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In Obama's jargon, getting to yes requires a 'permission structure'

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 150th Anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, April 29, 2013. REUTERS/Larry
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 150th Anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, April 29, 2013. REUTERS/Larry

By Steve Holland and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It sounds like something teenagers need before borrowing their parents' car, but "permission structure" is actually a phrase being tossed around by President Barack Obama to describe his efforts to make deals with Republicans.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Obama expressed frustration with resistance to his ideas among congressional Republicans, saying that he thought "deep down" some of them wanted to "do the right thing" but worry about such consequences as being challenged in primary elections.

He said the only way to break the impasse might be to "create a permission structure" to allow them to do what's best for the country.

The phrase puzzled reporters and was mocked by Republicans seeking to highlight what they see as Obama's ineffectiveness in pushing his agenda in Congress.

The term "permission structure" has been around for years, in politics and marketing. It was once defined by a marketing executive as pushing "the proper buttons that need to be pushed" to get people to purchase a product they otherwise would shun.

A famous Chicago politician, former Representative Dan Rostenkowski, was said to have gotten re-elected amid a scandal by winning the endorsements of respectable allies, thus giving voters a "permission structure" that enabled them to vote for him.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked about it Wednesday, told reporters the phrase is "common usage" around the White House.

In the case of the budget talks, a "permission structure" might involve Obama agreeing to cuts in cherished social safety-net programs, which would then create the conditions where Republicans might be able to support his demand for closing tax loopholes and deductions enjoyed mostly by the wealthy.

The phrase has been used frequently within Obama's inner circle, dating back at least as far as his 2008 presidential campaign and a former Obama aide said it is a favorite term of Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

"Sometimes there is an issue that seems intractable and in order to help someone find a path your point of view, you have to build in a process that helps them see your point of view more clearly," the former Obama aide explained.

The former aide used the example of the effort to pass sweeping health care reform in 2009 and 2010. Many Democrats who had been enthusiastic about health care reform were disappointed when the proposed Senate legislation did not include the creation of a new government-run health insurance plan known as "the public option." Ultimately, two votes were held on the public option in a committee and it was rejected.

"Part of building the permission structure to get them there was having the vote on the public option in the Senate and then seeing it fail, knowing that there was no choice. Either there was going to be health care without a public option or there would no healthcare reform," the former aide said.

While Obama blames Washington's gridlock on Republicans' refusal to negotiate with him, Republicans accuse him of a lack of leadership.

"I'm relieved to learn that we've identified the only thing holding us back from a big budget deal," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, wrote on Twitter.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said he Googled the phrase "permission structure" because he'd never heard it before.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Caren Bohan; editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)

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