How Obama used Biden to undercut Reid on fiscal cliff deal (plus a framing story)

There’s an important piece of original research by Noam Scheiber, who has been doing excellent work on this subject. According to Scheiber, because Obama turned to Biden to close out his deal with McConnell, he ended up undercutting his own bargaining position. There are two aspects of this story, Scheiber’s facts and Scheiber’s framing of them.

First the facts (my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

Even for Barack Obama’s liberal critics, there was much to like about the way he set up last week’s fiscal deal, not least the use of his presidential perch to drive home his message on taxes. As my colleague John Judis argued, it’s easy to see how Obama could reprise this approach for the next installment of our ongoing fiscal soap opera. The GOP’s plan to force Medicare and Social Security cuts under threat of a debt default could prove wildly unpopular with the right White House framing, and Obama has proved himself pretty capable in this department.

The problem is what happens when, having crafted a favorable backdrop to the negotiation, it comes time for him to close the deal. And this is where the just-completed “cliff” episode is still disconcerting. Because it turns out Obama made a critical if underappreciated mistake in the final hours of the back and forth: sending Joe Biden to haggle with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell once McConnell’s talks with his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, had broken down.

From my after-the-fact discussions with Democratic aides in the House and Senate leadership [shows Schieber’s sources], it’s clear that Reid had a plan for resolving the cliff and considered the breakdown of his talks with McConnell very much a part of it.

By involving Biden, Obama undercut Reid and signaled that he wanted a deal so badly he was unwilling to leave anything to chance, even when the odds overwhelmingly favored him. It suggested that even if Obama plays his cards exceedingly well in the run-up to the debt-limit showdown, he could still come away with a worse deal than he deserves because of his willingness to make concessions in the closing moments.

Here’s what happened near the end of the cliff talks, as I understand it. On Friday, December 28, Obama handed off the negotiations to Reid and McConnell, with the caveat that he wanted a vote on a fallback plan to raise taxes on income above $250,000 for couples (and $200,000 for individuals) if they couldn’t strike a deal by Monday the 31st. [Notice: None of that happened.] …

I hope that last part is enough of a teaser to get you to read the whole thing. It’s a great piece of insider research and reporting. Thanks to Mr. Scheiber for this and for all his good work. (By the way, note that Reid plays hardball the way I would, if I got the ball. Search for the phrase “one of two things would happen” and read on.)

Now the framing. Each of those bolded phrases (but one) paint a “how to see Obama” framework as part of the story. Remember, the facts are:

Reid was playing hardball with McConnell.
The talks had broken down, which was part of Reid’s plan.
Obama sent Biden in to surrender, so a deal could be reached.

There are several ways to frame this:

Frame 1. Obama is a weak closer in negotiations. In other words, he’s a bad tactician. Scheiber’s version of this frame:

The problem is what happens when, having crafted a favorable backdrop to the negotiation, it comes time for him to close the deal. And this is where the just-completed “cliff” episode is still disconcerting. Because it turns out Obama made a critical if underappreciated mistake in the final hours of the back and forth[.]

Frame 2. Obama is weak generally, but well-intentioned when it comes to confrontations like these. This is the most common “leftie” picture of who-Obama-is. Scheiber:

By involving Biden, Obama undercut Reid and signaled that he wanted a deal so badly he was unwilling to leave anything to chance, even when the odds overwhelmingly favored him. … [Obama] could still come away with a worse deal than he deserves because of his willingness to make concessions …

You can read Sheiber several ways here, but the phrasing “worse deal than he deserves” speaks to Obama’s intent. In other words, it’s true that Obama was desperate for a deal — that part’s obvious. The question is why?

Frame 2, this one, provides one explanation — Obama’s good intentions overruled by his personal weakness. But what if Obama got exactly the deal he both intended from the start and bargained for? That means the “well-intended” frame is way off base, way wrong, and dangerously so. What’s left?

Frame 3. Obama is a strong negotiator. He held off Reid’s attempt to get more in taxes than Obama wanted to get. He only failed at starting the process of gutting the New Deal. But by (a) making sure the sequester expired at the same time as the debt ceiling “crisis” will hit (roughly March), and by (b) taking the 14th Amendment option off the table (click to read why that matters), he guarantees himself another opportunity to pretend to be forced to cut something — Social Security, Medicare or as a last resort, Medicaid.

Did you get that? The final framing says, Obama wants to make sure his negotiating hand is weak enough — even if he has to weaken it himself — so that he can pretend to be forced to give up one of the social programs.

If this framing is correct, Obama is playing a strong double game:

He’s surrendering as fast as he can on the New Deal. (Both Robert Rubin and Pete Peterson are in full agreement here.)

He’s convincing “liberals” that Frames 1 or 2 is the way to talk about — ’cause, you know. Hope & Change.

Shouldn’t Frame 3 be “on the table” as well? After all, it’s this Obama we’re talking about:

http://www.youtu.be/P-5Y74FrDCc

Not this Obama:

Kind of painful to watch these days, isn’t it? After all, that’s a frame too. And an incredibly effective paint job for a man who’s ended up taking run after run after run at the New Deal on behalf of his rich friends and career-financers. (Yep, another frame.)

Which frame are you going to believe? The one supported by the facts*, or the one supported by “what everyone on TV is telling you”? Your choice, as always. (In case you haven’t noticed, this post isn’t about Barack Obama; it’s about you.)

*Occam’s Switchblade: If you can’t figure out why someone does something, assume it’s because they want to.

By the way, I’m not at all faulting Sheiber, who’s doing hero-work with this reporting. But do note, my headline assumes my framing. Why not? It’s one of the three ways to see this — and I had to pick one of them.

GP

To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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