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Should Obama Have Embraced Bowles-Simpson?

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 27, 2012

The New York Times has a fairly critical feature story today on why the Obama administration couldn’t manage to pull off the “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that it spent much of 2011 pursuing. The article, by Jackie Calmes, takes as its launching point the Bowles-Simpson Commission report recommending $4 trillion of cuts over ten years. As Calmes notes, the White House pointedly did not embrace the report, although it quietly adopted many of the ideas therein during the subsequent private negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner — negotiations that failed, creating for Obama an aura of “political timidity” that has stuck.

Calmes’s piece makes clear that the White House never considered embracing Bowles-Simpson:

For all of its subsequent import, Mr. Obama’s initial response to Bowles-Simpson was little debated at the White House, aides say. Not one adviser supported embracing it.

But what’s notable about Calmes’s story is that even though the administration failed to win a deal through its preferred course of low-key negotiations, White House officials appear utterly convinced that their strategy was the correct one. Calmes has Obama himself explaining to Erskine Bowles, the commission co-chair, that if he had “put his arms around” the plan immediately, it “would have been savaged by Republicans, and that would have killed it.”

Really? Republicans certainly would have attacked the president, but it’s not clear to me that this would have killed the plan. In fact, the very public fight over the payroll tax cut textension last December — a fight the White House won — offers an intriguing counter-example of what might have happened had Obama publicly embraced Bowles-Simpson.

The key factor in the payroll fight was that it wasn’t simply a battle between Democrats and Republicans. Many Senate Republicans supported the extension, so when the White House took the fight public, it did so with bipartisan support, which isolated House Republicans. It helped, of course, that the battle was over tax cuts, which most voters perceive as desirable. But in the end, House Republicans’ obstruction and obstinance wasn’t sustainable.

What would have happened had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson? We know that he’d have had some serious Republican supporters on his side, such as Sen. Tom Coburn, a commission member who voted for the plan. He’d probably also have had public support — cutting the deficit isn’t quite as popular as tax cuts, but it’s something most voters would like to see happen. And as in the payroll fight, his public embrace would have isolated House Republicans. White House officials are adamant that Republican attacks would have scotched any deal. And perhaps they would have, although the payroll fight suggests that’s no sure thing. But having struck out in private talks, it’s hard to see how the president would be worse off today had he chosen this course. He’d at least have gotten credit for trying.

UPDATE: Good Ezra Klein post making the often-missed point that rejecting Bowles-Simpson was a strategic, rather than an ideological, decision.

Reader Comments


February 27, 2012 8:08 PM

Calmes claims that the "Obama administration couldn’t manage to pull off the “grand bargain” but in reality, Boehner and the House GOP couldn't pull one over on the American people , at least NOT while President Obama is on home plate. His advisers are precise in strategically counseling him NOT to swing at every ball thrown by the most unpopular congress in American history.He's swinging for the people, looking like the designated hitter .

This does not mean that the blood letting has not hurt the American People. The problem for the GOP is he is doing it too slowly .He has called for slicing deficits more than $4 trillion over 10 years by curtailing all spending, including for the military, Medicare and Social Security, and overhauling the tax code.

Meanwhile,the GOP look like selfish ,misguided a** holes ,while President Obama looks more like a compassionate,strategic, team player.

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Led by Bloomberg Businessweek's Washington correspondent, "Joshua Green on Politics" is a blog devoted to national politics and public policy issues, from Congress to the 2012 Presidential campaign trail. A special focus will be the intersection of business and politics. Follow the author on Twitter (@JoshuaGreen). To book for television or radio appearances, call Patti Straus, 212-617-3279, or e-mail

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