When candor won’t work

WHEN CANDOR WON’T WORK…. When President Obama spoke last night on the budget agreement, he characterized it as a positive development. He was “pleased to announce” the breakthrough, the result of “Americans of different beliefs coming together.” After noting all of the good things that happen when the government stays open, the president added that this is a “worthwhile compromise” that resulted in “the largest annual spending cut in our history.”

Ezra sees this as the wrong message. Indeed, it’s arguably backwards.

Obama bragged about “making the largest annual spending cut in our history.” Harry Reid joined him, repeatedly calling the cuts “historic.” It fell to Boehner to give a clipped, businesslike statement on the deal. If you were just tuning in, you might’ve thought Boehner had been arguing for moderation, while both Obama and Reid sought to cut deeper. You would never have known that Democrats had spent months resisting these “historic” cuts, warning that they’d cost jobs and slow the recovery. […]

So why were Reid and Obama so eager to celebrate Boehner’s compromise with his conservative members? The Democrats believe it’s good to look like a winner, even if you’ve lost. But they’re sacrificing more than they let on. By celebrating spending cuts, they’ve opened the door to further austerity measures at a moment when the recovery remains fragile. Claiming political victory now opens the door to further policy defeats later.

Paul Krugman is thinking along the same lines: “[I]t’s one thing for Obama to decide that it was better to give in to Republican hostage-taking than draw a line in the sand; it’s another for him to celebrate the result. Yet that’s just what he did. More than that, he has now completely accepted the Republican frame that spending cuts right now are what America needs.”

I certainly agree with the larger argument here, though I’d quibble a bit with the particulars. The president seemed to make a point not to make spending cuts look like the actual goal, emphasizing “investing in our future,” and “investments in our kids’ education and student loans; in clean energy and life-saving medical research. We protected the investments we need to win the future.” (He used the word “invest” four times in four minutes.) Obama even made a subtle distinction between cutting spending on the one hand, and “creating jobs and growing our economy” on the other.

The celebration of “the largest annual spending cut in our history” was discouraging, but it’s not as if the president’s remarks were Republican.

That said, Ezra’s clearly right about the Dems’ habit emphasizing the need to “look like a winner, even if you’ve lost.” This White House, in particular, hates to come up short, but really hates to let folks know they came up short.

So, they put the best possible spin on negotiations that didn’t exactly go their way. Why? Because the president couldn’t deliver a national address and say what he might have been thinking: “Look, I’m not thrilled with how this came together, but I was negotiating with rabid conservatives and didn’t want a shutdown. If folks wanted a better outcome, voters shouldn’t have elected intemperate children to run the House of Representatives. Don’t blame me for your bad decisions.”

The candor wouldn’t have gone over well. Call it a hunch.