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Obama is the Big Winner in the Debt-Ceiling Debate

This isn’t Monday-morning quarterbacking. For one thing, it’s not football season yet. For another, the game wasn’t played on Sunday afternoon. It’s been going on for weeks, with twists and turns more reminiscent of comic opera than football.

Even so, today’s media game has been all about deciding who got the better deal. Many of the partisans think they came up short, and are looking to blame their guys. In the media (which sees any legislation as an achievement, no matter how hollow, cynical, or ultimately ineffectual), many are scoring this as a win for both sides. (That’s to say, all of the parties will be able to go back to their respective bases with something to brag about.)

Around the middle of last week, I lost track of the specific content of the deals, which was in constant flux. And the media lost track of it too! The only reporting, it seemed, was about who was up (Boehner, Reid, Obama) and who was down at any point in time. That tells you all you need to know about how cynical and empty this whole process has been.

I’ve given some of my views on the deal that was struck in Coffee & Markets. Suffice to say that the deal is substance-lite. Conservatives will find (or have found) that tax increases and defense cuts are indeed on the table as the fiscal debate continues. Liberals are dismayed that the sacred status of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid was not enshrined in first-order language. They fear that cuts may be made to these programs. (Of course, they need not worry, but they will.)

The leadership in Congress, on both sides and in both houses, comes out of this in varying shades of black-and-blue. But ALL of them, even Pelosi, are black-and-blue. This episode won’t go down in history as Congress’s finest hour.

But while the economic and policy objectives of the fight may be clear enough to partisans outside of Congress (and might even be somewhat meaningful to ordinary people), this ultimately was a fight about politics.

And in the political analysis, there is only one player who came out of this with everything he wanted: Barack Obama.

Obama wasn’t trying to advance a policy objective. Not even once did he let the articulation of such a thing pass his lips. Rather he had two specific objectives that he had to get at all costs:

1) To get Republicans to propose specific spending cuts that Democrats can use against them in the coming elections, while not making any such proposals himself; and
2) To silence the fiscal debate until after his election in 2012.

The president won on both counts. Everything else that was at stake in the negotiation was a nice-to-have for him, not a need-to-have.

No one else got their must-have objectives. The Republicans have to face the prospect of tax increases combined with spending cuts that will be phony at best. And the Democrats will have to keep justifying entitlement programs that we can no longer afford.

The downside for conservatives is clear: We’ve lost our last chance for a meaningful discussion on fiscal reform, until there’s another financial or economic crisis.

But liberals have lost even more. It turns out that Obama was only willing to fight hard for his own political objectives. If liberals choose to be honest with themselves, they’ll see that both they and the media made the mistake of conflating their policy interests with Obama’s personal interests.

Obama himself never made that mistake for a second.

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