The Debt Ceiling and Presidential Leadership

It appears as if our hapless government might have actually backed into a short term debt deal and will avert a default. This deal does little more than kick the can down the road, but we shouldn’t expect anything more from our “leaders” in Washington. That’s what they do.

This deal has no revenue increases at all, something Obama appeared to firmly oppose only a few weeks ago when he was insisting it was time to close loopholes for “corporate jet owners and oil companies.” The problem is no one in Congress from either party fears him. Unsurprisingly, the Republican Party called his bluff and paid no price for it whatsoever. Indeed, they managed to get what they wanted: short term spending cuts and, most important, no revenue increases whatsoever.

Where does all this leave us? With the President forced to pathetically hang his hat on the output of a Congressional committee tasked with identifying another round of deficit reduction by Thanksgiving, which it could conceivably do at least in part by raising taxes. So there.

This morning on ABC’s This Week, Grover Norquist, who seemed to generally support the deal that was then still taking shape, claimed a moral victory for conservatives because it set two precedents for future negotiations: it took revenue off the table for future deficit reduction talks, and it tied future debt ceiling increases to mandated budget cuts of equivalent or greater size.

He’s right, and this is one of many reasons why Obama needed to make sure some kind of revenue increase was included in the deal, no matter how small. Just close one loophole that only benefits millionaires, or end one subsidy for an unpopular industry, and you’ve set a precedent that revenue is and will remain part of the negotiations. Obama failed, so the next time we fight this battle again, which we will, and sooner than you think, he’s starting from zero all over again.

Politics, Leadership, and Governing

President Obama always seems to be a little bit behind the curve, never showing visible leadership until perhaps the last minute when, say, he speaks to a joint session of Congress or gives a prime time address. But by then it’s typically too late, and he’s reduced to doing what he can to minimize the damage.

Obama clearly disdains the political culture in Washington, but what thinking person doesn’t? Half of his prime-time address about the debt ceiling earlier this week was a meta-speech, talking more about how things get done in Washington than about what he wants to get done in Washington.

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had to deal with the alternatively silly and poisonous nature of our politics. But they didn’t whine about it. Or if they did, they didn’t lose sight of the essential fact that if they wanted to succeed, they had to lead public opinion, and in order to lead public opinion you have to play the game. Indeed, you must master it. What’s more, the President has a unique and unmatched ability to shape public opinion, and consequently has the least cause for complaint.

Obama seems to actually believe that he shouldn’t have to engage in our trivial and dumb political culture, but that’s what his job is. If he didn’t want to get dirty, he shouldn’t have taken a job at the landfill.

Politics is not a dirty word, a practice to be looked down upon. Politics is laying out a vision, shaping public opinion, setting the terms of debate. Politics is an essential part of governing, and playing politics well is an essential part of leadership.

One quick example of why this matters. Obama spent almost no time during his speech this week explaining where this debt came from: three unfunded tax cuts, two unfunded wars, one unfunded massive entitlement expansion, and an economic mess that has decimated tax revenue and hugely increased the level of government spending for social safety net programs. Amazingly, Obama spent about as much time mentioning Bush policies as he did his own stimulus plan. When it was Boehner’s turn, he didn’t even mention, much less accept responsibility for, Bush-era policies, all of which he personally voted for as a member of the House. No, he only mentioned Obama’s “failed stimulus” and “job killing health care plan.” He did that because that’s his job. It’s called framing the debate. It’s called politics.

If the worst had happens (and can still happen – no one has passed anything yet), who will get the blame? What has Obama done to ensure it’s not him? He lost control of the message on the stimulus; on health care; he doesn’t control the economic policy agenda at all, which is dictated entirely by Republicans focused on deficits above all else; and he lost control of this one too.

What is Obama’s vision for the economy? What are his red lines where he will not go, what components of a budget does he feel are essential to job creation, what does he view as a fair tax system? No one knows the answer to any of this, because Obama himself appears to have no answer. He appears to have no vision. He simply doesn’t lead.