Don’t let Obama’s weakness become his strength

For all the talk about Republican intransigence and House Speaker John Boehner’s weakness in corralling the more conservative members of his caucus, it’s President Obama’s inability or unwillingness to reign in left wing Democrats in Congress that is the impediment to the basic predicates for a fiscal cliff agreement, and indeed hopes for a larger ‘grand bargain’ to deal with the government’s structural deficit. CNN reminds us:

Boehner and the president met in person on Monday, but sources familiar with the talks indicate that the framework under discussion is what Republicans are pushing to get to agreement, but it’s unclear whether the make up of the $2 trillion framework could get support from Democrats.

Democratic sources tell CNN part of the issue now is that the trillion in spending cuts comes from some changes to entitlement programs such as reforms to Medicare – along with a discussion of raising the eligibility age. These Democratic sources say it is unclear if those Medicare changes could pass the House or Senate, because they may be too deep for many Democrats.

Whether it’s his silence when the Senate Majority leader hurls McCarthy-ite accusations at the Republican Presidential Nominee, or ignores the law by simply refusing to pass an annual federal budget for three years running, the President’s glaring double standard toward partisans in Congress has long undermined his concurrent attempts to position himself as an above-the-fray mediator of Washington’s partisan fights. Yet it is his assumption of that position which gives the President the confidence to risk going over the fiscal cliff in a bid for enhanced leverage.

At some point – say, now – Republicans must resist upping their offer (according to CNN, they’re offering both rate hikes and to forego leverage points over the next year by raising the debt ceiling through the end of 2013) and leave the President to do his own work, i.e. deliver his party, or risk losing whatever leverage he’s accumulated. Keith Hennessy, Director of the National Economic Council under George W. Bush, persuasively argues that President Obama is an unsophisticated and/or ineffective negotiator. It will be ironic, but in keeping with the President’s unrivaled political luck, if despite all his other weaknesses, his weakness in dealing with congressional Democrats becomes his trump card in second term standoffs with Republicans. To snuff out that dynamic before it takes root, House Republicans need to signal that further movement from their side is unlikely, and Senate Republicans should signal that they intend to hold the line. This would shift focus to the President’s role in ensuring that worst case scenarios are avoided. If the President continues to lack the skill or will to deal with recalcitrant Democrats, that’s something that should be exposed to, not hidden, from public view.

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