MEMBERS ONLY: How President Obama Defeated The Keystone Bill

The best way to understand President Obama is not to study his golf or chess game, but his poker game, says Banter White House Correspondent Tommy Christopher.
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The best way to understand President Obama is not to study his golf or chess game, but his poker game, says Banter White House Correspondent Tommy Christopher.
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In advance of Monday's Senate vote on the 50-whole-job-creating Keystone XL pipeline, the White House was under mounting pressure to issue an explicit veto threat. At a press conference on Sunday, President Obama again stated his objections to a forced approval of the project, but very ostentatiously did not explicitly say he would veto the measure. On Monday, I met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, and when I asked him about the president's failure to issue a veto threat, he again cited the president's objections, and pointed out the previous half-dozen or so Statements of Administration Policy on Keystone, in which the Office of Management and Budget stated it would recommend a veto. From everything Earnest and Obama had said, it seemed certain that the president would veto the bill if it passed Congress.

That hasn't stopped anyone from trying to secure a fresh veto threat. Last week, several Republican senators sent a letter requesting a new Statement of Administration Policy, and hours before the vote yesterday, the White House press tried five different ways, to some amusement, to get Earnest to explicitly threaten a veto. Again, his responses were similar to the president's, but he got pretty close on the last try by ABC News' Jon Karl:

Karl: It seems substantively what you're saying is it hasn’t changed, but you're not saying it again. Is there a reason you're leaving options open to not veto it?

Earnest: Well, I guess -- I don't want to leave you that impression. It certainly is a piece of legislation that the President doesn’t support because the President believes that this is something that should be determined through the State Department and the regular process that is in place to evaluate projects like this.

As it turns out, the president didn't have to veto it. On Tuesday night, the bill failed to garner the necessary 60 votes for cloture. The 59-41 vore wasn't enough to spare Senate Democrats some loud heckling from the gallery, where Native American protesters chanted, "Senate Democrats! Senate Democrats! What you gonna do?" right after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced the vote:

So, since it seems as if everyone pretty much knew Obama was going to veto the bill, to as near a certainty as you can get, why didn't he issue the threat? Here's an even better question: If the administration has already made half a dozen formal veto threats on this issue, and says nothing has changed, why did Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) so desperately want a fresh one?

The answer is simple: a formal veto threat would have given cover to Senate Democrats to make an apparently "safe" yes vote on the pipeline bill, knowing that the president had already decided to veto it. Such a vote would be tough to defend to donors and base voters if there was a perception that the President might not veto it.

By denying them that cover, the president was able to keep enough Democrats in line to defeat the bill, if only by one vote. Thanks, Obama!

Those protesters might not have reason  to rejoice for very long, however, since the failure of the Keystone bill is now seen as key leverage for Obama and the Democrats to use in extracting a minimum wage increase from Republicans.

This is yet another example of how the best way to understand President Obama is not to study his golf game, or three-dimensional chess, but his poker game. This veto non-threat was a classic poker maneuver in which you make the other players think twice about betting by not betting. Obama's previous veto threats on Keystone were, in poker parlance, continuation bets, and this maneuver was a check on the turn. Due to his previous bets, the other players have to decide if he's trying to bait them into betting so he can raise them, ot if he's just trying to check so he can see a free card. If Obama bets here in early position, everyone else knows what the hand is going to cost them.

Having gained a better sense of the White House's thinking on Keystone, I've also revised my assessment of the President's decision to delay his immigration actions, although I still disagree with it. Many saw this as an attempt to improve odds on Democratic Senate candidates who were a bad bet, but that was never going to be a smart play. There's nothing you can do to improve weak players with weak cards. No, that decision was made in order to keep those chips out of a losing pot. Unfortunately, it wound up taking out at least Mark Udall, but it also means that when the President does push all in on immigration, he'll get the best value on his bet, politically and substantively.