Thursday, July 7, 2011

What's the matter with Barack Obama?

And so here we are again. Congress is in discord, the future of the nation is in peril, and Barack Obama has stepped into the breech, offering up a "grand bargain."

Stop me if you've heard this one before:
Obama plans to argue that a rare consensus has emerged about the size and scope of the nation's budget problems and that policymakers should seize the moment to take dramatic action.
Consensus? Dramatic action? National problems that we can't afford to leave unaddressed?

It's the Moderate-In-Chief, emerging yet again to find a bipartisan solution that both sides can agree on. We all know where this is headed. After some gentle chiding in both directions, and nothing whatsoever resembling a defense of his party's ostensible views or interests, Obama will come to some sort of compromise with Republicans. The Washington Post will cheer, the Republicans will get a lot of what they wanted, and the rest of us will be left feeling a bit dazed, wondering why we needed a bargain in the first place.

And one more time, America's progressives will find themselves asking the same question: how can Obama be so bad at this? Why can't he ever, ever, just stick his ground?

Perhaps nothing over the last two years has dismayed the left quite as much as Barack Obama's lack of negotiating prowess. The story has replayed itself so many times that it's gone from tragedy to farce and then back again: the administration makes preemptive concessions. It talks about striking a deal. Then, the Republicans (or Blue Dogs, as the case may be) take those concessions and run to the right. Wash, rinse, repeat. The depressingly predictable result: policy outcomes that inch ever closer to the Republican ideal, and seem absurdly incongruent with the reality that two-thirds of the elected branches of our government are currently Democratic.

What creates this pattern? The two main explanations on the left can be summed up as "Barack Obama is evil" or "Barack Obama is stupid." Neither is very good. I find the former view implausibly conspiratorial, as it boils down to accusing the president of being a conservative sleeper agent. And the latter view hardly jibes with everything else we know about the man, who is almost impossibly articulate when it comes to explaining complex policy matters -- particularly in comparison to his political peers. And his academic and literary credentials are astonishing to boot. You mean to tell me that the former editor-in-chief of Harvard Law Review has spent the last two years failing Negotiations 101? I don't buy it.

There's also a structural explanation -- that congressional and electoral pressure on Obama always force his hand, and he has to make concessions that he knows he shouldn't. Ordinarily, I'm quite fond of structural explanations, but this one seems increasingly weak to me. To see what I mean, look at Obama's position on the deficit vis-à-vis that of Democrats in Congress. If anything, pressure on congressional Democrats is more severe -- and yet, Obama has continually rushed to the right of them, offering up entitlement cuts that have earned the skepticism of even fiscal conservatives like Kent Conrad. (Also note that this is not always the case: whatever you believed about Obama's position on health care reform, it was consistently representative of, if not slightly more progressive than, the consensus view among Democratic congresspeople. In that instance, I found structural explanation far more persuasive.)

So in the end (no, I'm just kidding, you're nowhere near the end yet, sorry), I really do think that the problem goes to the very top. There really is some sort of persistent, recurring mistake that Obama keeps making. A cognitive error, if you will. But what could it be? I sincerely doubt it's anything too obvious, too glaring, or at some point in the last few years, someone would have located it and rectified it.

There's been a lot of speculation about this, but I actually think I've located a pretty strong candidate. I think Obama's conception of the political and policy challenges he faces is flawed in one subtle, essential respect -- but a respect that completely alters his strategy for addressing them.

The key distinction here is between one-off negotiations, where two (or more!) parties negotiate a permanent solution to a problem, and iterative negotiations, where a solution is continually renegotiated over time. Prevailing in each type of negotiation requires different tactics.

In a one-off negotiation, a party's stated principles and preferences only matter insofar as they affect the ultimate conclusion. But when that conclusion is reached, the parties' original preferences stop mattering at all, because the negotiation has finished, the game is over, the issue is off the table. Therefore, a party that is willing to bend its stated preferences in order to achieve a better substantive outcome has much to gain. They're giving up something unimportant for something important.

In an iterative negotiation, however, the dynamic changes completely. The final outcome of each negotiation might matter a little bit (it'll have an effect for some period of time, after all), but its importance is greatly diminished. That's because the final outcome is always subject to change in the next negotiation. Talks will eventually recommence -- and depending on the parameters of the problem, may recommence immediately.

In an iterative negotiation, a party's stated principles and preferences become much more important. Unlike the final outcomes, which are malleable, preferences persist from negotiation to negotiation. So while a party might win some negotiations and lose others, a party which shifts its preferences towards its opponents' is likely to effect the outcome of of all subsequent negotiations. A party might still be able to win concessions by shifting its principles, but in doing so, it would be trading something very important for a temporary benefit.

The fundamental problem with the administration's negotiating strategy should be becoming clear. It's not that Obama is a poor negotiator. (In fact, I'd argue he's quite a good negotiator, though some would likely disagree.) The problem is that he has mistaken the character of the negotiations themselves. Obama thinks he's participating in one-off negotiations, but he's actually participating in iterative negotiations.

Don't believe me? Look at the approach the administration has adopted over and over. When Obama and his administration tackle a policy problem, they typically go all-in -- they try to solve the whole thing (or as much of it as possible) in one fell swoop. They won't settle for a short-term solution on the debt, or on health-care, or taxes. They'd prefer a comprehensive solution, something large and lasting. In other words, they treat each issue like it's a one-off negotiation, which they can resolve all at once, and then shelve permanently.

If they were correct, their willingness to compromise on principles would make sense, and, indeed, might actually be the optimal negotiating strategy. But history has proven, time and again, that the administration is simply not correct about this. Nothing our government resolves stays resolved permanently. The health care bill gets passed -- and then it's contested in the courts, and maybe even in Congress come 2013. Congress reinstates PAYGO, and the Republicans strip it back out. The administration's willingness to compromise on terror prosecutions and military tribunals only sets off a new round of demands from the right.

The perfect example, though, is the current string of budget and tax and deficit bargains. Repeatedly, the administration has attempted to strike a bargain with the Republicans. And for the most part, it's succeeded. The tax cut compromise, whatever its political weaknesses, was surprisingly close to optimal policymaking (i.e., don't raise taxes during economic downturns, and raise them all during boom years). The Republicans practically got rolled in the budget compromise -- by giving lip service to spending cuts, the President was able to strike a deal while stripping all the bite out of the actual cuts. And now, even though all the structural factors are against him, it looks like Obama might be able to squeeze unexpectedly high revenue increases out of Boehner. If you look at them in isolation, each episode looks like a draw -- or even a victory! -- for Obama.

But during each negotiation, Obama also made certain ideological concessions that narrowed the range of possibilities at the next negotiation. In December, he conceded the importance of tax cuts. In March, he publicly accepted the premise that spending cuts will improve the US economy. A month ago, he acknowledged that the Republicans could legitimately make demands in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. All of which lead us to today: Obama's range of negotiating options has shrunk considerably. And the potential impact of this debt ceiling negotiation is far larger, and far longer-lasting, than the impact of either of the previous compromises. What's ended up mattering the most is not the deals Obama struck, but how he struck them. When you're brought back to bargaining table over and over again, the outcomes may change, but the you're stuck with your principles.

And this, of course, is not necessarily the final deal. Pretty soon, Obama will have to negotiate another appropriations bill. Eventually -- assuming he wins reelection -- he'll have to negotiate another debt ceiling increase. And so on, and so forth. And while the result could conceivably shift in either direction, Obama will be largely stuck with the set of policy preferences he's establishing as we speak. The outcomes may change, but you're stuck with your principles.

In short, the thing that perpetually undermines Obama is his affinity for thinking big. He seeks out comprehensive solutions and sweeping bargains. It's a noble impulse. It's not hard to see why the administration finds it so seductive.

But it's also precisely the wrong tack to take most of the time. Politics isn't a one-off game. It's not a chess match that both parties play to conclusion, and then no further. Even if Obama were able strike the grandest bargain of them all, and address all the nation's ills in perpetuity, CNN wouldn't go dark, the Republicans wouldn't all go home, and the entire Washington Post editorial board wouldn't retire. The same set of people would continue to revisit the problems that Obama had already fixed, with an updated set of critiques.

Politics is an interminable series of recurring standoffs and renegotiations that stretches ahead far into the future. It's neverending. And if you want to win at politics, you should probably forget about grand bargains and definitive solutions, because solutions rarely last forever. You have to play the long game. Whether you like it or not.


  1. if you have time, it'd be interesting to see your response to this - - which paints a pretty different picture of this whole thing. Either Obama and his team don't realize what you're saying, and while that's possible I think it's highly unlikely given the education and experience in the white house, or the discrepancy between what would nominally constitute a "win" (long-term or short-term) and what is actually happening is illusory. I think they're getting, largely, exactly what they want.

  2. That view always seems to come down to the idea of Obama the Omnipotent President, the Master Conspirator, the Super Shock-Doctrinist*, who has gotten himself elected, and then, apparently, intentionally lost the House to Republicans, and then, apparently, waited until literally two weeks before the last possible moment to act, before finally ripping away the curtain from his grand neo-liberal agenda to destroy the social safety net. People like Greenwald make fun of Obama supporters for the whole "playing 11th dimensional chess" thing, but you can't claim that Obama's getting what he wanted all along without also suspecting that the guy is capable of some serious 11th dimensional grandmastery.

    No, I prefer my theory (and Occam's Razor does too): tactical bumbling + institutional pressures = bad outcomes sometimes.

    And don't even get me started on the health care fiasco -- something I see Greenwald still can't let go -- where it was pretty readily apparent -- you know, from the fact that Obama and liberal Dems literally salvaged the bill from the brink of total collapse like three separate times -- that the Dems could have hardly gotten one iota more than they actually got.

    One more thing: Greenwald's theory that Obama is both willing and able to just enforce his will on congressional Dems, because he's just that bad, took approximately twelve hours to be refuted. Pelosi has made it quite clear that she's not going to take significant entitlement cuts lying down. I'm obviously not in favor of Obama's position here either, but I think he's making a giant political error, not outing himself as some sort of horrendous amalgamation of Doctor Doom and F.A. Hayek.

    *I like the nod to the shock doctrine in this article, because it reminds me how all these dumb quasi-conspiratorial ideas all fit together. Naomi Klein is a crappy historian who was too busy sounding the alarm about our corporatist** overlords to ever notice that her theory amounted to little more than "People who prefer economic liberalization often continue to pursue liberalizing policies after a disaster." Which hardly seems shocking at all!

    **Glenn Greenwald doesn't seem to know what this word means, by the way.

  3. So that's a comment. I think you're mischaracterizing a lot of what greenwald/the left have to say about Obama, and I'm pretty sure you haven't read the Shock Doctrine. But that's fair - I'm sure there's a lot of centrist literature I haven't read (I'm not sure I'd make disparaging comments about them, though).

    In any case, if you want to have an actual discussion about this, that's cool - I'm on google chat most of the time at work and at home when my internet's working, so hit me up any time. This would probably be better served through dialogue than through snarky comments (man, I had one hell of a snarky comment planned out to respond to yours, too, haha). If not, cool - thanks for explaining where you're coming from, and expressing the degree to which this is an emotional issue for you. Right on.


  4. I disagree with your view -- are you actually suggesting that Obama always hoped to gut social security? I don't really understand the motives you're trying to pin on him at all -- but the vitriol was directed at Greenwald, whose contribution to political discussion I feel is often a net negative, if not outright poisonous. As for the The Shock Doctrine, I haven't read the whole thing but I've read a fair chunk, and I stopped for good reason. Unless the last paragraph said something along the lines of "Psyche!" I don't know what she was going to do to salvage her thesis. Broadly speaking, I think all of these ideas suffer from the same fundamental defect: an assumption that we live in a world where bad things happen because someone wanted them to happen and made them happen. And as best as I've ever been able to tell, we live in a world where bad things happen because people are short-sighted and fallible, and complex machines like governments and societies degrade, fail, jam, and malfunction with alarming regularity.