The Blog

Morning Jay: The Prisoner's Dilemma

6:00 AM, Mar 16, 2011 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As the world goes topsy-turvy, what has President Obama been doing lately? One thing is for sure: the president has not been hammering out a compromise on the deficit:

When President Barack Obama opened the first meeting of his fiscal commission last April, he promised to be “standing with them” as they produced recommendations for curbing the nation’s escalating debt.

Republicans and Democrats say they are still waiting...

Obama’s reluctance to join the debate in a sustained way has provoked rising frustration among lawmakers from both parties, who are speaking more forcefully about what they view as his absenteeism on one of the most pressing issues before them.

That's not to say he hasn't been busy. In fact, he's been working on his NCAA basketball picks, which -- per the requirements of Article II -- he wil soon share with the world via ESPN. He's also hosted a summit on bullying, attended a fundraiser and, of course, gone golfing.

Jim Geraghty is stunned while John Podhoretz offers this trenchant metaphor:

It’s hard to overstate how poorly Barack Obama is doing in the face of these crises — and I don’t even mean how he’s doing substantively, which is a scandal in itself. I mean how he’s doing politically. Recall how much hay Michael Moore made of the fact that George W. Bush read My Pet Goat for nine minutes in that Florida classroom on 9/11 after being informed that the first plane had struck.

We’re going on four weeks now, or more, that Barack Obama has been reading My Pet Goat.

It's fair to ask: what else is he going to do at this point? I'd say, not very much.

On domestic policy, there is virtually no hope of substantive breakthroughs in the 112th Congress. The most liberal president since LBJ is now paired up with the most conservative House since the 80th Congress (1947-48). What are they going to compromise on? Immigration? Health care? Taxes? No, no, and no. And as for the deficit, the politics of that issue are just plain brutal -- it's about assigning losers rather than picking out winners -- and if the White House was happy to let the Congress take the lead on the stimulus, cap and trade, and health care, it is surely going to take a backseat on the budget deficit. Ditto on entitlement reform: his political team is warning him about the dangers of Social Security benefit cuts, and it is 'winning the argument so far.'

As for foreign policy, Obama ran as the anti-George W. Bush, but opposition to a policy doesn't necessarily imply a positive program, which Obama has never really seemed to have. After all, this is the man who named his top intra-party rival as the secretary of State, perhaps the most nakedly political nomination to that office since Woodrow Wilson tapped William Jennings Bryan, whose major qualification for the job was that he stood up to Tammany Hall at the 1912 convention, thereby swinging the nomination over to Wilson.

All signs point to the Obama team pivoting to campaign mode, and the hope is that the old Obama will shine through and somehow "Win the Future." Yet here we have to be mindful of the fact that inputs (campaign dollars) don't necessarily produce outputs (votes) in elections such as 2012. Even though the Obama-Biden campaign is going to be a flurry of activity, relatively little of it will be effective. Incumbent presidents almost always receive a share of the vote roughly similar to their job approval rating, which in turn is influenced by the fundamentals. All those hundreds of millions of dollars might help to move the most marginal of voters, but that is about it.

So really, there is very little for Obama to do. He must bide his time until the fundamental equation of 2012 works itself out. For how consequential it is, this equation is really quite simple:

Optimisim over the Economy – Concern about the Deficit – Backlash to the Health Care Bill

If this "number" is greater than zero, Obama gets reelected. If it's less than zero, he doesn't. That's all there is to it, and at this point there is very little Obama can do to goose any of the numbers. Republicans on Capitol Hill won't go for another round of stimulus, a significant deal on the deficit is unlikely, and opinions on the heatlh care bill have solidified. Really, the only thing that Obama can do is hope the economy swings around enough to overcome the political liabilities of the deficit and the health care bill.

So, you might say that Obama's predicament is a kind of prisoner's dilemma. Not the game theory version, of course, but a sticky situation nonetheless. Bound by various political factors -- some of his own making, some supplied by the fates -- Obama's options for action are now quite limited. He can do little more than wait to see how the voters react next November. He has to do something to fill his days, so should we really blame him for focusing on his college baskeball picks?

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers