“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.
"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"?