To Succeed, Obama May Have to Be the Crazy Prisoner

Whenever Americans who pay a modicum of attention to Washington focus in on the machinations in Congress, someone invariably suggests that our government would be less dysfunctional if it were a parliamentary system. But it isn’t, and there’s no reason to think it will be any time soon, if ever. We’ll continue to have a head of state who cannot control the legislative branch. During much of our history, regional factions were a countervailing force to partisans conflict between the branches of government. But with the realignment of the South in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, divided government makes it damn near impossible to accomplish much of significance; Bush administration, the last session of the Senate, and the Boehner House show that the Republicans’ guiding principle is nihilism. Yet, President Obama will still be affected by that nihilism, as will the country and the economy of the entire world, if the nihilists refuse to raise the debt ceiling and thus precipitate a default by United State government.

As the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki explains, the debt limit is both a product of our split government, and an anachronism. Indeed, if the Republicans prevent an increase in the debt ceiling, they will have provoked Obama to take on more power by forcing him to unilaterally decide how to spend the money appropriated by Congress.

In the absence of a debt ceiling repeal, Obama can “go it alone,” but it’s probably a bad idea in terms of rule of law and the balance of powers. And reaching the point where it’s necessary for him to make such decisions would be economically catastrophic, which is why Obama is making the rational decision to try hard to get a deal. (According to Jonathan Cohn, Obama also sees these negotiations as the last opportunity to get about $160 billion in stimulus, which could create about a million new jobs.)

Obama needs to maintain his public demeanor of “the adult in the room,” in particular because ANY kind of “hot” behavior runs the risk of playing in to the still-too-prevalent notion that black men are irrational and hot-tempered. It’s a strength of Obama’s that he’s able to come across as calm, collected and confident. It’s also a political necessity.

But Suroweicki shows Obama’s demeanor–an essential element of his success–is actually an impediment in negotiations with the GOP:

You might think that there are benefits to putting negotiators under the gun. But, as the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu has shown, time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure, negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don’t consider as wide a range of alternatives, and are more likely to jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Time pressure also reduces the chances that an agreement will be what psychologists call “integrative”—taking everyone’s interests and values into account.

In fact, by turning dealmaking into a game of chicken, the debt ceiling favors fanaticism. As the economist Thomas Schelling showed many years ago, “It does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, coolheaded, and in control of oneself” when it comes to brinksmanship. It doesn’t, in short, help to be President Obama. That may be why all the deals that have been taken seriously this season rely much more heavily on spending cuts than on tax increases: the deals represent Republican priorities, because the Republicans seem to be more willing than the Democrats to let the country default. It’s not pure craziness that’s rewarded—when some congressional Tea Partiers said that they wouldn’t vote to raise the ceiling under any circumstances, they became irrelevant to the conversation, since no compromise would make them happy. But recklessness does equal power: that’s why Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, and John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, have implied that they’re willing to go over the cliff (in part by suggesting that their fellow party members will force them to) but also that they can be persuaded to do the right thing.

I’ve never been one prone to complaining about the basic structures of the US system compared to parliamentary and multi-party systems; other than maybe Germany, I can’t think of any system that’s clearly less dysfunctional than ours. But Suroweicki’s point is sobering. To succeed, Obama has to appeal to the public and appear calm and rational. But to get what he needs to keep the economy from collapsing, he has to make the Republicans in Congress believe he’s not bound by rational choices.

The irony of Obama’s presidency is that he was able to get elected in part by overcoming latent stereotypes of black men as impulsive, irrational and unreliable. But a successful presidency and reelection may require him to be like the prisoner without a gang to protect him: pretend to be crazy so fellow prisoners decided against messing with him.

Maybe our system is more dysfunctional than I like to believe.

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One Response to To Succeed, Obama May Have to Be the Crazy Prisoner

  1. Jenny says:

    “Obama needs to maintain his public demeanor of “the adult in the room,” in particular because ANY kind of “hot” behavior runs the risk of playing in to the still-too-prevalent notion that black men are irrational and hot-tempered.”
    True. But it’s also necessary if you’re a Democrat (white or black). Arguments only lend credence to the GOP meme that government is broken and government is the problem, not a solution. Indies really dislike conflict. And aside from bloggers, rank and file Democrats dislike it as well. When ever Democratic candidates fight and argue in a debate or in advertising, like Dean and Gephardt did in Iowa, voters get turned off.

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