Fiscal Cliff 2013: Obama is Cheating America in These Critical Negotiations


“Obama to hit the road to avoid driving off the fiscal cliff,” reads a CNN blog post. Was this what what he meant by needing to be outside government to change it?

It seems that our beloved Cajoler-in-Chief is attempting to address the fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington by going on a publicity tour. “Taking his case to the American people” is the preferred term, but it looks to me like a relapse. By being absent, the president is demonstrating that he’s gotten no better at this part of his job since last year. What’s one more round of wincing negotiations crammed into a term?

Obama may expect a full knock-down drag-out fight, so it’s possible that his zany political instincts are right on the money. Maybe his handlers dragged him out. The junket could be a sign of the times, that all politics are conducted in the hyper-public sphere, so that actual events compete with hypotheticals and top 10 lists for news relevance.

The obvious risk is that many people inside Congress will be put off by Obama’s persistent posturing. In Illinois, renowned tactician Rod Blagojevich constantly made enemies with his tendency to “take the case to the public” and subvert the traditional process. Perhaps the risk of such enmity is smaller for this most visible of presidents. I would wager that Axelrod advised an airing of his patented anti-elite rhetoric to the press; not a bad idea when the opportunity cost is merely depriving the back room of Obama’s nubilous presence. In any event, Obama’s remote brand of leadership repeats at least two fumbles that helped stall last year’s debt deal: a reliance on surrogates and the corresponding confusion of power.

There’s a smug, bitter case to be made for him sitting out. When my beloved Bears traded for Jay Cutler in 2009, I jokingly considered their loss of two first-round picks in itself a victory. “We got a good quarterback and these dumb asses get two years off from ruining the draft!” was my gleeful logic. In other words, when someone is terrible at something, there are occasions when their best move is to grab some bench. Well, Obama is terrible at negotiating. He knows it, the White House knows it, and the Republicans know it. So he’s sitting out. It is not a winning formula.

Last summer was more evidence of that than anyone cared to see. The White House’s weakness during the debt ceiling debate disordered Washington’s traditional power arrangement. Some of the most unprecedented screwing-with of the president since Andrew Johnson occurred then. Even the gap-toothed chart-haters that thrust upon this country a greater existential threat than 9/11, knew from his concessions on tax cuts, entitlements, drilling, and more, that they could run wild. Something as small as Boehner sending Eric Cantor, putative representative of the far right, into the preliminary negotiations, would not have happened had Obama established himself as a shrewd opponent. At the very least, GOP leadership would have kept Cantor and his caucus to a tighter leash. On the other side, Obama sent in Biden to basically fix the whole thing before it had to get to him. In doing so, the president exerted less power than LBJ did during a powerful snore, and it opened the door to the right’s fiscal vigilantism.

Biden was sent in because he possessed decades of insider experience that the president lacked. Known internally as “The McConnell Whisperer” for his unique ability to cajole the Senate Minority leader, the vice president is a consummate old school politician. Boehner is cut from the same cloth. Two of them in a back room could compromise oil and water over cigars. Instead, Biden was paired with Cantor: two surrogates. When the talks got stuck, Obama started working secretly with Boehner. Not only did the exposure of those meetings stun Eric Cantor, who felt betrayed by being left out of the loop, but Biden started making promises not corroborated by his allies. The whole thing fell apart. The use of substitutes and the executive branch’s milquetoast will made a mess out of the negotiation.

Obama is only going on the road for a day or two today, but it speaks volumes to me. Hundreds of staffers and officials are running around in Washington, relaying messages and strategizing in private quarters. They’re trying to secure a deal big enough for the Republicans to claim a structural victory, and revenue-positive enough for the administration to do the same. Most of all, Obama just wants the recovery to continue, and would bark like a dog in the State of the Union to have it so.

You know who wants no part of the nitty-gritty details? The “average worker.” They want the same thing as the president. They want their lives to continue uninterrupted by the failures and complaints of the people we elect to take care of this stuff. There cannot be a large number of people who are going to pick up the phone and convince their recalcitrant congressman to change his mind after seeing Obama stroll around yet another factory. I guess Axelrod knows more than me on that front. But as long as Obama sends the message that he’s better off puffing up his rhetoric on a never-ending campaign, or on The View, it tells me that the last place he wants to be is in that horse-trading parlor, which whether we like it or not, is the house of stability that is our American government.

Let it be known, this is what happens when you elect an outsider. We claim to dislike politicians and their doublespeak, but few others are equipped with the soft skills necessary to tackle a mammoth negotiation like this. Unless a president has experience managing a super-complex merger in the private sector, the scale of getting to this particular "yes" would be intractable to people outside the Beltway.

Obama may have good vision, and I think he does, but he’ll never implement it by telling us. The president is choosing to get in front of a microphone today, yet fewer people will hear his words than those of Alex Jones. Get back there, Obama, and tell it to the people who matter.