A shift in posture, a sense of ‘weakness’

The House Republican leadership team
The House Republican leadership team
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Soon after the elections, still riding high from an electoral mandate and improved poll numbers, President Obama entered fiscal talks with congressional Republicans with the appropriate posture. He starting drawing lines in the sand, making unambiguous demands, and presented an offer that Democrats actually liked – without preemptive concessions.

But as talks progressed, the president felt the need to change his posture and show some flexibility. House Speaker John Boehner made a concession over the weekend, and so Obama responded with some compromises of his own.

The fact that Republicans found Obama’s concessions inadequate is not surprising. But Ezra Klein highlights a more important takeaway from yesterday’s machinations.

There are also some who think that Boehner – and, more to the point, Boehner’s House members – increasingly see weakness in the White House’s negotiating position.

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration was firm that they wouldn’t budge on tax rates for income above $250,000 and that they wouldn’t budge on the debt ceiling. They’ve since budged on both. Republicans increasingly think the White House will concede more now, and that if they don’t concede more now they’ll definitely give Republicans a better deal if threatened with debt default. Whether or not that’s true, it pulls Republicans – and Boehner – to the right, as it makes it harder for Boehner to argue for a compromise now.

The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that the president has been “scarred by failed negotiations” and “has emerged as a different kind of negotiator.” Throughout his first term, Obama “repeatedly offered what he considered compromises on stimulus spending, health care and deficit reduction to Republicans, who either rejected them as inadequate or pocketed them and insisted on more.”

That was early December. With a deadline looming, the president started feeling more confident about reaching a deal he genuinely wants – and is prepared to work towards in good faith – which inevitably led him to start moving towards a middle ground between him and his rivals.

And that seems like a reasonable thing to do, except the moment Obama starts yielding from his previous positions, Republicans revert to form, asking, “What else can we get from this guy if we refuse to compromise and start threatening to do real harm to the country?”

Negotiations are supposed to follow a certain pattern, involving mutual compromises. That model probably needs to be thrown out the nearest White House window.

“This fight is not going to be won by the president taking a step towards Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president, the president taking a step toward Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president and so forth until they meet in the middle,” Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO, told Ezra. “That hasn’t worked before. Boehner doesn’t take the steps. It will be won by the president clearly siding with the American people on tax fairness and preserving the safety net from benefit cuts.”

Jon Chait raised a point yesterday the political world would be wise to remember: “We are not dealing with rational people here. We are dealing with House Republicans.”

Fiscal Cliff

A shift in posture, a sense of 'weakness'