I agree with President Obama that this election is shaping up to be a choice between two conflicting economic visions. What happens, though, if the election results in a stalemate between those visions? What happens to economic policy if President Obama is reelected and Republicans retain their House majority?

The Associated Press’ Ben Feller asked President Obama this question yesterday (highlights by me).

AP:  Let’s say you win—okay, that’s a hypothetical that you would probably buy into. But say you win, but the House Republicans win again also, a likely possibility. How is that any different from what we have now? Why wouldn’t a voter look at that and say that’s a recipe for stalemate. How would you do anything differently?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there are a couple things that I think change. No. 1, the American people will have voted. They will have cast a decisive view on how we should move the country forward, and I would hope that the Republican Party, after a fulsome debate, would say to itself, we need to listen to the American people.

I think what is also true is that because of the mechanisms that have been set up, agreed to by Republicans, that have already cut a trillion dollars’ worth of spending out of the federal deficit, but now we’ve got to find an additional trillion—$1.2 trillion, I guess—before the end of the year, means that the Republicans will have to make a very concrete decision about whether they’re willing to cooperate on a balanced package.

If they don’t, then I’m going to have to look at how we can work around Congress to make sure that middle-class families are protected, but that we’re still doing our—meeting our responsibilities when it comes to deficit reduction and investing in the future.

Here’s my attempted translation:



  • My reelection trumps that of any individual Member of Congress. It also trumps the Republican party’s control of Congress, if that occurs.
  • If I am reelected, I won’t do anything differently.  I will claim an electoral mandate (“they will have cast a decisive view”) and pressure a Republican House
    [and Senate?] majority to do what I want. Things will be different because my electoral mandate will force them to change their position, even though they too were reelected.
  • If they don’t, in the short term I will link defense cuts scheduled under current law to the tax increases on the rich that I want. I will force Republicans to choose between their top two short-term fiscal priorities by vetoing any bill that restores defense spending without raising taxes on the rich.
  • If they still won’t cooperate, I will try to work around Congress [on fiscal policy?!]
  • This sounds like half of a recipe for continued stalemate, the premise of Mr. Feller’s insightful questions. All that is needed to complete the recipe is for members of next year’s House, and maybe Senate, Republican majority to believe that their constituents reelected them in part because of their economic policy views.

    Logic problem: if you think the fiscal policy stalemate over the past two years is the result of extreme, crazy, intransigent House Republicans who refused to negotiate responsibly, what makes you think they would behave any differently over the next two years if they retain the majority? Why does President Obama, or why should you the voter, assume that they will change their behavior, given how unreasonable you think they have been so far? Won’t they be just as extreme?

    A status quo election likely produces a stalemate in lame duck session fiscal negotiations, at least initially. Neither side will be able to legislatively force the other to cave. President Obama could sustain a veto, and Speaker Boehner could control what legislation is considered by the House. Any legislation would therefore have to be agreed to by both men, as well as by Leaders Reid and McConnell, each of whom would have the legislative strength to block legislation they oppose, no matter which party controls the Senate majority. After a status quo election, the two most likely lame duck scenarios are (1) a negotiated middle ground compromise or (2) a stalemate in which the fiscal cliff bites for a while, increasing pain and pressure on both sides until a compromise is reached.

    President Obama’s “work around Congress” language confuses me. The Constitution grants the power of the purse to Congress, not the President. President Obama’s ability to take significant fiscal policy actions without a new law is, at best, extremely limited. In the short run he may have some flexibility to control the terms and timing of a sequester if there’s no lame duck deal, and this may give him a little more leverage in that struggle. But he certainly lacks the unilateral authority to raise taxes or to cut or increase spending beyond the amounts now specified in law. He certainly can’t do anything unilateral to address our medium- and long-term fiscal problems.

    Mr. Feller asked the President, “How is that any different from what we have now. … How would you do anything differently?” There is one thing that would be different in a status quo election: President Obama would no longer be constrained by the need to be reelected. He, unlike Members of Congress, would have increased policy flexibility if he chose to use it. He could move to the center, as he did briefly after the 2010 election, and negotiate a short-term or even a long-term fiscal policy deal with Congressional Republicans.

    If this is his plan, he isn’t giving any hint of it so far. President Obama could have offered Mr. Feller a game-changing answer by announcing a new substantive position. He could have said, “If House Republicans and I are reelected, I will propose a long-term fiscal policy solution based on the Bowles-Simpson recommendations, and I will negotiate in good faith with anyone willing to work constructively toward solving our long-term fiscal problems. I will seek principled compromise, even with those whose views are different from my own.”

    Had he given this answer, he would ally himself with a small centrist coalition in the Senate that supported Bowles-Simpson. This would give a centrist/independent voter a concrete answer to Mr. Feller’s question, and would suggest that negotiations between the same parties might turn out differently next time, that a status quo election might not result in a continued fiscal policy stalemate. Such an answer would, however, upset President Obama’s political base, liberals who dislike the Bowles-Simpson recommendations as much as do most Congressional Republicans.

    President Obama can still make such a move.  Until and unless he does, President Obama’s answer to Mr. Feller’s question is that, if there’s a status quo election, he would not do anything differently than he has for the past two years of fiscal policy stalemate.