Tuesday, September 13, 2011

All or nothing?

There has been plenty of comment on how the administration is approaching the jobs bill differently from previous dealings with Congress. Steve Benen, for example, seems to view the new approach of presenting Congress with a bill drafted by the administration, and demanding that Congress pass the president's whole bill, as a recognition of the failures of its previous "poor" negotiating strategies, in which the administration has signaled its willingness to compromise in advance.

Such interpretations might be missing the point. As I mentioned in a previous post, the jobs bill is similar in character to previous Obama initiatives (like those initiatives, it starts off incorporating a lot of Republican ideas). But there is a crucial difference between this jobs bill and previous efforts to pass important bills through Congress--I'm talking especially about the stimulus bill, the health insurance reform bill, the financial regulation bill, and the debt ceiling increase. And that difference may explain the change in negotiating strategy. In all of those previous cases, the administration felt it simply had to get something passed, and by necessity all those bills had to contain substantial compromises given the composition of Congress. The price of refusing to compromise in each of these cases was considered too high. In the case of the debt ceiling increase, the alternative to compromise would have been an unprecedented default which could have caused another recession. That was unacceptable. In the case of health care reform, the alternative was no reform, and maybe another 15 or 20 year wait before another attempt could be made. That was also considered unacceptable. As for the stimulus bill, given the dire state of the economy at the beginning of the Obama administration, their economic team felt they simply had to pass whatever stimulus they could get through Congress as quickly as possible. And financial regulation was also considered something the administration simply had to do, even if the bill were weakened to get it through Congress.

In the case of  the new jobs bill, however, President Obama may finally be in a no-lose situation. The jobs bill is being presented with a fierce urgency--the administration is demanding that it be passed right away--but they know it is not the end of the world if it doesn't pass in toto. If the bill passes, the administration can take credit for bold action, and it stands an excellent chance of achieving some positive economic results. If the bill does not pass, we just have to live with a continued sluggish economy, and the president can blame Congress for refusing to do anything to help reduce unemployment. Congress will then have to at least share responsibility for the continued bad economy. If Republicans in Congress accept only parts of the bill, it will be interesting to see if the Democrats in Congress allow only those parts to pass, and whether the president would veto a bill that only does part of what he is demanding (presumably the tax cut part without the infrastructure spending part). But regardless of how the Democrats in Congress and the administration handle those tactical questions, they can still claim a political win from a partial bill. Democrats running for election next will in that case be able to blame Republicans for insufficient action.

Given that the jobs bill is not seen as a do or die piece of legislation, despite its importance to the economy, it makes perfect sense for the administration to adopt a no-compromise approach to it. This is basic Negotiation 101. If you MUST make a deal, you are going to have to compromise, because the other side knows you must make a deal. And therefore you probably won't get your best deal, but you will get something accomplished. On the other hand, if you can afford to walk away from a deal, you can also afford to be uncompromising, because you win either way. Either you make the deal you want, or you blame the other side for the failure to conclude the negotiation. I think it is the nature of the jobs bill, as much as any change in strategy to bolster the public's perception of the president, that explains President Obama's changes in tactics. 


  1. Great article!!!

    I posted about this over at my place - along with a link back here.

  2. The Prez has helped create his own problem by failing to present a credible jobs bill. This begs the legitimate question, does he understand?

    As far as the jobs or stimulus bill he did present, poll after poll say Americans don't agree with it. In Washington, it is DOA in the house and faces problems in the Senate with Dems given the Medicare cuts. Couple this with results in NY 9 yesterday and you have everything you need to know about current atmosphere.

  3. I'd be interested in seeing the polls you're referring to. My impression was that people in fact really want Congress to do something about unemployment. When it comes to the specifics, you have to ask, who is qualified to speak for the people? Right now the only qualified elected representative of all of the American people is Barack Obama, so I would think people should give his plan a shot.

    And I will grant you that Obama has a tendency to listen more to the experts than to the polls. And I understand that his plan is favored by a consensus of experts. But as we know, the American people always think they know better than the experts. So if the American people have a better plan, they should figure out how to present it to Congress, and Congress should give it due consideration along with the president's plan.

    As for me, since I subscribe to the Tinkerbelle theory of economics that I already explained to you, I could probably get behind a variety of different plans provided that enough people really believe they would work. Because if people believe, then the plan will work.

  4. I did a Google search for polls on this issue, and found a Politico article that summarized some of the polls. According to Bloomberg, 51% think the plan will not lower employment, but 40% think it will. How do they know, I wonder?

    According to a CNN poll, 43% approve of the plan, while 35% disapprove. And Gallup found that 45% think Congress should pass the bill, while only 32% think Congress should not pass it. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0911/63482.html

    So much for polls.

    I think it would be interesting to take a poll in which the pollster described a plan--really any kind of plan addressing any issue would do--and then told some people that the plan was Obama's plan, but told other people that it was John Boehner's plan, and then other people that it was Rick Perry's plan. Then of course you would have to sort the results by whether people identified themselves as Republicans or Democrats, etc. I bet you would see that support for the plan would largely depend on who people think sponsored it.

  5. Couple more polls summarized here:


    Seems pretty favorable to the president's ideas to me.