Daniel W. Drezner

Does The Credibility Fairy Exist in Domestic Politics?

For the past month or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with questions about just how much "credibility" matters in world politics.  And for the past week or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with the budget/debt ceiling showdowns going on in Washington, DC.   So it’s awesome that Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning and Margaret ...

For the past month or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with questions about just how much "credibility" matters in world politics.  And for the past week or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with the budget/debt ceiling showdowns going on in Washington, DC.  

So it’s awesome that Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev have a story that ties these two things together — on how Obama is viewing this debt showdown with the GOP as a fight over credibility:

Shortly before President Barack Obama was re-elected, he confided to John Podesta, an informal adviser, a vow he was making for his second term: He would never again bargain with Republicans to extend the U.S. debt limit.

The precedent, set in the agreement that ended a 2011 budget standoff, “sent a signal that this was fair game to blackmail over whether the country would default,” said Podesta, a onetime chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 presidential transition, in an interview. “He feels like he has to end it and end it forever.”

The stand Obama has taken on the latest fight over the government shutdown and borrowing limit — refusing to tie policy conditions to raising the debt ceiling — is an attempt to repair some of the damage that he and his aides believe he sustained by making concessions to Republicans to avert a default two years ago, according to former top administration officials and advisers.

The resolution of the showdown with House Republicans will be critical to maintaining Obama’s capacity to wield his clout in Washington during the three years left in his presidency and protect the political initiatives of his first term, they say.

The outcome will probably help determine his leverage to press for new priorities such as a revamp of immigration law, expanded access to pre-kindergarten education and infrastructure funding. It may also stave off attacks on his health-care law and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If Obama makes concessions again to House Republicans over raising the $16.7 trillion debt limit, “he’ll be viewed as a guy who you can hold up,” said Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with close ties to the administration.

Now, given my profound skepticism about the impact of credibility in world politics, one would  think I would share the same dim view about it mattering in domestic politics.  Except that I don’t. 

As I wrote last month about the gap between academics and policymakers on this question: 

Academics have the advantage of thinking about the long term; for policymakers, the long term is two weeks (for the Middle East, it’s two days). Because of these different perspectives, they look at credibility differently. Academics usually make the country the unit of analysis: does the United States show resolve or not, for example. They care about the role that credibility plays over the span of years. For foreign policymakers, all politics is personal. As Heather Hurlburt intimated in this Bloggingheads conversation, they care about whether they or their boss is perceived by others inside the Beltway as credible or not immediately after a crisis….

If this explanation is correct, then both academics and policymakers are correct. International relations academics might well be correct in observing that what happens in Syria now will not affect what happens in Iran a year from now. Still, policymakers might well be correct in noting that if Barack Obama fails to follow through on his Syria pledges, his personal credibility might take a short-term hit inside the corridors of power.

That point, however, just covers how foreign showdowns are viewed by domestic political actors. The importance of credibility gets magnified even further when appreciating that these same individuals are going to have to go to the bargaining table again and again and again over the next few years.  It is in precisely this set of circumstances — in which the bargaining is ongoing and the individual actors don’t change — that one would expect credibility and a reputation for tough bargaining to be pretty friggin’ important (though I’d really, really like to hear from my American politics colleagues on this question). 

Of course, this cuts both ways.  The problem with the current crisis is that it’s dragged on enough so that if you think credibility matters, then both the Obama administration and Republlicans in Congress will face considerable audience costs for backing down.  Any kind of concession that the GOP makes — and let’s face it, they’ve walked a fair way away from their initial bargaining position — weakens the credibility of their bargaining position the next time around.  Which leads to tweets like these:

This, by the way, is why I’m queasy about the idea of a short-term fix to allow time for further bargaining.  Because whichever side is viewed as having "lost" the current exchange *cough* Republicans *cough* will dig in their heels even more during that future bargaining.  Which dramatically increases the likelihood that, two months from now, I’ll be linking to this post.

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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