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
Ron Fournier
Oct. 7, 2013, 2 a.m.

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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