The politics of debt reduction

It seems more than fair to criticize the Obama White House for taking too long to understand the nature of congressional Republican tactics. The president has operated under a set of assumptions — GOP leaders are reasonable people, willing to compromise in good faith, acting with the nation’s best interests at heart — that have always seemed rather fanciful.

With the introduction of the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction plan, President Obama and his team appear to have thrown out the old playbook.

“I think this is less ‘Let’s be the grownups in the room and start at the 50 yard line,’ and more ‘Let’s start on our side of the field,'” said Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s about time. The White House suffered some major setbacks, but officials have apparently decided to send congressional Republicans a new message: no more Mr. Nice President.

Trying to shape policies in advance to make the GOP happy is out; presenting credible and progressive plans is in. Preemptive compromises are out; veto threats are in. Asking Congress to consider doing the right thing is out; taking a “pass this bill” message to the public is in.

It’s possible that for many of the president’s critics on the left, it’s too late. But for those who’ve been urging Obama to adopt progressive principles and show a willingness to fight, let’s not miss what is plainly true: the president has taken their advice.

Indeed, if we look at the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction as bookends of one large, integrated economic package there were a number of things the left said the White House simply couldn’t do: a regulatory moratorium, cutting Social Security, and raise Medicare eligibility. The old playbook tells us Obama would put all of these on the table as part of an outreach effort to garner Republican support. The new playbook is predicated on more realistic expectations: Republicans are going to say no to everything anyway.

What are the major concessions Obama has included in his economic plan? There aren’t any; that’s the point. All of the things progressives pleaded with the president to take off the table have, in fact, been taken off the table.

So, what happens now? If congressional Republicans decide they’re ready to work with the White House, great. If they decide otherwise, President Obama will blame them for Washington’s failures and run against them.

For quite a while, Republicans have set the parameters of the debate. They’re perfectly willing to consider negotiations with Democrats on economic and budget policy, just so long as Dems realize any policies to be considered must not raise taxes, increase the deficit, expand the scope of government, or spend any money. Once that’s established, then the two sides can talk.

The White House has finally noticed the value in changing the nature of the conversation. It took a while, but President Obama seems to have decided to break out of the box Republicans have spent years trying to weld shut. Between the American Jobs Act and today’s debt-reduction plan, the White House appears more invested in presenting what should pass, and less concerned about what might pass.

It’s the difference between following and leading.