Why Obama Must Talk to the GOP

The president doesn't need to cave on Obamacare to help end the GOP-inspired fiscal crisis.

President Barack Obama visits M. Luis Construction on October 3, 2013 in Rockville, Maryland. (National Journal)

I am on record advocating two seemingly incongruous positions. First, President Obama can't capitulate to GOP demands to unwind the Affordable Care Act (read here). Second, his position against negotiating with Republicans is politically unsustainable (read here).

Let me unpack both conclusions.

Obama can't cave: You can argue that Obamacare is bad for the country (disclosure: I'm ambivalent. While its goals are admirable, I doubt the government can implement such a complex law). You can criticize the president's no-compromise posture in 2010 that resulted in a partisan law. And you certainly can charge the White House with political malpractice for failing to grow support for the measure over three years. But you can't expect Obama to abandon his signature achievement, which is essentially what the Republicans are demanding.

First, it would be bad politics. For good reasons, Obama's liberal backers already question his resolve. His caving on health care might be their last straw. Second, a capitulation of this magnitude over the debt ceiling would set a poor precedent. It would give minority parties too much power. Republicans should consider the long-term consequences of their actions. What if a Republican president gets elected in 2016 and enacts historic tax reform? A Democratic minority could threaten to ruin the nation's credit unless the president repeals the tax package.

This crisis was engineered by Republicans (as shown by the New York Times story here), and thus voters are likely to direct most of the blame to the GOP. Republican leaders misled their most loyal supporters by promising to overturn Obamacare this month. It was never going to happen.

Obama must negotiate: Obama has at least two incentives to talk. First, there is the matter of optics. Voters want to believe that their leaders are open-minded, a trait they particularly expect in a president who promised to change the culture of Washington. Obama simply undermines his credibility by stiff-arming the GOP. Their obstinacy is no excuse for his. During the last protracted government shutdown, President Clinton talked almost every day with GOP rivals Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.

Second, Obama has an opportunity to deftly steer an embattled and divided GOP away from Obamacare and to an issue worthy of high-stakes negotiations: The nation's long-term budget crisis. While it's true that the deficit has dropped in recent months, nothing has been done to secure Social Security and Medicare beyond the next 10 years. Punting this red-ink quandary to the next president would mar Obama's legacy.

In April, I wrote that both the White House and the GOP House had incentive to strike a deal that would both raise taxes and trim entitlement spending. The story traced the outlines of such a deal, but the moment was lost. Boehner doesn't trust Obama and is worried about a revolt from his no-compromise caucus. Obama doesn't trust Boehner and is worried about a revolt from his no-compromise caucus. The House speaker reportedly raised the idea of a so-called grand bargain at a White House meeting last week, and got laughed at. That is the exact wrong response.

If Obama is going to blink, it should not be over Obamacare. On government debt, however, a little humility and risk in the short-term might earn Obama the nation's gratitude for generations.

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