Obama Doesn't Have Leverage in Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

If President Obama is to get what he wants out of fiscal cliff negotiations, he's going to need leverage in the form of votes.

President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio while speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, as he hosted a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy.

The White House is engaged in a very public campaign to win grassroots support for raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans—on various days this week, the president held a twitter chat on the subject, met with governors and CEOs, and visited a middle class family. It seems to be the only thing President Obama is talking about—in fact, his Treasury Secretary threatened to let the country go over the so called fiscal cliff if Republicans don't agree to the tax hike. He's been Johnny One-Note on the tax issue, and it seems to be working. Three polls in the last week and a half (Quinnipiac, AP, and ABC News/Washington Post) show majorities of voters now support the idea. Negotiating is all about leverage, and left is crowing that the White House is gaining leverage in the polls. 

But what about leverage in the actual negotiations? Right now the President doesn't seem to have any support from Senate Democrats. When he announced his "balanced" offer of a whopping $1.6 trillion in tax hikes in exchange for promises of future spending cuts, with no mention of entitlement reform, you could hear crickets chirping in the Senate Democratic caucus. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Even the most liberal members of the House and Senate would be hard pressed in these days of record deficits to hand the White House the ability to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, while voting for more stimulus spending and only future spending cuts, as the president proposed.

It's no surprise, then, that the New York Times reported yesterday that the White House had agreed that the negotiations would only take place between President Obama and Speaker Boehner—no more Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, no more Vice President Biden, no more Rep. Nancy Pelosi, no more Gang of Six with moderate Democrats. So along with putting only that tax hike on the table, he's got only one Democrat at the table—himself. And for the White House to encourage Americans to "call their Congressman" to lobby for higher taxes on the wealthy doesn't strike me as a good strategy when there's only one member of Congress at the table. 

That member of Congress has gotten solid support from the Republican caucus in the House for his recent counteroffer to the President, which raises $800 billion in revenues while proposing entitlement reforms and spending cuts. Majority Whip Eric Cantor has signed on to Boehner's proposals, and most importantly to conservatives, so has House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. The Times is also reporting that Boehner is enjoying his broadest support yet from the rank and file of the House GOP, which gives him an edge in negotiations that he didn't have last time with Obama.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the fiscal cliff.]

If Boehner has to agree to modest tax rate increases in exchange for the spending and entitlement reforms that most Republicans want—and right now, the president's so single-minded about the tax rates that he'd probably give on everything else—I think most Republicans would probably go along. Since Boehner's more centrist proposal is based on one produced last year by President Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, I'd bet many from the other side of the aisle would go along too.

The president may be moving some polls, but he's going to have a hard time moving actual votes for his proposals. That doesn't sound like leverage to me. 

  • Read Susan Milligan: The Susan Rice Fight Is Really About Making Obama Look Bad
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