fulcrum is.

Update II: Kevin Drum:

I’m not trying to make it sound like presidents are powerless. They can set agendas, they have control of executive orders, they have a pretty free hand in foreign policy, they can sway public opinion, they can lead their own party, and they can bargain with the other party.1 But Richard Neustadt taught us a long time ago that presidential power is distinctly limited.

Update: Jonathan Coulton explains proper political negotiating strategy. “I’m not surprised to see you haven’t thought it through enough / you never had the brains for all that bigger-picture stuff / but Tom, that’s what I do / and I plan on eating you / slowly.”

Photograph: The White House

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