Obama pursues ‘permission structure’ politics in second term

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

“Permission structure” wasn’t the oddest thing to come out of President Barack Obama's mouth this week. That honor goes to Obama’s assurance that NBA veteran Jason Collins, having come out as gay, “can bang with Shaq,” which had West Wing aides wincing. Still, the jokes flew. Is that "structure" like having a safe word? Isn't it better to have a forgiveness structure?

"Permission structure," an arcane term drawn from the "game theory" branch of political science, which studies how people make decisions, shed quite a bit of light on how this president thinks about the limits of his power at the dawn of his second term.

You can think of it as a fancy way to say “politics.” And you’ll be seeing it in upcoming debates on everything from immigration reform to battles over the government’s finances. It's likely to be a feature of the next round of the gun debate, since Obama served notice in Mexico on Thursday that he would try again on that front. (You know who else used “permission structure”? Some Mitt Romney supporters. See below).

Obama used the expression as part of a defiant response to a reporter asking whether he still had the “juice” needed to get his agenda through Congress, where Republican opposition can doom any bill.

Ever since the GOP—aided by a handful of red-state Democrats—killed bipartisan legislation that would have modestly tightened background checks on would-be gun buyers, the media has been wondering.

"Maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly," Obama said wryly in response to the 'juice' question. "As Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."

Obama noted that some Republicans who might be inclined to work with him—on gun violence or on a "grand bargain" to stem the tide or red ink swamping the country's finances—face considerable political hurdles.

"Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that," Obama said. "And we're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country."

So what does the president mean when he says "permission structure"?

Obama aides told Yahoo News that it means creating the political conditions that enable Republicans to compromise with Obama. It's a blend of personal outreach of various sorts to "gettable" Republicans—whether a "charm offensive," or "arm-twisting" or "deal-cutting"—with aggressive efforts to go around Congress to court the public.

On immigration reform, for instance, the president often says he's not getting everything he wants in part to enable GOP lawmakers to argue that they aren't just doing his bidding. That's because, for the majority of Republicans facing re-election, the biggest political danger isn't a Democratic opponent who might work more with Obama, but a primary challenge from a fellow Republican who might fight harder against this president.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who co-authored the gun legislation, bluntly acknowledged the challenge Obama faces in working with GOP lawmakers. In an interview this week, Toomey said the background check bill had died in part because "there were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president" accomplish any of his goals.

It also means building pressure on Republicans by enlisting voters in their home states or districts to reward them for supporting compromise and punishing them for opposing it. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau detailed that aspect in this column, entitled "Leading From Below."

Here's Obama making that argument—and even using the expression—in a March 13 speech to Organizing for Action, the national political machine built from his 2012 campaign apparatus.

After describing his efforts to go around top congressional Republicans and reach out to rank-and-file Republican voters as a way to break through Washington's partisan "gobbledygook," Obama added: "I actually think some of the leadership want their membership to create a permission structure."

He added that "they don't like getting too far ahead of their leadership, so we're reaching out to these individual members so that they create a space where things can get done. But the same principle applies doubly when it comes to the American people ... if the American people are speaking out, organized, activated, that may give space here in Washington to do the kind of work—hopefully bipartisan work—that's required."

Now, that's not 100 percent clear. So here's White House press secretary Jay Carney, explaining it at his briefing Wednesday.

"Permission structure, if you will, is basically a broad proposal that allows Republicans, like Democrats, to go along with some things that they do not love, would not be top of their list in terms of legislation, in order to achieve the broader objective," Carney said. "I think that this is a phrase that is in common usage here."

Indeed. And apparently for quite some time.

A Nov. 17, 2008, New Yorker magazine explanation of how Obama won the White House that year includes this passage: "His aides had a term for the process of getting voters comfortable with a President Obama: 'Building a permission structure.'"

It meant answering voters' questions about Obama, and overcoming their concerns about voting for a young, relatively untested junior senator.

In a Nov. 4, 2007, New York Times piece on Obama's primary fight with Hillary Clinton, Obama used the term to describe the challenge of wooing voters away from Clinton, a trusted and familiar face to many Democrats.

Obama concedes that he has a problem. ''We have not fully made our case yet,'' he admits. ''I think the American people know in their gut that we need significant change, and I think they'd like to believe what I'm saying is possible.'' But they need, says this former law-school professor, ''a permission structure.'' They need to know that they'll be safe with Barack Obama. Or unsafe with Hillary Clinton.

What about Team Romney?

A search of the Nexis database of news reports finds several instances of the Romney campaign's efforts to built a "permission structure" to allow voters who backed Obama in 2008 but struggled during his first term to turn against him in 2012.

Romney's approach, obviously, didn't carry the day. Will Obama's?