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Why Obama May Drive a Hard Bargain

President Obama has repeatedly stated that he will not negotiate over the federal debt ceiling, which must be raised soon to avoid a default.

As observers on both the left and right have pointed out, saying that you will not negotiate may itself be a negotiating position. And in the past, Mr. Obama has not always held firm to the negotiating positions he has taken. In advance of the so-called fiscal cliff, for instance, Mr. Obama said that he wanted taxes to be raised on family incomes of $250,000 or more. Instead, he settled with Republicans on a threshold of $450,000.

But there is one important difference between the current round of negotiations and the stand-off that Congress and Mr. Obama engaged in over the debt ceiling in July 2011. It is such an obvious point that it almost seems to have been forgotten: Mr. Obama no longer needs to worry about re-election. Members of Congress still do, however.

To be sure, this represents a simplification of a complex set of incentives and priorities. Mr. Obama surely has a variety of reasons, political and otherwise, to see the debt ceiling increased. An economic crisis brought on by an actual or near-default would very probably harm his approval ratings, as occurred when negotiations were pushed to the brink in 2011. That could make it even harder for him to pass substantive reforms through Congress, like those for gun control or immigration. Mr. Obama is also presumably concerned with his legacy, with the fate of Democrats in Congress and with who will succeed him in the White House in 2017.

For many members of Congress, meanwhile, concern over re-election is mitigated by the fact that they are in extremely Democratic or Republican districts that have almost no chance of electing someone from the other party. A profound political or economic crisis could put a higher-than-usual number of seats in play; even so, the majority of members of the House now come from districts where one party’s presidential candidate wins by landslide margins every four years.

Nonetheless, the aim of seeking re-election may have colored Mr. Obama’s priorities during the prior debt ceiling negotiation.

Economists differ on exactly how severe the economic costs of a United States debt default would be. But the most severe recessions, like the one that officially began in December 2007, can persist for about a year and a half. When added to an economic recovery that was already very feeble, a new economic shock could easily have produced a new recession that lasted through the November 2012 elections. Even if the economy had technically exited recession by then, growth in jobs tends to lag other economic indicators, so labor-market conditions would almost certainly have remained very poor.

Of course, the political science models that link the president’s fate to economic conditions are also oversimplifications. Ordinarily, the public defaults toward giving the president credit or blame for economic performance late in his term. The effect of the economy on Congressional incumbents is more ambiguous, especially under divided government.

Ordinarily, however, recessions do not have such a direct and immediate link to the actions (or the deliberate failure to act) by Washington policymakers. A debt default might have had catastrophic consequences for the economy; it would also have been a fascinating data point for political science.

But Mr. Obama’s willingness to negotiate looks prudent, in retrospect.

His approval ratings recovered from their lows of just over 40 percent in late 2011 to about 50 percent by Election Day. The protracted negotiations over the debt ceiling may well have damaged the economy by undermining business and consumer confidence — the economy grew at just a 1.3 percent rate in the third quarter of 2011 — but there was just enough good news by late 2012 for voters to give Mr. Obama another term.

Mr. Obama has less to lose this time around. That does not necessarily imply that he will not negotiate at all, but it does make his bargaining position more formidable.

The change in conditions may help to explain why the administration has disavowed ideas like minting a platinum coin or invoking a provision of the 14th Amendment to avert a debt default. In the 2011 negotiations, much of the Republicans’ leverage came from the possibility that an economic crisis might have imperiled Mr. Obama’s re-election more than it did their own. End-around approaches that might have mitigated the economic damage might therefore have diminished their bargaining power.

This time, it is only members of Congress who will come before voters again. Given the lack of certainly in how the public reacts to economic crises in Congressional elections, the aesthetics of the debt-ceiling endgame could matter a great deal. Minting a platinum coin, especially if it proved to be less effective at staving off financial panic than its advocates hoped, could look like a clumsy power grab by the White House, perhaps allowing the G.O.P. to stave off blame for the economic harm that ensued.

The White House’s stated refusal to consider the platinum coin has been described as a capitulation by some liberals, but it is actually the more aggressive negotiating posture. It implies that Mr. Obama thinks the G.O.P. will swerve first – or will only damage itself if Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling. That threat was less credible when a debt default might have wrecked Mr. Obama’s chances at a second term.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.