Obama hits the road to sell "grand bargain"

President Obama plans to meet with business, labor and civic leaders early this week about the fiscal slope, according to Reuters. Congressional leaders will huddle with Obama at the end of the week. Labor has immediately and vocally rejected the concept of a grand bargain, at least for now, so judging their behavior after this meeting will be critical. The presence of corporate executives who have pull on Republicans probably matters more than the presence of labor, to whom I assume there will be an attempt to dictate terms.

After this inside game and as the negotiations continue, the President plans to hit the road in support of a deal, which sounds to me like a terrible idea for him.

As he prepares to meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, aides say, Mr. Obama will not simply hunker down there for weeks of closed-door negotiations as he did in mid-2011, when partisan brinkmanship over raising the nation’s debt limit damaged the economy and his political standing. He will travel beyond the Beltway at times to rally public support for a deficit-cutting accord that mixes tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts […]

And with the election campaign over, the campaign for the Obama legacy begins: Mr. Obama will keep his grass-roots organization in place to “have the president’s back,” as its members like to say, on the budget negotiations and other issues in the second term. Democrats concede that the network has not been a particularly effective legislative lobby to date. But they argue that when it was activated to pass payroll tax cuts and low-interest student loans, the pressure made a difference.

Maybe the White House thinks they can seduce their base once more, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. The Obama coalition has always been more tribal than ideological, willing to take their cues from their standard bearer. But maybe it’s worth pointing out that the public soundly rejected the kind of bargain that Obama appears to have in mind. Exit polling shows large majorities opposed to cuts in social insurance. Almost every candidate personally endorsed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson lost their election. Who exactly will stand behind this effort once it leaves the friendly confines of the Beltway? The grand bargain only works behind closed doors.

One thing the President has going for him is a pliant media. The Washington Post is practically giddy at the prospect of cutting the retirement benefits of old people. The National Journal is willing to described a “left divided” on the subject of a grand bargain, a description only achievable by putting Third Way on the left.

I was heartened by James Surowiecki, not exactly the beating heart of the Old Left, come out against a bargain:

If Congress and the President were to come up with a grand bargain in such a short time, there’s a good chance that it would be largely a product of the inside-the-Beltway biases of deficit hawks (who tend to dominate the “serious” discussions of budget policy), rather than the long-term interests of the country. And at a time when long-term interest rates are at historic lows, with the U.S. able to borrow money for ten years at less than one per cent, we simply don’t need to rush to come up with a massive debt-reduction plan. Yes, in the long run we need to deal with the debt (which, above all, means dealing with the rising cost of health care). But there’s no reason to let the fiscal cliff force us into policies that Americans don’t actually want.

Surowiecki makes an affirmative case for kicking the can down the road, which is tantamount to treason among elite media types. The thing to remember about the fiscal cliff, aside from everything else, is that it’s imaginary. Don’t like the sequester? Cancel it! Don’t like the expiration of an economy-boosting payroll tax cut? Extend them! Republicans don’t want to raise taxes? Let the tax cuts expire, and then pass a bill to cut taxes! Congress can only constrain itself willingly; in reality they have the freedom to do whatever they want.

Politicians flatter themselves with discussion of “making the hard choices” and “working together to move America forward.” Putting the country into recession for the purposes of moving it forward makes no sense whatsoever, nor does depriving the sick and the elderly. The false flattery belies a twisted cruelty, the idea that everyone must sacrifice – except those making the plans, of course.

David Dayen

David Dayen