Matthew Dickinson argues that Barack Obama did about as well as anyone should have expected him to do in negotiating the debt limit deal, regardless of how upset liberals are about it (as Greg Sargent documents). I think he’s probably largely correct, although the details matter a lot…I don’t have a sense yet about how to score this, one way or another. I would say that up until very recently I’d say that most liberals would be more interested in securing cuts in the Pentagon budget than in raising taxes, and in general I think that if those cuts are real — and again, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that it’s very early to be judging winners or losers when we really don’t know the answers to a lot of basic questions — liberals are undervaluing the deal by quite a bit. Of course, to be sure, liberals and all those who embrace mainstream economics would rather have no deficit reduction at all until the economy is booming. I strongly agree; if I had my preferences enacted, we’d have Simulus III or whatever number we’re on, and it would be substantial. However, as I’ve said, that wasn’t in the cards after November 2010.

Dickinson ends by asking a great question:

[M]aybe some of you can tell me why so many very smart people have, since the day Obama was inaugurated, deluded themselves into thinking that this admittedly very smart man, albeit one with limited political experience at the national level, was somehow going to step into office and proceed to rewrite the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries?

I have a two part answer.

Part one covers 2009-2010, and is pretty basic: lots of people just don’t understand the limitations of the presidency within the political system. There’s some of that now, too.

Part two covers this past few weeks, and is much more speculative, but perhaps therefore more interesting.

Here’s what I think happened — and I’m really mainly talking about elite-level Democrats, here.

In 1994, elite-level Democrats were absolutely stunned by the GOP landslide. They believed that it ushered in an era in which conservatives would dominate government for years, reversing most of the gains of the past sixty years. Bill Clinton was certainly toast, and Newt Gingrich was a genius. And then it didn’t quite work out that way; Newt imploded, Clinton was re-elected and was very popular for the last five years of his presidency, and Clinton “won” the 1995-1996 showdown. Of course, there’s an awful lot of fine print to that, including the GOP holding Congress for another decade, and very real policy gains by the Republicans in the settlement of that showdown.

But then, when history repeated itself in 2008-2010, I think a lot of liberals were a lot less stunned. Instead of expecting huge policy losses, they remembered the Clinton “win” and expected the Tea Partiers to be just as inept as Newt had been. In the event, I think the Tea Partiers were in fact pretty inept, while John Boehner could govern circles around Newt Gingrich…but that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that liberals in 1995 had unrealistically low expectations and were pleasantly surprised — which produced liberals in 2011 who had unrealistically high expectations, and were bitterly disappointed.

Or, to put it another way: I think a lot of what’s hitting liberals over the last couple of weeks is a delayed reaction to the severity of the Republican landslide of 2010. And I’m not at all convinced that the policy changes so far this year are any worse for Democrats than the policy changes in 1995-1996.

Of course, there’s a long way to go with the 112th Congress, beginning with the uncertain votes to actually pass this thing today, and then continuing with FY 2012 appropriations this fall. So perhaps liberals will still turn out to be correct about the overall (lack of) effectiveness of the president. And no question: from a liberal point of view, this turn in policy is basically a disaster, and it’s also a disaster from a mainstream economics point of view (although almost certainly not as big a disaster as two more weeks of stalemate would have been). Moreover, there’s nothing at all wrong with realistic criticisms of the president’s negotiating record. But to be realistic, those criticisms need to take into account the actual bargaining strength and positions of everyone involved, most of which has very little to do with Barack Obama.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.