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Friday Talking Points -- Obama 2.0?

In the midst of the debt ceiling frenzy, nobody seems to have noticed that Obama is negotiating in a markedly different way than what we've seen from him in the past. He is at the absolute center of the showdown.
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Are we seeing the new model of Barack Obama's presidency? Is this (in the parlance of Silicon Valley) "Obama 2.0"?

This seems to be a large point that all the overanalysis of rumors in the past few weeks has largely missed. Partisans on both sides have been kept busy having fits of the vapors over unconfirmed (and, for the most part, unsourced or anonymous) rumor leaks about what is "on the table" in the debt ceiling negotiations, while the media is content to sit back and fan the flames. In the midst of this frenzy, nobody seems to have noticed that President Obama is negotiating in a markedly different way than what we've seen from him in the past. Obama is at the absolute center of the showdown, he is using the bully pulpit for all its worth, and he has not (so far, unless you choose to believe this rumor or that) backed down on a few key "lines in the sand." All of this is nothing short of a sea change from how Obama handled (for example) the healthcare reform battle.

Since there is no agreement yet -- no grand "deal" has emerged from the talks between the White House and congressional leaders -- I'm going to wait to discuss the particulars of such a deal until it actually... you know... exists. I realize I am jeopardizing my standing among my peers by doing so, because apparently I'm supposed to be fulminating about whatever is the current rumor du jour right about now, along with the rest of the pack. Instead, I'd like to focus on the process, and the way President Obama has conducted himself in the negotiating process.

Republicans will, of course, discount any such discussion by stating that Eric Cantor singlehandedly got Obama involved by petulantly walking out of the discussions Vice President Joe Biden was holding, a few weeks back. This can be largely ignored, since it doesn't really matter what led Obama to take a commanding role, now that he has done so.

Several complaints about President Obama's governing style (admittedly, many of them expressed in this very column, in the past) centered on his inability to effectively conduct legislative negotiations. Rightly or wrongly, Obama was portrayed as a mere cheerleader on the sidelines, while Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid struggled to get the details worked out on paper. Even this cheerleading was judged ineffective, since Obama showed a strange aversion to taking his case directly to the American people (or, at the very least, making his case to the mainstream media). Obama seemed content to ride out the fray, holding himself above the messy business of hammering out details, and expressing only vague "goals" which he later could claim were "90 percent met" by whatever legislation emerged. This, the complaint went, allowed Obama to avoid risking any political "failure" which came as a result of supporting any facet of the plan which did not actually make it into the final agreement. It also avoided the heat from the public (especially his base), and redirected this annoyance to the leaders in Congress who were actually up to their elbows in the dirty work of give-and-take negotiations. And, at the end of the day, Obama would cave on just about anything merely in order to get some sort of bill -- any bill -- through Congress and onto his desk. No matter where you stood on past fights (again, such as healthcare reform), this portrait of the president in such negotiations should sound pretty familiar.

Compare this to what has happened in the past month on the debt ceiling talks. Obviously, since we're not done, we can't compare what the final result will be. But all the rest of the "conventional wisdom" of how Obama negotiates seems to have been turned on its head, to one degree or another.

Obama is indubitably at the center of the debt ceiling negotiations. He is not "passing the buck" to Congress on these talks. Obama has given an extraordinary (and, for him, unprecedented) three press conferences in the space of less than two weeks -- in addition to appearing in any media interviews which will put him on camera. In these appearances, he has been using forceful language to frame the issues as he sees them, instead of just allowing his opposition to hog all the television time and present their argument unchallenged. By doing so, Obama has set the Republicans not only back on their heels, but also at each other's throats (or so it is rumored). Obama has drawn lines in the sand, and then defended them and not backed down (so far, at least) -- such as saying any large deal must include tax increases in a 1-to-3 ratio with spending cuts. He has threatened to use his very large political ace-in-the-hole by hinting that letters soon will go out to Social Security recipients which will warn that the checks will stop if the debt ceiling isn't raised. He has been playing the "multi-dimensional chess" which was ascribed to him in the early days of his presidency, by offering a plan he knew would never pass the House, so that his own party could howl about how he was giving away the store on Social Security and Medicare -- when there was no chance of this actually happening. He is, to be blunt, taking heat from both sides in the debate. By doing so, he has positioned himself exactly where he wanted to -- as "the adult in the room." Call it Clintonian "triangulation" if you will, but heading into a presidential campaign, it's not actually that bad a political stance for Obama to take. By doing so, Obama has shown with crystal clarity the extreme positions of the Tea Party Republicans (and, by extension, the Republican Party itself) these days, in a way that he simply has not managed yet in his presidency.

All of this adds up to a very big shift in governing style by the president. Now, you can speculate about what caused this sea change (the upcoming election, the fact Republicans control the House, the exit of Rahm Emanuel from the White House, etc.), but it's getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that Obama has indeed changed how he conducts himself in these legislative fights. We did see a precursor to this, back in December, when Obama personally got involved in the "lame duck" session of the outgoing Congress. He cut a deal on extending the Bush tax cuts (which Democrats howled over), but by doing so also gained other legislation which Democrats loved -- including the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," an important nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, medical care for 9/11 first responders, a payroll tax cut for everyone, and an unemployment benefits extension -- none of which would have gotten done if Obama hadn't personally cut the tax deal. The result, with the public, was that his approval ratings jumped upwards for the very first time in his entire term in office. Which, undoubtedly, the White House took note of.

Lest I be accused of being too Pollyannish (Pollyannaish?) here, it's obvious that whatever deal gets struck is going to have some things contained within it which are going to upset some Democrats. It will, in all likelihood, also have some features which will upset me personally. No deal is perfect. More importantly, Obama was going to disappoint a certain amount of both his base and the lefty blogosphere by whatever he did in the debt ceiling fight. The very fact that we're even having this battle (rather than, say, a fight over further stimulus spending) is annoying some on the left already -- and they will be annoyed by any outcome, no matter what it contains. Dire predictions abound that Obama has so alienated his base that they simply won't turn out for him next year, however, these must be weighed with the astoundingly good fundraising numbers Obama just announced. It seems not all of Obama's base is that eager to jump ship. Perhaps the debt ceiling deal will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back for large portions of Obama's base, but then again it may not be. If Obama can sell whatever deal emerges as "balanced" (something he's done a remarkably good job of framing, in this whole debate), then he may retain quite a bit of public support. And if his "Obama 2.0" strategy actually works for him, then maybe he truly has changed his negotiating style for the better, and maybe his poll numbers will go back up again (as they did in December).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the biggest news this week, by making a "Plan B" proposal as to how to get beyond the immediate crisis. The proposal is so astounding that it makes me seriously wonder if the fantasy speech I imagined in last week's "Friday Talking Points" actually happened (to some degree or another). Obama, I wrote last week, should just lay down the law and state that he would -- at a certain date -- go with the "Constitutional option," or play the "Fourteenth Amendment" card. He should state to the negotiators that he would act unilaterally under the clear text of the Constitution to declare the debt ceiling itself unconstitutional and void, and just go ahead and pay what needed to be paid since it had already been approved by Congress in this year's budget.

What McConnell is proposing is extremely close to Congress agreeing with this reasoning -- in advance. McConnell would, in essence, agree that President Obama could raise the debt ceiling on his own, at least until after next year's election. The Republicans in Congress would get to vote on this after the fact, but could only overturn Obama's decision with a two-thirds vote (much like a veto). McConnell knows he's never going to get two-thirds in either house, meaning the whole vote would be nothing more than political nonsense to be served up in the heat of the campaign season. Republicans could strongly position themselves politically as being against raising the debt ceiling, with no consequences at all to the actual debt ceiling. It's called "having your cake and eating it too," at least when it comes time to beg political donations from Wall Street. The only gaping flaw in McConnell's Machiavellianism is the hard cold fact that Congress would have to vote on this scheme in the first place. Republicans in Congress (at least a few of them) would have to vote to abdicate their power (as they see it) to President Obama, so they could later gnash their teeth when Obama actually used the power Republicans would thus hand him.

Which is the key fact -- Congress would be, in essence, agreeing with the president that the power to raise the debt ceiling was too serious to be left in the hands of Congress. "Stop me before I screw up again!" is another way of putting it. The Republicans, of course, are gleeful that they'll be able to frame the issue as "Obama's debt ceiling hikes," because they figure that if the president is the one singlehandedly doing so, then the public can be conned into believing that Congress had nothing to do with it, and that the Republicans in Congress were actually strongly fighting to keep him from doing so. This is complete elephant manure, of course, since Congress would have already abdicated this power with Republican votes, but Republicans are betting the American public won't figure that part out. Or (more accurately) remember it.

Either way, though, I do seriously wonder if Obama laid down some sort of drop-dead date, as this column suggested he do last week. Because when you strip away the political tinsel from McConnell's proposal, at its core it is nothing more than Congress just giving up on the whole debate and admitting in full view of the public that President Obama is, indeed, the only adult left in Washington.

Both of our awards this week go to Obama administration figures. An argument can be made -- for either of these awards -- that the real recipient should indeed be President Obama. But since we've spent our entire introduction talking about Obama, we thought it best to spread the coverage around a bit. If you disagree, feel free to vent your feelings in the comments, as always.

Senator Sherrod Brown deserves an Honorable Mention this week, for proposing the idea that members of Congress should have to wait until the retirement age that most other Americans have to hit, before they get their overly-generous retirement benefits themselves. This is the sort of legislation that Democrats should be backing, because it is so easily understood by the public at large, as an issue of basic fairness.

But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just announced that the United States would diplomatically recognize the rebel ad hoc council as the official government of Libya. Now, diplomatic recognition is a weighty matter, and America should never make this move too quickly. But, as the British saying goes: in for a penny, in for a pound. Ever since we've officially declared the Ghaddafi government illegitimate, Libyans have been waiting for America to follow the lead of others in this regard. Making this declaration will free up tens of billions of dollars for the rebels, which would give them a needed boost right about now.

The only quibble with Clinton's announcement is a silly one, but to be fair, we must address it. Clinton, in explaining why America hadn't acted sooner, said the following: "We really have acted in warp time in diplomatic terms, but we took our time to make sure that we were doing so based on our best possible assessments."

Um... "warp time"? Shouldn't that be "warp speed," Madam Secretary? Not to get into relativistic physics or anything, but one thing science fiction (back to the era of the original Star Trek television show) has taught us is that the correct phrase should really be "warp speed."

Hey, we warned you it was going to be silly. Ahem.

Quibbles aside, though (insert your own "tribbles quibbles" jokes here, if you must), Hillary Clinton's diplomatic recognition of the Libyan rebels as the true government of their country earns her this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not have a contact page at the State Department site, but you can always contact the White House, and let her boss know you appreciate her efforts.]

Our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week, as previously mentioned, is also a Cabinet department head, and -- again -- the argument can be made that he's merely "following the orders" of his boss.

Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department has, in the past few weeks, been severely backtracking on the administration's policy on medical marijuana. First a memo was released which backs up a strange policy. Then an even stranger Justice Department policy (to the point of being ludicrous) was released in a court case.

The memo doesn't completely reverse what was supposed to be the Obama policy on medical marijuana providers, but it certainly puts an odd spin on things. When Obama came into office, the new federal policy was supposed to have changed -- the feds would now only raid and prosecute people who were falling afoul of their own state's medical marijuana laws. If providers were hewing to the appropriate state laws, then the feds would look the other way, even while maintaining that marijuana was illegal, all the time, for everyone. Call it the "Sergeant Schultz" policy ("I see nothing!!!") if you will.

There are three basic problems with this approach. Number one, most state medical marijuana laws are completely silent on the production of medical marijuana, leaving a legal void. Number two, the federal raids continued (and by some measures, increased). Number three, a lot of leeway was given to individual federal prosecutors in deciding what cases to push.

The new memo seems to back up the fact that the feds seemed to be concentrating on the biggest growing operations. If an activity is deemed legal (or even "look the other way" quasi-legal), then what difference does it make whether the activity is large or small? The second problem with the new memo is that it seems to give a green light to overzealous federal prosecutors to go after state government officials for making an honest attempt to fill in the legal void when it comes to legalizing the entire seed-to-end-product production chain. Some states -- rather than leave a gaping legal hole -- decided to lay down a few rules as to what was acceptable and what was not for growers of medical marijuana. Before the new rules were even given a chance to be enacted, a few federal prosecutors sent letters to very high-ranking state officials warning them that the feds would haul their butts into court and charge them with conspiring to break federal drug laws. Got that? If a state's attorney general released regulations for legally growing medical marijuana in their state, then they would be prosecuted (read: "persecuted") for falling afoul of the drug laws. This is ridiculous, but the new Justice Department memo seems to back this reasoning up.

The memo was bad enough, but it was soon followed by the federal government releasing a lengthy report which unequivocally stated that marijuana would remain a "Schedule I" dangerous controlled substance -- which (by definition) means it "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." This is patent nonsense, on two levels. Number one: the federal government is still supplying a few patients with medical marijuana on a daily basis, which they are allowed to legally smoke -- by federal law. This is a holdover from the 1970s and 1980s, when a pilot program was set up for people with glaucoma and other ailments which demonstrably were made better by smoking weed. Number two: fully one-third of the country has now legalized medical marijuana. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia (17 out of 51 jurisdictions, a perfect third) now have medical marijuana laws on the books. For the federal government to continue to refuse to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug ("has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions") is now completely and utterly absurd.

For assumably signing off on both the recent memo and the recent report introduced in court, Attorney General Eric Holder is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week. This is shameful, and is (to put it in Obama-esque terms) "looking backward, not looking forward." The only reason for continuing this losing war and for putting out absurd legal reasoning is political cowardice. Which is nothing short of shameful.

[Attorney General Eric Holder does not have a contact page at the Justice Department site, but you can always contact the White House, to let his boss know what you think of his actions.]

Volume 173 (7/15/11)

This week, obviously, is "debt ceiling week" in Washington, and our talking points will be reflecting this. I wrote earlier in this week on the periphery of the whole discussion, first predicting exactly what has come to pass -- that both Congress and the White House had a vested interest in stalling the talks until the absolute last minute, so that Congress won't have any time to dither at the end of the process. Then, on Wednesday, I attempted to provide some historical context to the debate with a quick look back at 1995 and 1996, when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were at loggerheads over both the budget and the debt ceiling.

Today, we're going to dive into the fracas, head-on. Because, with the negotiations happening behind closed doors, the only thing left for politicians outside the room to do is to make their side's case to the media. Which Democrats have actually been doing a fairly good job of, so far, led by Obama himself.

As always, these talking points are offered up to Democrats everywhere to make use of, most especially those who are in office facing television cameras this weekend.

Fair and balanced

There's a reason why Fox News pushes these two words as a slogan: America likes the concepts. President Obama, to his credit, has been using both terms to bolster his position in the negotiations, for the same reason. Help him out whenever you can.

"President Obama has called for balance in the debt ceiling negotiations. He thinks it is only fair that everyone in America should have to contribute to solving the debt problem. He is right. The president has offered to give ground on many issues which are near and dear to Democrats -- like fighting Republican attempts to gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The Republicans, led by Eric Cantor in the House, have given precisely nothing. They have offered no ground, they refuse to consider any idea which does not fit within their rigid and extremist ideology, while the president continues to negotiate in good faith. We agree with the president -- any agreement should strike a balance between raising revenues and spending cuts. It is only fair to ask everyone to share the burden."

The American people

Another thing Obama has been framing quite well is the fact that the public is behind most of the Democratic positions, in a big way. Poll after poll shows the American public agrees that it might be time to ask the millionaires and billionaires to pay a bit more in taxes. These polls rarely make the news, probably because the "journalists" would be embarrassed to admit what tax bracket they all fall into (hint: it isn't the same one as most of the rest of us). But by repeating one phrase, Obama is showing the strength of his position. Back him up!

"You know, I keep hearing Republicans trying to frame this issue as somehow 'Obama's debt ceiling hike.' They feel that if they just repeat Obama's name in conjunction with 'debt ceiling hike' that people will somehow think he's the only one who thinks the debt ceiling needs to be raised. This is nonsense. The debt is America's. It is all of America's debt, and it is the American economy which will crumble if the debt ceiling is not raised. Republican citizens will be hit by the consequences just the same as Democrats if America defaults.

"Luckily, the American people have shown, in poll after poll after poll, that they are solidly behind what the president and Democrats are saying. The American people do not want Social Security slashed. The American people do not want Medicare and Medicaid radically changed. The American people are just fine with millionaires and billionaires paying a wee bit more in taxes -- by overwhelming margins. Every time you hear an idea considered by Washington politicians, it would behoove the media to check the poll numbers to confirm that what the president says is correct -- the American people believe in a balanced approach to fixing our debt problems, unlike the Republicans."

Instant Greece!

This should be used to counter Republican idiocy that "everything will be OK, nothing bad will happen on August the third, trust us...."

"That is utter nonsense. Republicans have been using the country Greece as a rallying cry all year now, warning us that 'America could wind up like Greece in the near future.' Now that we are faced with exactly this scenario, the Republicans are saying 'Oh, it won't be so bad.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of dire warnings about some future scenario where America become Greece, Republicans will be forcing the rest of the world to immediately treat us the same as Greece. If the bond markets turn against the United States, then we would have 'Instant Greece' here at home. Why -- after warning us of the dire straits Greece is in all year -- why would the Republican force America into the same situation as Greece on the world markets? It makes no sense whatsoever."

Instability insanity

Here's another chestnut from the Republican mantra that can be turned around and thrown back in their faces.

"Likewise, Republicans have been warning all year long that the American economy is terrified of 'instability' or 'uncertainty.' Markets, this thinking goes, are afraid of this instability whenever Democratic ideas become law, and the instability disappears whenever Republican ideas become law -- it's apparently very selective market uncertainty, I guess [pause for laughter]. But even with the naked partisanship, how do Republicans square this belief that instability is a bad thing for the American economy with the massive and unprecedented instability they are now advocating happen, by forcing America to default on its obligations? I guess that sort of instability is somehow less terrifying... or something... it's hard to follow such logic, isn't it?"

So much for clean bills

The Republicans actually campaigned on this one. Guess they were lying, eh?

"You know, what I find amusing in the debt ceiling debate is how blatantly the Republicans in the House are breaking one of their core campaign promises. When they were campaigning, the Republicans put forth a grand document entitled the 'Pledge to America.' If I may quote from this document, the Republicans brought up the following issue: 'Advance Legislative Issues One at a Time: We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with "must-pass" legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead we will advance major legislation one issue at a time.' That was what they pledged before they got elected. I call on every Republican who signed this document while a candidate to join with me in demanding a 'clean' bill to raise the debt ceiling right now. There is no reason why we cannot raise the debt ceiling separately from the negotiations underway to reduce our debt. In fact, House Republicans campaigned on just such a promise. I'd like to hold them to this promise right now."

Even Reagan raised taxes

This one should be played as a trump card in debating Republican purity over raising taxes, because it puts Republicans in a very uncomfortable position.

"While I do not agree with George W. Bush's vice president or Treasury Secretary, who both famously said, 'Reagan proved that deficits don't matter,' I would like to remind the House Republicans that none other than Ronald Reagan himself agreed to multiple tax increases during his term in the Oval Office. That's right -- Ronald Reagan raised taxes. When the situation demanded it, and when negotiations would have broken down otherwise, Reagan agreed to tax increases on the wealthy. Do Republicans repudiate Reagan, or will they follow the Gipper's lead in this matter?"

China before America's seniors?

Although this sort of thing would be the least of our problems if we did indeed default, since the Republicans have stuck their neck out, it is only fair game to use it against them.

"Nancy Pelosi pointed out this week that House Republicans are trying to pass some gimmicky legislation which guarantees that America's debts will be paid even if we go beyond the August second deadline and face defaulting on our obligations. House Republicans introduced a bill which would prioritize paying China off before paying American seniors their Social Security checks. This is the type of choice we would face if we don't get the deal made before the deadline -- deciding who to pay first. Republicans have shown their priorities, which makes me wonder why Republicans got so upset when President Obama said he couldn't guarantee that Social Security checks will go out beyond August second. Republicans howled that the president was 'demagoguing' the issue. But as far as the Republican House is concerned, Social Security will be taking a back seat to China. You can't have it both ways, guys."

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