Last summer, the President and Congress faced a crisis. The Federal debt was nearing the ceiling previously established by Congress. The President and Congress were unable to come to any agreement on how to deal with the problem. The crisis was temporarily averted by creating the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction or the "Supercommittee" as it was called in the Press. The Supercommittee also failed to reach an agreement. This leaves us facing a formulaic cut of $1.2 trillion in federal spending, half of it coming from Defense. Nobody believes that these cuts will really happen and nobody knows how we will get a deal to avoid them.
In fact, the President had a deal with Speaker of the House John Boehner, negotiated after Obama returned from Church on July 17th. The President said he wanted a deal. The outlines included $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, reducing cost of living increases for Social Security and an increase in the eligibility age for Medicare. It also included $800 billion in tax increases. He asked "How soon can we get this drafted?" If Obama could have brought the Democratic Senate to agree, a grand bargain might have been reached. That is how grand bargains get made. Three days later it was dead.
Peter Wallsten, Lori Montgomery and Scott Wilson tell the story in the Washington Post.
What happened? Obama and his advisers have cast the collapse of the talks as a Republican failure. Boehner, unable to deliver, stepped away from the deal, simple as that.
But interviews with most of the central players in those talks — some of whom were granted anonymity to speak about the secret negotiations — as well as a review of meeting notes, e-mails and the negotiating proposals that changed hands, offer a more complicated picture of the collapse. Obama, nervous about how to defend the emerging agreement to his own Democratic base, upped the ante in a way that made it more difficult for Boehner — already facing long odds — to sell it to his party. Eventually, the president tried to put the original framework back in play, but by then it was too late. The moment of making history had passed.
The actions of Obama and his staff during that period in the summer reflect the grand ambitions and the shortcomings of the president's first term.
A president who promised to bring the country together, who confidently presented himself as the transformational figure able to make that happen, now had his chance. But, like earlier policy battles, the debt ceiling negotiations revealed a divided figure, a man who remained aloof from a Congress where he once served and that he now needed. He was caught between his own aspirations for historical significance and his inherent political caution. And he was unable to bridge a political divide that had only grown wider since he took office with a promise to change the ways of Washington, underscoring the gulf between the way he campaigned and the way he had governed.
In a nutshell, here is what happened. On Sunday, the President made a genuine attempt to negotiate a deal with Boehner and both he and the Speaker thought they had a deal. While aides on both sides were working out the details, the "Gang of Six" in the Senate announced that they were working on deal involving much larger tax increases. This was something that Boehner could not possibly get through the House.
On Tuesday, the President made a rare and apparently unscheduled appearance in the White House Briefing Room. Pushing Press Secretary Jay Carney to the side, he all but endorsed the Gang of Six plan. The House Republicans thought they had been betrayed.
By Wednesday morning, as the Obama and Boehner sides gathered again in the Oval Office, the optimism of Sunday had disintegrated. Vice President Biden, a skeptic of restarting talks with Boehner after the first round collapsed, was there. There appeared to be a very different president in attendance, as well.
Excited and upbeat three days earlier, Obama now was stern and lecturing. According to notes taken by GOP aides, he opened by complaining about Boehner's demand for $200 billion in Medicaid cuts, a persistent point of contention. Then he began to talk about taxes, saying the Gang of Six "makes things more complicated." The White House would need more tax revenue or smaller health-care cuts.
That was more than Boehner could accept and negotiations stalled again. Then Obama's personality shifted once more and he went into action. On Thursday he called Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and informed them of the original terms of his agreement with Boehner. They reluctantly agreed to support it. Two days earlier, that would have secured a deal.
But by then it was too late. For Boehner to sell the deal to his caucus, he had to trust the President to own the deal as well. He had to be confident that the President would not turn around and, say, accuse the Republicans of trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare as soon as the deal was introduced into the House. Over two days Obama had destroyed that trust.
This is a story of a chief negotiator who couldn't keep his eye on the ball. Or, as the Post has it, the story of a President who was always divided against himself when he tried to make policy. It is a story of a man in well over his head, at least where public policy is concerned.
Although Obama had denounced "kick the can down the road" deals as a candidate in 2008, he was now adjusting to the realities of his office. The agreement was at least a tactical victory. He used it to wash his hands of Washington's dysfunction, presenting himself as a well-intentioned man unable to secure a fair deal, because of the capital's enduring partisanship.
But White House advisers conceded that the collapse of the debt talks was a disaster from a policy perspective and, at least in the short term, from a political one. For the first time, Standard & Poor's, the credit rating agency, downgraded U.S. debt. Polls showed that the public blamed Obama as well as congressional Republicans, with approval ratings for both reaching new lows.
But it is not as if the man is no good at anything.
"You say you're the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you'll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans," Obama said to thunderous applause at a Labor Day speech in Detroit. "We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party."
Suddenly, the same Democrats who had accused Obama of meekness in negotiating with the GOP were praising his aggressive new tone. What happened during those days in July when the grand bargain was almost reached, but not quite, had changed him. He no longer seemed divided.
His goal now was unequivocal: to win a second term.