How Not to Win the Future

Some recent articles have emphasized a new White House M.O. to go with the new senior staff: more discipline, more consistent messaging, less flying-by-the-seat-of-the pants. All that may be true. But these changes in style have not affected one particularly critical kind of substance: President Obama still doesn't know how to negotiate.

Many progressives see a disconcerting, even maddening, pattern: the administration gives away the store before real bargaining even begins. And it gets less done just to buff Obama's image as a centrist.

On the Recovery Act, the White House reduced aid to hard-pressed states, which meant local spending cuts negated many benefits of the stimulus. It also included an enormous tax cut -- which had little or no stimulative effect -- all in hopes of attracting Republican support that mostly never came. As has been widely reported, Christina Romer, Obama's Council of Economic Advisers chair, as well as prominent outside economists, pushed for a bolder bill to save more jobs, but political advisers scaled it back so the president would seem more fiscally responsible. In the end, Obama got tagged as both a big spender and an ineffective job creator: the worst of all worlds.

On climate change, as the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza reported, the White House made three critical blunders -- and they were mistakes of exactly the same kind. Obama announced his support for more domestic drilling, more nuclear power loan guarantees, and a delay for EPA carbon regulation. He did so without winning any support from wavering Republicans -- or even asking anything in return. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), scrambling to build a coalition for cap-and-trade, was apoplectic. As Lizza wrote, "Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues." In the end, Obama gave a couple moderate-sounding speeches on global warming -- but failed to get a bill.

And now, on the budget, the president is proposing $50 billion in spending cuts -- halfway to the tea party's policy -- as his opening offer. The goalposts are now set between the 50 yard line and a GOP touchdown. So a good compromise would be 75 percent of what Speaker Boehner wants, or 80 percent? More disturbing to Democrats, the president has yet to substantially challenge the Republican narrative on cutting spending -- even as the "non-security discretionary" funding on the table has nothing to do with America's long-term deficit problem. Analysts from Goldman Sachs to the McCain campaign's economic adviser have argued that cutting this spending now -- at the beginning of a fragile recovery -- will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, slow growth, and fail to reduce red ink. (Why on Earth would Republicans want a weaker economy as the president runs for re-election?)

And yet, in numerous appearances, Obama talks about how he wants to cut spending -- just not quite as much -- and borrows a conservative metaphor to compare the federal government to a family that has to reduce its expenses in tough times. Most economists would say the exact opposite -- and the president will not come close to calling the GOP fiscal strategy what it is: a repeat of Herbert Hoover's.

Failing to challenge a Republican narrative, and failing to defend discretionary programs, may seem like centrism to White House aides. But to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, I bet it just looks like weakness.

Drop-down navigation-bar image credit: Rick Wilking/Reuters

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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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