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:

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.


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

  1. Demeter says:

    On the other hand, Harry has always been a VERY weak Reid to lean on, for the 99%. I begin to think all the other Democrats hate him.

  2. Demeter says:

    Frame 3 is exactly what I’m afraid of….I’d need proof that the Predator Droneboy has seen the error of his ways before I believed good intent.

  3. jo6pac says:

    Thank You

  4. jo6pac says:

    Yep, door #3 works for every time for 0 and so many people still don’t get it.

  5. Bushtheidiot says:

    Even if you subscribe to the “long game” theory about Obama’s political moves, the long game looks absolutely TERRIBLE.

    The Washington Post reports the following direct quote of Harry Reid regarding the “deal” we ended up with, sourced from aides who were identified as such in the article ( “Mr. President,” he said, according to aides, “We’re setting ourselves up.”

    Reid was working for a deal that took the debt ceiling off the table as well as the sequester cuts, because it was clear that as soon as the tax issue was dealt with, democrats would loose all bargaining power when it came to those issues down the line. But instead of total victory, Obama apparently got spooked and took what he could and ran.

    So great, we got $600 billion in tax increases (when the initial demand from the president was $1.2 trillion), but now there is nothing left but “how much” we will cut when the republicans hold the debt ceiling and sequester cuts hostage in 2-3 months.

    I don’t subscribe to the notion that we will see a $1 T coin or that Obama will stand by his “non-negotiable” position on the debt ceiling.

  6. Stanley Krute says:

    What bothers me the most about GP’s posts is his nastyness, particularly in light of his use of a pseudonym. Anonymous Coward personified. One can disagree with policies without those overlays.

  7. htfd says:

    I see a hint of Truman in Reid and if left to him a much better deal would have been had. As to Obama, well I’m a firm believer in people making their bed and then being forced to lie in it. To me Obama’s Presidency, from a peoples view, is looking like a failed Presidency. And, they only minimal control over his right wing ways is a strong Progressive Congress.

  8. karmanot says:

    Yep, welcome to ‘guest’ and ‘down troll arrow.’

  9. karmanot says:

    pppffft——–close your eyes real tight and Tinkerbell will not die.

  10. karmanot says:

    And agricultural subsidies!

  11. karmanot says:

    Very like. Old Obots will learn to like cat food if they can afford it.

  12. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obama if fully competent. He waited until after the election to admit that he’s a right winger has been planning on gutting Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid since 2008. (1) Obama is a rightwing conservative who has always wanted to gut unions, impose austerity erode the Bill of Rights. We’ve seen his attacks on the UAW, federal and postal workers and the teachers union. (2, 3, 4 , 5)

    He’s also gone after entitlement programs in blatant disregard of the fact that people on Social Security and receiving Medicare or Medicaid have already paid for them. (6)

    Obama’s right wing agenda has been embraced by much of the Democrat ‘leadership’ including Nancy Pelosi, who said It is clear we must enter an era of austerity; to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice.” Think Progress 07 25 2011

    The problem is not the deficit, it’s the use of the artificially created ‘deficit’ to impose austerity and poverty on working people. The deficit/debt/fiscal cliff crisis is entirely an artifice of the Democrat and Republicans parties. The fiscal crisis was set up by both parties but primarily by Democrats who gave away trillions to the rich. (7) The cost of the wars waged by the Clinton’s, the Bushes and Obama are an addition factor and that is the result of bipartisan votes. Democrats and Republicans created the deficit.

    Those who supported Obama or Democrat and Republican members of Congress, whether consciously selling out or because they were gulled, will make us all pay the price for their folly. These They did working people and people of color, the unemployed and those in poverty a great disservice.

    That cannot be said of Obama and the Congress, who, by using their invented crisis to impose austerity on us are acting in criminal manner, transferring wealth upwards in a reverse Robin Hood scam of epic proportions.


    (1) “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” he
    told Noticias Univision 23, a Miami based Spanish language station. The Hill 12 14 2012…

    (2) Obama appoints another union busters as his chief of staff: In these Times 01 29 12 “Obama’s Union-Busting New Chief of Staff? Jacob Lew Helped Destroy Grad Students’ Union at NYU When Obama’s new Chief of Staff was NYU executive vice president, school ceased recognizing the grad students union”

    (3) Obama attacks airline and rail workers :LABORnotes 02 15 12 “Two years after President Obama and Democrats abandoned labor’s much-anticipated Employee Free Choice Act, they have refused to block Republicans intent on making life miserable for airline and rail workers. A bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, voted up 75-20 in the Senate, changes federal labor law to make organizing more difficult for railroad and airline unions. New rules will make it easier to decertify unions and harder to win elections when employers merge.”

    (4) Obama attacks the UAW HuffPo 09 03 2010 “The White House is forcefully pushing back on former (Obama) car czar Steve Rattner’s upcoming book about his time in Washington, specifically the allegation that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once blurted “Fuck the UAW” when told that tens of thousands of autoworkers’ jobs were at stake in the restructuring of the auto industry.”

    (5) Obama attacks federal workers and postal workers LABORNotes 03 06 2012 began to wither. The Employee Free Choice Act, the law that would have eased union organizing drives, was shelved. When the administration bailed out the auto companies, it dictated wage cuts, plant closings, and tens of thousands of layoffs, and stripped workers’ right to strike. The health care bill attacked union-negotiated plans. A green-job transformation for the economy stalled. Then Obama announced in December 2010 that salaries for federal workers, already low compared to those of private-sector workers with similar education and longevity, would be frozen for years into the future…”…

    (6) According to the Washington Post, via Jane Hamsher at FDL, Obama told the Post that as early as 2009 that “he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices– particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – should
    be made on his watch. “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at
    the end of the road… ”.

    7) Obama and the Fed gave the banksters and looters over $16 trillion, which should be recovered with interest to end the deficit crisis. “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) amended the Wall Street Reform law to audit the Fed, pushing the GAO to step in and take a look around. owever, the audit’s findings were almost completely overlooked, even with a number as high as $16 trillion staring all of us in the face. Sanders said “

  13. perljammer says:

    “From my after-the-fact discussions with Democratic aides in the House and Senate leadership, 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.”

    I would take that with a grain of salt. It’s not uncommon for people to assert “That was all part of the plan; I had this rabbit all ready to pull out of my hat” after being bailed out by someone else.

    As for the rest of it — I tend to agree with Becca.

  14. Naja pallida says:

    Yeah, I am so over the ‘long-game chess’ interpretation of his actions. All I see is cowardice and collusion.

  15. Ford Prefect says:

    It’s easy to play chess against people who don’t realize they’re the ones he’s playing against. And by “they”, I mean “us.” We lose, because we’re not even in the game. It’s a bit one-sided, this match of his.

  16. Ford Prefect says:

    Also too, the slave owners would get tax cuts.

  17. BeccaM says:

    Weird… but not unheard of. Yours is not the first that ended up being posted in reply to the wrong location.

  18. BeccaM says:

    I not only don’t like how Obama is ‘playing the long game’, I don’t like the direction he’s taking it either.

  19. BeccaM says:

    I’m with the Occam’s Switchblade interpretation. Obama’s doing what he’s doing because it achieves the results he wants.

    Remember how we had to drag the words out of him, that he supported a public insurance option in health care reform, and the notion of drug negotiation and importation? Then we discovered the source of that reluctance: He’d already long since given those away, and in all likelihood didn’t want to confuse the corporate interests with whom he’d secretly negotiated.

    There’s not a proposal out of the White House, no trial balloon, no anti-progressive notion that represents what they don’t actually want to have passed. If we manage to get through the next four years without significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare, it won’t be because this president held the line against them.

  20. ronbo says:

    Honest, I directed it to confusion using Disqus.

  21. BeccaM says:

    It’s a spam-bot, Ronbo. Makes up a phony Disqus ID, posts some philosophical drivel culled from who knows where, then after a few hours of inserting the comments into hundreds of posts across the ‘Net, changes their ID and link to a work-at-home scam site.

  22. ronbo says:

    You speak the truth. After dozens of token supportive actions and literally hundreds and hundreds of disappointments, Obama is Obama. Unless we force his hand, he will again attempt to appease and further enrich the 1% by evicerating SS/Medicare. Obama is Obama.

  23. dlbvet says:

    I think I agree with cslib…and don’t get me wrong I am a strong supporter of our President…I think President Obama is playing the long game. I think he knows he needs to bring the Left along…we may not like how he does it,,,but as I’ve read in other places, he’s playing chess. I just don’t think the man is an idiot.

  24. Brian2234 says:

    Just when I think I have learned the way to live,
    life changes and I am left the same. The more things change the more I
    am the same. I am what I started with, and when it is all over I will be
    all that is left of me.

  25. confusion says:

    How would Obama compromise in 1865 ? Slavery would be reduced over 10 years which at the end would result in owning only 5 slaves per household and slaves would not receive benefits .

  26. cslib says:

    My money has been on frame 3 for quite a while now. His constant eagerness to to offer the few social safety nets we have in this country up on a silver platter have only made it far to clear that frame 3 is the only logical explanation.

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