“I’ve never won a tough election,” concedes Paul Krugman, “but neither has Obama!”

The Nobel Prize–winning economist is fuming about the White House’s “ludicrous” view of what independents want—a president, apparently, who embraces anti-spending conservatism.

That’s the core thesis in a new article by Elizabeth Drew, which Krugman flagged Sunday and is now roiling the liberal blogosphere. Drew, 76, is one of the good ones—she spent nineteen years as The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, authored thirteen books, and has an intimate yet relentlessly independent outlook on Washington. In The New York Review of Books, her political essays are originally reported and exhaustive; this one runs 4,800 words and features some telling anonymous quotes from Democrats in high places.

Taking the economic malpractice in Washington as a given, Drew focuses on figuring out “what were they thinking?” For Republicans, the answer is simple and well known: by primarying and defeating even stalwart conservatives, the Tea Party has turned positions once on the outer edge of conservative politics, like dismantling Medicare, into a minimum litmus test for GOP candidates. It has been considerably harder, however, to figure out what Obama is thinking.

This president is not responsible for most of the actual deficit—two-thirds of it is from Bush administration policies and the business cycle. Nor is he to blame for the accompanying political crisis manufactured by Republicans, who, like gauche dining companions, are complaining about a bill for food they’ve already eaten. All that, you might think, would leave Obama with very little patience for obstinate BS. Instead, the president has shown the opposite instincts on both temperament and policy. Why? Drew reports damning allegations from “someone familiar” with Obama’s internal deliberations—almost certainly a White House official or senior, trusted Democrat—who argues that Obama has now traded unpopular but necessary Keynesianism for swing voter posturing.

“If the political advisers had told [Obama] in 2009 that the median voter didn’t like the stimulus, he’d have told them to get lost,” says the source. But by January 2011, the State of the Union address didn’t even propose spending to address unemployment, and the other shoe dropped in April, when Obama first outlined his plan to cut $4 trillion from the deficit.

“It was all about reelection politics, designed to appeal to this same group of independents,” Drew reports, and the same politics drove Obama to put Social Security on the table. “[It’s] consistent with that slice of the electorate they’re trying to reach,” the source explained, although “there’s a bit of bass-ackwardness to this; the deficit spending you’d want to focus on right now is the jobs issue.”

Then Drew moves from insiders to electeds. An anonymous Democratic senator recounts the caucus’s mounting frustration with Obama, Drew reports, and his slow-motion acquiescence:

Because of the extent to which the President had allowed the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, the attitude of numerous congressional Democrats toward him became increasingly sour, even disrespectful. After Obama introduced popular entitlement programs into the budget fight, a Democratic senator described the attitude of a number of his colleagues as: “Resigned disgust at the White House: there they go again. ‘Mr. Halfway’ keeps getting maneuvered around as Republicans move the goalposts on him.”

That kind of critique is common on blogs and liberal talk shows, sure, yet it’s rare for senators, even anonymously, to air it in the open. Presidents always have some tension with the parties that they lead, but Drew’s sources suggest a White House political strategy that is now fundamentally at odds with Congressional Democrats.

Still, nobody really wants to default. Despite some progressive attacks, Republicans are not literally shorting the US economy, given the risk that voters would punish them. They are threatening a murder-suicide on the bet that Obama will fold—and he appears to be playing a good hand badly. But incompetence is not the worst sin. The key allegation in Drew’s article is that Obama is not only giving too much away (e.g., needlessly undercutting spending, stimulus, seniors or Medicare) but that he is doing so to politically save only himself.

None of that changes the Republicans’ culpability.In an emphatic response to Drew’s article, StevenD, a writer for the liberal blog Booman Tribune, argues that the GOP are abusers and Obama has become their enabler:

we are in this situation primarily because the Republicans are dogmatic to the point of insanity.… They bear the greatest portion of blame for this ‘crisis’ because of their adherence to an economic cult and political ideology grounded in selfishness, unfettered and unregulated capitalism and the destruction of the Federal Government.… However, as Drew’s reporting shows, Obama own actions this year have often enabled the worst and most cynical among the Republicans to give no quarter in negotiations…

the President’s failure to consult and work with the leaders of his own party on a strategy to combat the [GOP] has placed him at odds with senior leaders of his party to his detriment, the detriment of his party and quite possibly the severe detriment of millions of Americans who will suffer whether “a deal” (which I predict will have spending cuts but no revenue increases) is reached before August 2nd or not.

Harry Reid is pushing a deal without revenues this week, as it happens, but it it’s pretty hard to tell what is genuine at this point.

Finally, turning back to Mr. Krugman, there is the political argument that Obama is just, to use a technical term, tripping. He explains:

As I recall, two things happened last year: voters were angry about the weak economy, and older voters believed that Obama was going to take away their Medicare and send them to the death panels. And so the way to win those voters back is to cut Medicare and weaken the economy?

[E]ven if Obama really does cut spending, will anyone notice? Even people who are supposedly well informed believe that there was a vast expansion of government under Obama, when in fact there wasn’t. So we’re supposed to believe that independent voters will actually be able to cut through the fog—the deliberate fog of Fox, the he-said-she-said of most other media organizations—and give him credit for spending cuts? Remember, whatever he does Republicans will claim that the government is getting bigger—and news organization will report only that “Democrats say” that this isn’t true.

Obama has made Republicans “look bad,” Drew concludes, but he is not actually getting much for it. I’d go even further. By fully caving on this standoff, where the White House is backed by the general public and large swaths of the GOP (the financial community and the well-informed), Obama would not only fail to impress independent voters, he’d ensure a drubbing on a series of future fights, large and small, with his unreasonable opponents. 

Sometimes politics really is like parenting. You don’t reward tantrums.

For the latest coverage on President Obama’s national address on the debt ceiling, see Ari Melber’s new post, Obama Asks Americans to Raise The Roof.

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Photo credits
Elizabeth Drew image courtesy of C-SPAN
“P-Krug: Enemy of the Good” by Mike McCAffrey, All Rights Reserved.

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