The White House’s Three Biggest Blunders in the Debt Ceiling Fight

Having spent some time inside the White House, I have some sense of how the world looks and feels from that unique vantage point. Its denizens always have a sense of operating under enormous pressure, subject to myriad constraints. When criticized, White House officials typically respond that they have done the best they could in the circumstances, and that if their critics had been in their shoes, they would have done the same thing.

The more outside observers focus on the immediate situation, the more they will tend to agree with the assessment of the White House. But if we step back and take a longer view, we often see roads not taken that could have led to better outcomes. That’s certainly the case with the just completed debt ceiling negotiations.

As many critics have pointed out, this man-made crisis was entirely avoidable. The Democrats could have raised the ceiling last December. They chose not to, handing a sword to their adversaries. Senate majority leader Harry Reid wanted to force the incoming Republicans to accept some responsibility for the increase. We’ve seen how that worked out. And if President Obama genuinely believed that the Republicans would cooperate because it was the right and responsible thing to do, then naïveté was the least of his mistakes. (A moment of introspection about his own 2006 vote against increasing the debt ceiling should have sufficed to disabuse him of that notion.)

But there are two other less-discussed forks in the road, the first of which occurred just two weeks ago. If news accounts are accurate, the Obama/Boehner talks broke down when the president proposed increasing the revenue component of the grand bargain from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion. Given what he ultimately accepted, $800 billion looks pretty good. (How likely is it that the new congressional committee will be able to agree on anything approaching that figure?) To be sure, we’d have to know more than we do about the other components of the proposed deal, especially the changes in entitlement programs, to reach a solid all-things-considered judgment. And it’s not at all clear that Boehner’s fellow Republicans in the House would have gone along with him on such a bargain, either. But it has been widely reported that the White House shifted its stance only after the Gang of Six made its framework public. If the bipartisan G6 was proposing $1.2 trillion in revenue increases, how could the White House accept less? At the time, that must have seemed like a slam-dunk argument. But it was too clever by half, and the White House ended up throwing away a chance to promote the president’s “balanced” approach to deficit reduction … and, by the way, to drive a wedge into the massed ranks of the opposition.

The most important road not taken, however, occurred many months ago, in December of last year, when the president chose to keep his distance from the recommendations of his own fiscal commission. Suppose he had endorsed its broad approach while making it clear that he disagreed about a number of specifics. Suppose further that he had reinforced that message by featuring it in his 2011 State of the Union address and by using it as the framework for his 2012 budget proposal. If he had done so, he would have had a full six months to build support for his “everything on the table” approach and to rally the American people who, as countless surveys have shown, strongly prefer it to the Republicans’ spending cuts-only strategy.

I have heard of two arguments against this strategy offered by White House officials. First, it is said the president did not want to step forward until after the Republicans had offered their own budget framework. If Representative Paul Ryan remained true to his principles, he would propose huge cuts in popular programs such as Medicare, generating a public backlash, after which the president could return to the fray in a much stronger position. Well, the president certainly smoked Ryan & Co. out. But what did he gain? As of now, I can’t think of anything. Sure, public approval of the Republican Party is way down. But so are his own numbers. And if the debt ceiling deal reflects a weakened Republican Party, one shudders to think of what a stronger one would have done.

The second argument against endorsing the fiscal commission’s approach goes like this: Sure, Obama wanted to end up roughly where the commission did. But if he had said so back in December, then all the bargaining would have been between that position and options further to the right. In the end, the president would have been forced to accept a deal far less balanced than the one the commission had recommended. Again, that sounds clever and strategic, exactly the kind of advice that senior political advisors and their wannabes love to offer.

And what happened? Not only was the president forced to accept a deal to the right of the fiscal commission’s proposal; he also yielded the high ground for three crucial months, enduring unrelenting criticism for his lack of leadership. And even after his mid-April shift, which rendered his original budget proposal an embarrassing dead letter two months after it was submitted, he continued to bob and weave. It’s easy to speculate about what was going on behind the scenes. Congressional Democrats were urging Obama not to yield an inch on Medicare and Social Security: If he did, he would blur the bright-line contrast between the parties so beloved of political consultants. By the time he decided to grasp the nettle and enter into serious discussions with Boehner, the clock had virtually run out, making it far more difficult to reach an agreement embracing both revenues and entitlements, which would have been a tough sell even in better circumstances.

I’m aware how easy it is to dismiss my arguments. Alternative history is a fool’s errand, it may be said. And how can I claim to know what senior White House advisors (let alone the president) were really thinking? Answer: I can’t. I’ve just tried to reconstruct a sequence of events that otherwise makes no sense. Obama began the year determined to talk about selective public investments as the key to “winning the future.” He ended up focused exclusively on the Tea Party’s preferred agenda. Once he couldn’t avoid the fiscal issue, he wanted a balanced approach but was forced to settle for something quite different. He tried to position himself as the adult riding herd on a brood of squabbling children; he ended up portraying himself as a suitor left at the altar, not just once, but repeatedly.

Most Americans will accept a president with whom they disagree. Above all, they want two things from the occupant of the Oval Office—a core of convictions they can understand and the strength to fight for them. They will stick with that kind of president, even when results are slow to materialize. Ronald Reagan, whose leadership Obama is said to admire, avoided electoral disaster in the 1982 midterm elections, when a 10.8 percent unemployment rate could have done to his presidency what the 2010 elections did to Obama’s. Even when Reagan’s approval rating dipped below 40 percent, the people knew who he was and where he wanted to take the country, and to an extent that is surprising even in hindsight, they stuck with him. Obama has 15 months left to convince the people that he is that kind of president. The odds are getting longer, and the time is getting shorter.