Thursday, December 02, 2010

Why does the White House keep making preemptive concessions?

My critique from an earlier post that President Obama "makes a concession, then another one, then another one, because that's his negotiating style ... [although] he isn't going to get anything back," is not exactly unique to me. See, for example, here and here. And the tea leaves appear to strongly suggest that Obama may be on the verge of a massive cave, in exchange for next to nothing (or perhaps even actually nothing) in return, with respect to the expiring tax cuts.

The point is so obvious, and so clearly being consciously exploited by the Republican Congressional leadership (and who can blame them? What professional card player wouldn't enjoy playing poker for money with a putz?), that one wonders what can possibly be going on.

I see only two main explanations, which could be complements rather than rivals. The first is that there's something fundamentally awry (or at least unsuited for present circumstances) in Obama's psychological make-up, so that he is desperate above all for even, and perhaps above all, his sworn enemies to like him. Never mind that they might be largely motivated (at least at the leadership level) by rational self-interest, not just emotion or gut feelings. The second is that he has an extremely naive view of politics, based on a simplistic application of the old Anthony Downs model in which you beat the other guys by going to the center. Hence, by being the more "reasonable" and conciliatory one, you pick up the swing voters and get the majority.

We are all prisoners of the degree of fit between our psychological make-ups, with their strengths and weaknesses, and the environments in which we happen to find ourselves operating. A case in point is the number one political patron saint of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill. Though a brilliant, charming, and eloquent man, Churchill failed repeatedly in politics and government until he ran smack into the one situation that he was absolutely born to get right: understanding and opposing Hitler. Put him anywhere else (as indeed the rest of his career, both before and after, made clear), and you'd simply have a brilliant, charming, and eloquent failure. Lucky Churchill, as well as lucky us.

Obama has not been so fortunate. Indeed, he may even be a reverse Churchill, in that he was put into the one political environment in modern U.S. history where his skills (beyond winning the initial election) would matter the least and his defects the most. Perhaps he could have done great in the political environment of, say, 1964 or even 1976 (obviously, leaving aside the impossibility at those times of electing an individual whom U.S. voters would racially code as black).

Likewise, the Downs theory of working for the middle works sometimes. I see it as a key supporting explanation of why people such as Reagan and Tip O'Neill found it reasonable to cooperate on short-term and long-term deficit reduction in the 1980s. But at other times it doesn't work well - viz, the 2010 elections, in which it was overwhelmed by what I called "differential turnout elasticity" in my recent book on the approaching U.S. fiscal collapse.

Plus, in circumstances like the present, voters are looking for someone who they believe can be effective and strong. And rightly or wrongly (I'd say mainly the latter), voters are giving the Democrats the blame for policy failures that are in significant part due to the Republicans' adoption (again, rationally) of a policy of complete obstructionism. And there's also the "Reagan factor" at work: voters often like someone whom they view as having firm, confident, and consistent principles even if they don't entirely share the principles. So bleating about a federal pay freeze rightly impresses no one.

The sum total is beginning to look pathological, although in fairness to Obama he might have been a great success if plunked into a different political environment. But this is where his reputed intellgence ought to kick in. Can't he see any of this? And doesn't he have enough advisors who can see it and view themselves as having the incentive to tell him?

We will see.

1 comment:

'G said...

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVII: "Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails."