Why the “Permission Structure” Makes Obama Smart (and Too Many Pundits Dumb)

It’s really extraordinarily pleasing to watch a terribly misinformed view of presidential power finally get its comeuppance.  Various political scientists—Brendan Nyhan, Jon Bernstein, Andy R., me, and others—have been pushing back at this view for years.  And now, as Andy pointed out, beware the pundit who ventures forth with calls for the president to exert “leadership,” to “rise above circumstance,” to be “hopeful” and “show he still enjoys his job,” to “throw his back into it,” and so on.  (And note those are links not just to the usual punching bags—Dowd, Fournier—but to people who seem to understand that presidential power is limited but just can’t help themselves.)  These pundits get hit, and quickly, with realtalk from the likes of Jamelle Bouie, Jonathan Chait, Elizabeth Drew, Ezra Klein, and Greg Sargent.

But what’s increasingly striking about the residual Green Lanternism is not that it’s wrong in some academic sense, but that it completely misunderstands what Obama is actually doing right now.  Obama—who was once mystifyingly naive about how much presidents can change the political process—now gets it.  Hence his comment about “the literature on presidential overreach in second terms.” Hence his comment about the “Jedi mind-meld.”  Hence his comment about the “Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy.”  Hence his comment about “permission structure.”

Now Brian Beutler actually does, you know, some reporting and tells us what “permission structure” means:

In this instance, the “permission structure” refers to Obama’s efforts to convene a bipartisan group of senators who can reach a budget deal without his direct imprimatur, according to both White House and Senate aides. His recent dinners with members of both parties were designed to ferret out the Republican and Democratic senators who are likeliest to agree to a mix of higher taxes and lower spending, much like the defunct gang of six did in 2011.

“Obama’s trying to see if he can’t get some of those rational actors from the dinners — or at least the people who came across as being earnest and willing — to tackle the grand bargain talks again,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The White House trying to set up a process where rank and file Republicans are working with rank and file Democrats and once that’s done, step back [and] create the space for those discussions to take place among rank and file lawmakers outside the context of another Obama-Boehner style negotiation.”

Obama’s putative absence is key to creating the political space Senate Republicans need to negotiate in good faith.

Obama’s “putative absence” is exactly what drives Green Lanternists like Dowd up the wall, but it’s entirely in line with the political science, notably Frances Lee’s finding that the very act of a president taking a position on an issue can polarize members of Congress even further.  So will it work?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s a much better strategy than the beautiful words and body language that too many pundits still seem to want.

13 Responses to Why the “Permission Structure” Makes Obama Smart (and Too Many Pundits Dumb)

  1. JC May 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Amen. Now if only I can get my students to understand this.

  2. xpostfactoid May 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Actually, Obama has long shown some awareness of poli sci principles, e.g. that presidential power polarizes. In early 2011, he bucked urgings to come out with a bold budget proposal, explaining, ““This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody…ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over” (Frances Lee was in the air http://bit.ly/XGYaz9 ). Also, while he continues to believe (or profess to believe) that he can urge supporters of his policies to pressure their elected officials, and thus be the change they’ve been waiting for, he’s also shown awareness that he can’t *change* public opinion, only marshal it when it’s already on his side. None of which means that he’s effectively used leverage when he does have it, e.g., at the fiscal cliff.

  3. xpostfactoid May 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    One more thought: your view of Obama’s attempt to establish a “permission structure” as sophisticated may be somewhat at odds with your belief that his bid to change the system was naive. After four years of wrestling with GOP obstructionism, his willingness to consciously try to create those permission structures, if it succeeds, might indeed change the system a bit — that is, swing the pendulum back a bit from the hyper-polarization of today to an era in which at least some compromise/negotiation is possible. Over time, he might easy hyperpartisanship by personal example.

  4. Nadia Hassan May 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Obama was purported to be a fan of Unequal Democracy, too.

  5. Marie Burns May 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    And yet. And yet. Last week President Obama did have a chance to demonstrate some of that “leadership” MoDo is a-pinin’ for, & he skipped out, signing the hastily-drafted FAA bill when he should have vetoed it & told Congress to either go wait in the long lines at the airport or stick around & put back in place Meals on Wheels, Head Start, extended unemployment insurance, etc. etc. Meanwhile, Obama himself is still holding out hope he’ll revive that so-dead horse — a/k/a the Grand Bargain deficit-reducing compact — & ride off into the sunset with John Boehner astride the horse’s rear end as Tom Friedman pens an epic idyll in 800 words or less, suitable for publication in the paper of record.

    Obama may intellectually get the “permission structure” thing, but emotionally he’s like the young woman who agrees with her friends that her boyfriend is a jerk, but she still keeps taking the loser back. Or Charlie Brown. E. J. Dionne, et al., may think Obama should be more “hopeful”and “upbeat”; I’d say less so.

  6. Alan T May 3, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    I can think of two reasons why the President might want to take a strong position on an issue, even if he is doomed to legislative failure.

    One is that when things go wrong, he can then blame the other party for not adopting his proposals. In a hypothetical alternate universe in which the President had called for a much larger fiscal stimulus, he could have blamed the Republicans when unemployment reached 10 percent.

    Another is that he might be able to shift the Overton window a bit, even though this might not bear immediate legislative fruit.

    Might these two advantages compensate for the disadvantage of increasing polarization?

    • Stephen Weinberg May 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      One of the things I’ve liked about Obama is that he usually chooses the path most likely to get policy enacted over the path most likely to score political points. I know many liberals who wanted the President to push hard for single payer healthcare reform and at least get senators on the record about it. Obama didn’t go for the symbolic votes on something unattainable, though; instead, he actually attained a major policy reform.

  7. giantslor May 4, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    OK, great, Obama understands political science. But he doesn’t seem to understand the harmful effects austerity has had around the world:

    “His recent dinners with members of both parties were designed to ferret out the Republican and Democratic senators who are likeliest to agree to a mix of higher taxes and lower spending”

    Or is this more 11-dimensional chess? It doesn’t seem at all wise to me, but then I’m not an expert 11-dimensional chess player.

  8. Memory May 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Harry Truman lost most of his key legislative fights in the 1947-48 Congress – he couldn’t stop Taft-Hartley, had to shelve all of his social legislation proposals, and only extracted what became Marshall Plan aid by invoking the strongest national security arguments and giving every imaginable credit to Marshall himself. By choosing to propose in the most public way possible an agenda that had no hope of enactment, he energized an exhausted and dispirited Democratic electorate (Taft-Hartley alone probably won him the 1948 election – every working class person in the country knew he was completely opposed to it and it was hung around Dewey’s neck), created a policy consensus within the northern and western wings of his party, and shifted the discourse away from the “inevitable” rollback of the New Deal to forcing the Republicans to defend not extending the social welfare provisions of the GI Bill to the rest of the country.

    Even people who can’t tell Neustadt from Graham Allison have watched Schoolhouse Rock and understand that Obama can’t legislate. But a President can “fail” strategically in ways that prepare the ground for future success and move debate in the ways they desire. If you don’t accept the parallel with Truman, consider the issue of background checks over the last few months. Even the unintentional use of the tactic of taking a strong position and failing seems to have hurt the poll numbers of the relevant Senators and energized their opponents to such a degree that Jeff Flake is denying that he opposes the policy. Facing a hostile Congress, Presidents can use their power of public agenda-setting to shape political debate and arrange the electoral terrain to the advantage of progressive ideas.

    That is, they can do so if they actually want to accomplish those ends. The more parsimonious conclusion from Obama’s behavior is that his policy ideal point is roughly what would have been “moderate Republican” a few years ago and he is satisfied with his policy accomplishments of a.) consolidating the Bush-Cheney presidential powers expanded on the pretext of fighting terrorism, b.) enacting a less efficient version of Romney’s health care plan, and c.) legitimating the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $400k/year. His only remaining priority seems to be passing a long-term budget plan built on unnecessary and irrelevant cuts to Social Security that would have been unthinkable for Republicans a generation ago and doing so in such a way that Democrats are primarily responsible for it before the electorate. Sadly, Republican opposition is preventing this.

    • Andrew Sprung May 9, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      That “parsimonious conclusion” seems to me an unduly cynical reading of Obama’s agenda. I take him at his word regarding his desire to invest in what he regards as the pillars of sustainable long-term growth: 1) bending the healthcare cost curve while also ending the ruinous effects of uninsurance and underinsurance; 2) kick-starting renewable energy industries and energy efficiency; 3) expanding educational opportunity and effectiveness (I think his ed reform moves in the wrong direction, but I don’t question the goal); 4) infrastructure investment.

  9. ezra abrams May 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    If a Republican had nominated a BTA (Bush Torture Apologists, TM) like J Brennan to be D CIA, “liberal” democrats, like one E Warren, D-Ma, would have been on it like white on rice
    Instead, every single democrat senator, with the honorable exception of Merkely, voted to confirm

    Ditto ditto Lew for Sec Treasury
    Ditto for the antiabortion extremist C Hagel for Sec Def (if u have to ask why views on abortion are relevant to job as sec def, go back to school)

    Not to mention the odious social security chained CPI thing

    Not to mention, NOT ONE, repeat NOT ONE FIRE sector senior exec under crimminal indictment.

    as aliberal, who cares what Obama thinks or does ?

  10. Robert Waldmann May 9, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Many pundits are mocking the fortunately vague stilted and awkward ” “permission structure”. “fortunately” was not a typo. Obama’s strategy only works if the raging base Reublicans don’t understand that it is Obama’s strategy. He has to be putatively absent. It wouldn’t work so well if he said “well I think the way this can be done is for me to set up a committe of Senators and then hide so no one will notice that all is going according to my plan which is totally top secret… ooops”

    “Down with the Obama permission structure” would be the worst rallying cry ever. The point of a permission structure is that it would be hard to attack as what Obama had in mind, since no one (but Brain Buetler) has any idea what the phrase means. By the way this blog is open to the public so ixnay the planationsexay if you get my riftdray.

    The man can handle the English language. If he said something which sounds almost meaningless, I would have guessed that some pundits might have wondered if he did it o purpose. In fact I guess that. I guess they know perfectly well why he said “permission structure” and decided it would be fun (and ballanced http://bit.ly/10uNSVu) to mock him anyway.

  11. giantslor May 10, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Norm Ornstein demolishes the myth of presidential leadership: