How Obama Can Get to Yes on the Debt Deal: Lessons from Past Presidents

President Obama has had a muted legislative record so far this year, but this debt ceiling standoff is shaping up to be among his administration's most dramatic confrontations with Republicans. 

After signing the health care overhaul, the stimulus bill, and the auto bailout in his first two years – not to mention the tax deal, unemployment extension, DADT, 9/11 First Responders bill flurry during the lame duck Congress last year – Obama was forced to scale back his agenda with the new Republican majority in the House this year. 

Despite his past dismissiveness of small-scale initiatives, Obama has had to table other major pushes on immigration, clean energy, and education. But there was no way to avert this battle on the debt ceiling vote. And it only continues to heat up, with a firm primetime address on Monday and a veto threat on Tuesday. 

But now what? Here, a guide to how previous deals have made been made. 

Open the Phones!

The Congressional switchboard was overwhelmed by calls after Obama called on Monday night to "make your voice heard" if you believe compromise possible and "let your member of Congress know." 

That’s straight from Ronald Reagan’s playbook, as he recalled in his autobiography An American Life:

I knew that, if we were going to get it passed, it wouldn’t be enough to make Congress see the light; I had to make ‘em feel the heat…I made a televised broadcast to the nation in wich I compared the Democrats’ tax relief plan with ours and said: “The plain truth is, our choice is not between two plans to reduce taxes; it’s between a tax cut of a tax increase…

Then I asked the people to make their views known to their elected representatives. The White House switchboard was swamped with calls from around the nation—more than after any speech I had given—and were six-to-one in favor of the administration’s tax bill.

As soon as I got up the next day, I was on the phone again making calls to congressmen; most said their phones had been ringing off the wall since the speech with calls in support of the administration’s tax bill. ‘Tomorrow is the day,’ I wrote in my diary before going to bed the night of July 28, ‘and it’s too close to call but there is no doubt the people are with us.’

Reagan's tax bill passed the next day, and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill called “and with complete graciousness congratulated us on our win,” Reagan recalled.

That was 30 years ago this week.

Hold Secret Meetings for a Mutually Beneficial Deal – But Brace for Torpedoes

Remember all the criticism of those backroom deals during the health care debate? Well, they added up to something. But here, Obama also ceded major deal-making authority to Nancy Pelosi in the House and Finance Chairman Max Baucus in the Senate.

It’s a tougher game to play when you’re dealing with leadership in the other party. For this, there has to be trust, and mutual respect, and mutual political interest. President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich saw their needs collide in 1998, when they embarked on a series of secret meetings to hammer out first a budget deal, and then a agreement that would create a long-term fix for Social Security that included some privatization, as historian Steve Gillon recounted in his book, The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation

Convinced there was an opportunity to work together, the two men agreed to the secret White House meeting. While the discussion focused on their plans for Social Security and Medicare, the president and speaker also tried to unblock obstacles that threatened to derail the budget negotiations…

From Gingrich's perspective, the two men recognized that they shared common interests on some major policy initiatives. But they were "not going to be buddies for the rest of their lives.'

The deal collapsed days before Clinton was to outline the proposal in the 1998 State of the Union, but it wasn’t because the details of how private accounts would work or pushback from their respective parties. Instead, it was the breaking news about Clinton’s relationship with an intern. ''Gingrich wanted to do it; Clinton wanted to do it. It was a real missed opportunity,'' Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles later said. ''Monica changed everything.''

Let the Market Make Your Case:

This was what happened with the bank bailout legislation during the most tenuous days of the economic crash. During the final months of George W. Bush’s administration, the House rejected on the $700 billion TARP program by 23 votes, after the president had offered assurances that it would pass.  

The Dow shed 778 points after the vote.

By the end of the week, the House voted again on the plan, and it passed, with 33 Democrats and 24 Republicans switching sides to support the bill.

“We have shown the world that the United States will stabilize our financial markets and maintain a leading role in the global economy,” Bush said, as he signed the bill.

Don’t Hit the Road, Unless You’re in the Final Stretch

Remember George W. Bush’s Social Security town halls in 2005? The road show he embarked on after he won reelection and declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” He tried to use that capital as a down payment on a plan to overhaul Social Security and create private retirement accounts for younger workers. Taking the message directly to the people – or in this case, carefully monitored crowds of supporters - didn’t work. By August, the proposal was declared dead.  

Same goes for President Clinton’s town halls to gin up support for health care reform. That didn’t lead to any legislative victories, but it did generate some nice archival tape for Herman Cain’s 2012 presidential campaign.

But this approach did work in the final days of the health care debate. After a year and 54 speeches and statements on the legislation, the president made his final push on the road. “Do not quit, do not give up, we keep on going. We are going to get this done,” Obama said on March 19, 2010 in a speech at George Mason University. “We are going to make history.”

Four days later, Obama signed the comprehensive health care legislation.

Encourage Bipartisan Seating at the State of the Union

Wait. That didn’t work at all.