Not Compromise

I’d like to draw your attention to a post from Walter Russell Mead, a sort of midway status report of the first term of the Obama Administration:

The President looks like a man who is ridden by events; at just the moment when the nation craves a strong leader, the President looks weak, dodgy, uncertain. The contrast with the inflated hopes that an untested and inexperienced Senator Obama did so much to build up is crippling. Obama has fallen so far precisely because he and his supporters so hugely oversold him.

He once despised Bill Clinton for the comprising and triangulating that got him through his eight years. President Obama was going to do it differently: he was going to fight and win.

Perhaps he will; politics is full of surprises and it is still almost a year and a half until the election. But at the moment the President seems to be envying Clinton’s talents and attempting to emulate rather than scorn them. From anti-Clinton to aspiring Clinton is a long fall and it can’t be much fun.

We are starting to get to know this President a little better, and his chief besetting fault is increasingly clear: the President falls between stools. He is a man of half measures, a man who spends so much money hedging his bets that he loses even when he wins.

Time and again the President angers one side without conciliating the other. His public demand that Israel agree to a complete settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks alienated Israelis (and not just supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu); his subsequent back peddling humiliated and angered the Palestinians. He pleased no one, fumbled what he had once proclaimed a crucial priority of his administration, and is left with reduced influence with both sides.

At home the President’s hedging has antagonized and energized the right without delivering the goods to his base on the left. The health care bill was so watered down from what candidate Obama proposed on the stump that key constituencies on the left were dismayed; the change was so large that the right was energized; the legislation so compromised and misshapen that it failed to satisfy. The stimulus was the same: large enough to stir up the deficit hawks but too small (and too poorly constructed) to launch a “V” shaped recovery. In the Middle East he has been too cautious and slow in siding with the revolutionaries to dent American unpopularity in the region — but by dropping US support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak he antagonized and alarmed the Saudis.

followed by a detailed exegesis of President Obama’s decision-making style.

I cannot know what his decision-making style is. If, indeed, the president’s approach to compromise is as Dr. Mead suggests:

This repeated lunge for the sour spot — the place where costs are high and benefits are low — now seems to be a trademark of the President’s decision-making style. On the left it is earning him Carter comparisons from people like Eric Alterman; on the right it means that despite his compromises and yielding of significant ground he continues to feed the incandescent hostility of his bitterest foes. Worst of all, it suggests to people abroad and at home that the way to manipulate this “split the difference”, consensus-seeking President is to raise your demands. If you are going to get something like 50 percent of what you ask for, ask for twice as much as you really want. And with this Presidential style, the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Not surprisingly, all the wheels have begun to squeak.

then I would claim that isn’t compromise at all. It’s merely detente and barely that. Compromise doesn’t mean mechanically splitting the difference; it means searching for common ground. When there is no common ground or the common ground isn’t sufficient to form the basis for a solution, no solution is possible. It is a wicked problem and the most that can be accomplished is to create the basis for ongoing communication.

I’ve made this analogy before but I think it bears repeating. If one group wants to build a bridge across the river and the other group wants no bridge across the river, building a bridge halfway across the river is no compromise. Everybody loses; nobody wins; everybody is worse off.

I continue to believe that President Obama will be re-elected. We tend to re-elect presidents and, barring an economic catastrophe that can’t be smoothed over with creative accounting, he will be. However, I also think we’re in for a bumpy ride.

32 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Remember all of those books various writers reccomended George W read? I haven’t seen any for Obama, but a good one would be

    Getting to YES.

    Summary of the applicable part of the book from Wikipedia:

    “To protect yourself, develop and know your BATNA: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. ‘The reason you negotiate is to produce something better than the results you can obtain without negotiating.’ The result you can obtain without negotiating is your BATNA. ‘The better your BATNA, the greater your power” so it’s essential to know your BATNA and take time to make sure it’s as strong as it could be. The same will hold true for the other party.'”

  • Drew

    What you write all seems perfectly sensible, but I think that although you cannot know his decisionmaking style, you do know his prior penchant for voting present. I have taken a lot of crap for pointing this out, and that it probably was pretty good evidence that this was a smooth politician first and only, with no evidence of leadership capability.

    With the passage of time it seems to me I’m closer to correct than his supporters.

  • steve

    I think this a salient point Drew.

    “If one group wants to build a bridge across the river and the other group wants no bridge across the river”

    He got the ACA, stimulus, START and several other items passed, with the GOP in total opposition despite adopting their plan on health care. However, on the long term budget it will be difficult since the GOP all took the Norquist vow. How they plan to get revenue to even 19% (it should be higher) while cutting the top rate to 25% is a mystery. Also, note that there is no plan to cut lower rates, just that top one.

    Steve

  • Obama’s problem is partly what almost destroyed Clinton in his first two years and Carter in his first three: he let the Liberal-left tone-deaf leadership of the House Democrats drive his program, write his bills and define his positions.

    Largely elected from “safe” and very affluent districts in places like Massachusetts or San Francisco or impoverished majority African-American districts in the inner cities, the House Democratic leadership and Caucus tend to hold views and positions which find agreement with only about 15%-20 % of the electorate, at the widest margin. Often substantially less. They are out of touch and not a few of them come across as authoritarian, elitist or as verbally nasty as what they typically accuse GOP conservatives as being. They also are quick to turn on fellow Democrats who fail their litmus tests.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, he got those things with Democratic majorities, including a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. The GOP was irrelevant.

    I do think Mead overlooks something outside of Obama’s control, which is the Senate and House leadership. It ain’t what it used to be.

  • PD Shaw

    George W exhibited the same problems on SS reform. He proposed what he thought was a middle ground solution and the other side’s BATNA was also do nothing.

  • Drew

    steve –

    What PD said. Further, the truth is he largely stood back and let the Congress do the heavy lifting while whining about his poor luck in inheriting an economic downturn. That’s not leadership, its gamesmanship.

    The stimulus comment is interesting. A blogger friend of mine put together BEA data on percentage GDP growth in the quarters preceding and post end of recession. He compared them to the Reagan recession, also inherited. Obama’s apologists often cite the severity ans complain “what is the man supposed to do??” And yet the GDP decline in Reagan’s era was 11%, while for Obama it was -16%. Worse, yes. But cataclysmically so? No.

    Then he looked at the cumulative increases for the post recession era (to date.) Result: Reagan +47%. Obama plus 18%. I know this is not rigorously arithmetically correct, but its such a blowout in differential in performance quibbling is silly.

    And the dominant policy initiative during Reagan’s era – tax reduction. Let the people loose. In Obama’s era – massive fiscal stimulus and wide, wide open monetary policy. Let the government fix it. What have we gotten for it? Dismal GDP and employment performance, and inflation taking off. Super.

  • Drew, the Reagan tax cuts came at a different time. Reducing tax burdens from 70%-deductions to less than half of that is one thing. Reducing it from half that to even less is a different prescription. You can blame our economic woes on a lot of things, but high taxes is not really among them.

  • sam

    “And the dominant policy initiative during Reagan’s era – tax reduction. Let the people loose”

    Evidently he had to round the people up again, because he raised taxes 10 times after the initial reductions. See, Reagan’s Tax Increases.

  • Drew

    Trunwill –

    Suit yourself. But taxes as a percentage of personal income have doubled in my lifetime. And I traffic in people and businesses who actually react to taxation, and not in a growth fashion. Stick to your views at your neighbor’s peril.

    The country has a fundamental decision to make: either continue to direct an ever-increasing portion of its economic resources through the funnel of government, or through the funnel of people acting independantly. One engine is a Porsche, one is a Chevy Volt.

    The more taxes, more government crowd has basically been winning the debate for quite some time. The result is uninspiring.

  • Drew

    sam –

    Suit yourself, if you want to describe Reagan in words or in fact as a tax proponent/increaser.

    Its just gets curiouser and curiouser.

    I’m sensing that people are starting to get a sense of dread that Obamanomics is falling on its face. And the arguments get more bizarre by the day.

  • john personna

    I’ve made this analogy before but I think it bears repeating. If one group wants to build a bridge across the river and the other group wants no bridge across the river, building a bridge halfway across the river is no compromise. Everybody loses; nobody wins; everybody is worse off.

    To my excessively literal mind, if the river is the budget gap, then getting half-way is getting half-way … even if you have to swim from there.

  • Drew

    I’d take an alternative view to jp. If the bridge does not need to be built, compromise is no virtue.

    In fact, this is the history of the past 50 years: meet me half way on my spending increase, meet me half way on my tax increase, meet me half way on my borrowing increase. Repeat.

    And then you have our current mess.

  • john personna

    The budget gap doesn’t need closing?

    I guess I’m having a hard time with the metaphor because there is an obvious benchmark for success. It is the GAO’s deficit projection. You can pick any means of closing it, and in just about any case it will contribute to the goal.

    It is math.

    (If “meet me half way on my spending [decrease], meet me half way on my tax increase” didn’t work, it’s because someone lied. It’s not because the math fails.)

  • john personna

    ((Now, if someone had a spending increase or a tax decrease we know that pushed the math the wrong way. Neither of those are in any way budget compromises. They are anti-compromises. They are punts. They are reversals.)

  • PD Shaw

    jp, both sides think the BATNA is not to cross the river. I think you need to add a man-eating tiger or something to the analogy.

    ‘The reason you negotiate is to produce something better than the results you can obtain without negotiating.’

  • PD Shaw

    I think this meme about moderate Republicans being pro-tax, pro-Obamacare, and pro-environment is one of the most bizarre things I’ve read from otherwise reasonable people in a long time. It sounds like taking comfort in an alternative reality.

    Reagan supported tax increases, like George H. W. supported increased evironmental regulation, like Obama supported tax cuts for the wealthy.

  • Drew

    Maybe I misunderstood your reference, jp. I’m simply saying that compromise on a bad proposal does not merit compromise. That’s exactly the philosophy that got us in this mess. Go along, get along.

  • Drew

    I think to set the record straight – Reagan cut a deal with Tip O’Neil that O’Neil reneged on. That’s where the supposed Reagan spending came from.

    Later, Reagan did what he had to do with the Cold War priorities in mind. This crap about Reagan the tax increaser is so intellectually light as to annoy.

  • To my excessively literal mind, if the river is the budget gap, then getting half-way is getting half-way … even if you have to swim from there.

    None of the budgets that have been proposed—either of the president’s, the Ryan budget passed by the House, or the “People’s Budget” proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus—balance the budget without assumptions about growth that can only be called delusional. The only people who are predicting prolonged growth at that level are elected officials. Not the CBO. Not Goldman-Sachs. Not Deutsche Bank. Not even the Federal Reserve which, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, has been issuing projections about the economy that are either fatuous, politically motivated, or deranged.

    In the absence of agreement on that matter, we cannot think that the project about which the Congress and the executive branch are most concerned is balancing the budget. Far, far most interested in scratching their itches which, in the case of the Republicans in Congress, is reducing the levels of taxation under the mistaken notion that tax cuts always pay for themselves and in the case of the Democrats is that we can have European-level welfare states simply by raising taxes high enough and cutting defense spending low enough. Both of these notions may be arithmetically true but they are pragmatically false.

  • Mercer

    ” history of the past 50 years: meet me half way on my spending increase, meet me half way on my tax increase, meet me half way on my borrowing increase. Repeat.

    And then you have our current mess.”

    The last tax increase was eighteen years ago. Do you blame our current mess on the 1993 tax increase? I remember supply siders predicted economic calamity at the time. That is not how I remember the economy of of the Clinton years.

    I blame our current mess on taxes being cut in 2003 at the same time Medicare Part D was enacted.

  • steve

    Drew- The Reagan recession was created more than inherited. Push up rates to control inflation, and you get a recession. Then drop rates over a few years and you get a prolonged recovery. Then, if you write hot checks, kudos to Lloyd Bentsen, you get an even better recovery. AFAICT, it was the first time in our history we drove up debt like that when the economy was doing well.

    Steve

  • But taxes as a percentage of personal income have doubled in my lifetime. And I traffic in people and businesses who actually react to taxation, and not in a growth fashion. Stick to your views at your neighbor’s peril.

    Do you have any good numbers or charts to back you up on this? That tax rates are higher than they used to be?

  • Icepick

    That tax rates are higher than they used to be?

    He’s not saying that tax RATES are higher than they used to be, but that taxes “as a percentage of personal income have doubled in my lifetime.” They are not the same thing at all.

  • Icepick

    In the absence of agreement on that matter, we cannot think that the project about which the Congress and the executive branch are most concerned is balancing the budget. Far, far most interested in scratching their itches which, in the case of the Republicans in Congress, is reducing the levels of taxation under the mistaken notion that tax cuts always pay for themselves and in the case of the Democrats is that we can have European-level welfare states simply by raising taxes high enough and cutting defense spending low enough. Both of these notions may be arithmetically true but they are pragmatically false.

    The underlying issue is that “We, the People” want it both ways. Actually more than both ways. We want a balanced budget. We want no cuts to benefits for old folks or the poor. We want lower tax rates. We want a Bigger & Deffer military capable of blowing the shit out of every other military out there.

    As I wrote on another occasion: And as presently constituted, there is no hope for a Congress that would tackle Medicare in a meaningful way. That’s because the voters don’t want Congress to impose a true fix. The pols are venal cowards because that’s what the people want. If you don’t believe that, look at the primaries this election cycle – how many incumbents are being ousted by their own party? Almost none. Nothing that’s happened since last July 1 convinces me otherwise, although a few more incumbents got bumped along the way.

  • sam

    “The pols are venal cowards because that’s what the people want. ”

    Tornadoes as Synecdoche, or Why Massive Federal Budget Cuts Are Not in the Cards

    After Storms Kill Hundreds, South Tries to Regroup

  • Drew,

    If you have some data for your assertion that taxes as a percentage of personal income have doubled in your lifetime, I really would like to see it. All the data that I’ve ever seen suggests the opposite except for a few outliers in high-tax states.

    On the topic of President Obama, the problem is that the powers of his office are not as great as people assume. For something like healthcare reform, where there is no consensus on how to fix the problem, Presidential “leadership” can only do so much. Maybe he could have used the bully pulpit more, but ultimately he’s got to dance to with whatever Congress can pass.

    Take Guantanamo, for example. Congress, by a wide vote margin, took away all money to close GITMO and also took away any money to transport prisoners to the US mainland. Unless the President is willing to do an Iran-Contra style fundraising effort, his hands are tied.

  • john personna

    There is no doubt that some pols will do whatever they wanted anyway, and call it “compromise” as window dressing.

    That is not “compromises'” fault 😉

  • john personna

    (Maybe I need to preface the word “compromise” with the word “rational” each time, to differentiate.)

  • Icepick,

    It’s not just marginal tax rates that are comparably low. Government revenues as a percentage of the GDP are also low. So where are these increases? If tax burdens have gone up considerably as a percentage of income, I would think that there would be some statistics to demonstrate this. Are there? I’m not saying that they aren’t out there, but if they are, I haven’t seen them.

  • john personna

    I don’t have a link, but I’ve seen it suggested that as a result of tariff reductions, corp tax reduction, top income rate reductions, that the taxes now being paid are more centered on the middle class.

    If that is the case there might be an income band seeing higher effective tax even as revenues fall.

  • JP,

    Unfortunately, this only goes to 2005 (so it doesn’t show the Obama cuts) and it doesn’t include state taxes, but it doesn’t show any increases on the middle class.

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