President Obama Really, Seriously Needs to Lead

“All Presidents start out wanting to be domestic policy Presidents,” Professor Phil Mundo observed with characteristic insight, “and end up as foreign policy Presidents.”  Events abroad have a way of overshadowing (if not overtaking) a President’s goals for his domestic agenda: President Kennedy portended a dramatic vision of national reform but was pulled into the Cuban Missile Crisis and mulling over Vietnam before his Presidency was tragically cut short; President Johnson surely wanted to be remembered for the Civil Rights Act and his Great Society, not for launching the Vietnam “Conflict;” President Nixon, his “Southern Strategy” of Silent Majority-populism notwithstanding, was a Republican who governed largely from the left (as I have previously blogged) and distinguished himself in foreign policy by attaining arms-limitation talks with the Soviets and recognizing Communist China; President Carter promised, post-Watergate, that “I will never lie to you,” and his honesty and good government of the State of Georgia proved irrelevant in the face of ongoing inflation, high unemployment, and a violent Islamist revolution in Iran; President Reagan was seen as the consummation of the hopes of the New Right, but in his 2nd term he conducted a politically-prudent Realist foreign policy; President Bush Sr.’s signature achievement was UN support for and quick prosecution of the Persian Gulf War, his signature failure his inability to master an extended recession; President Clinton hoped to give us single-payer health insurance and integrate gays into the US Military but failed on both counts, instead bringing the North American Free Trade Agreement to passage, promoting humanitarian interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and establishing closer relations with the People’s Republic of China; George W. Bush campaigned as the “Compassionate Conservative” but in less than a year he was drawn into a shooting war against religious fanatics in Central Asia, and a year after that he was drawn into what has proved a costly military makeover of Iraq.  Much like President Clinton before him, President Obama has taken the loss of the House of Representatives as his cue to focus on foreign policy.  So we get advocacy of free trade agreements with South Korea and Peru, UN authorization of humanitarian intervention in Libya, highlighting of the greatly-improved situation in Iraq, jubilation at the killing of pampered terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and a greatly-augmented call on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian Authority based on the 1967 border.

Considering the profound malaise in both the economy and the Federal budget, it’s almost as if Barack Obama no longer wanted to be President.

This is no time for focusing on a foreign policy wish list.  The President has done some good in foreign policy and continues to pursue some noble objectives, but whatever the story may be behind the scenes, there isn’t enough evidence of movement by the President on domestic policy.  I am finally prepared to concede (though I have only been troubled with the thought in recent weeks) that the President’s critics on the Left have half a point.

They have half a point.  The President’s biggest failure is not that he isn’t running the Federal Government like Portland, Oregon.  Even in February 2009 this would have been an equally-rapid path to November 2010; today the Republicans have their largest House majority in generations.  The course of instant gratification many on the Left wanted from President Obama was never available to him.  What he could have done (and what he keeps doing in compartmentalized fits) is take a stand.

Now I’ve plagiarized Paul Krugman.  But for months I have quietly yearned for the President Obama, not of the 2008 campaign trail (who delivered many progressive reforms but crucially failed to put people back to work) but of the 2011 State of the Union Address.  The call to a new national purpose–of the development of a 21st-century national infrastructure, education system, and research sector; the demand for reform of our immigration policy; even his call to see the brave new World of computerization, capital mobility and competition with huge the educated work forces of China and India as a “challenge” rather than a menacing tide…All of these calls inspired me, all of them sounded both like the medicine we needed and a means of triangulating the rallying-cries of a Republican Party reborn in the mold of Libertarian populism.

Where has the talk of our new infrastructure, of immigration reform, of how we (in essence) “gotta compete with the wily Chinese” gone?  Some may say the President had no choice, that the Republicans simply aren’t willing to work with him.  Like all circularities, this is strangely off-point: President Obama should leverage any future budget and tax agreements with House Speaker John Boehner and his restive caucus of Conservatives to work-out a deal to advance his own priorities; after all, the Republican Party has campaigned in overall cuts to Federal spending, only rarely on eliminating specific programs.  Last December the President struck a deal with Senate Republicans on extending almost all of President Bush’s tax cuts in order to achieve their compliance on or consent to almost the balance of his 1st-term agenda; I applauded that deal at the time and am still happy with the result.  The President obviously can’t get everything he wants, but he can and should have a public position on how much he is willing to compromise his own policy goals to reach a resolution with the Republicans; after all, as the House Republicans’ Pledge to America calls for an annual $100 billion cut in spending aside from the Department of Defense and entitlements–and made general promises about restraints on growth in Federal spending–Speaker Boehner has a built-in benchmark against which his supporters can chart his progress.  To the Republican base, the Speaker isn’t just on the offensive or on the defensive, he is advancing and retreating as part of a narrative on his domestic policy agenda.  The President should approach negotiations over raising the debt limit right now and campaigning for November 2012 as one and the same; integration of these seemingly-separate battles would be good strategy for both.  Yes, he can: If the President himself were to take to the bully pulpit to remind us of popular Federal programs the Republicans want to put on the chopping block to defend tax cuts for millionaires and tax breaks for oil conglomerates (which are politically unpopular but which Republicans in State or Federal government are almost contractually-obligated to defend) this could simultaneously give the President credibility of commitment to his priorities in ongoing budget negotiations and rally the support of the public.  Put differently, if he doesn’t have progress in negotiations to show for it, why should the President hold deficit-reduction talks behind closed doors?

Maybe that sounds naive, or even dangerous?  “Just let the 2 parties hash-out deficit reduction in Congress, with Vice President Biden’s input,” you say?  A dark picture is emerging gradually of the chaos such a subcontracting approach invites.  Talks on deficit-reduction haven’t made visible progress in over a month.  Even worse, the Washington Post reports, several Senators are proposing deficit-reduction plans of their own.  We need to come up with 1, after all, lest the United States Federal Government default on its sovereign debt for the 1st time in history.

All of this has some relation to the President’s disinclination to lead the debate.  Some will argue discretion if not secrecy plays a role in the deficit-reduction talks, and so it may be that House Republicans and the President are getting close to $2 trillion in savings.  My answer to this is simple: Why haven’t the sticking points in the bill even moved?  Why are both sides still saying they’ll agree to cut farm subsidies and certain Defense Department programs (both wins for Liberals, if you’re keeping track), while Republicans refuse to eliminate tax breaks for oil conglomerates and Democrats refuse to talk serious about the cancerous growth of Medicare costs (both refusals of which represent big losses for the general public, if anyone is paying attention)?  Why should either party want to make an agreement on a 10-year budget blueprint appear farther-off than it actually is–particularly with our economic recovery at death’s door and the stock market plunging again on fear of a US default?

The deficit-reduction talks indeed haven’t really moved since deficit-reduction talks began in early-May–right before we passed the Federal debt limit and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner started his fiscal fancy footwork.  If you don’t believe me, measure the movement towards resolution in these talks from the Washington Post’s chronicle.  From May 5th:

“That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.”

From June 21st:

“The two sides are closest to agreement on proposals such as cutting student loan subsidies and farm programs and facilitating new auctions of the electromagnetic spectrum by allowing broadcasters to reap some of the profit from the sale. It’s commonly assumed federal workers will contribute more to their pensions and that corporations will pay more to have the government guarantee their pension plans. The government is likely to sell excess property.”

I’m not saying Vice President Biden can’t bring Congressional Democrats and Republicans to a durable deal.  I am saying that the Washington Post has taken pains to keep its news content separate from its editorial content, considering how many times it has had to repeat itself in articles on the ostensibly-progressing deficit talks over the past 7 weeks.  After all, no game is less-dynamic than chicken before that crucial moment.

President Obama doesn’t have to make the Republicans out to be the enemy; that said, he should pick a fight with them.  Let the President and the Speaker both bloody their noses a bit; it might be good for them.  A shared golf game is nice, but this is our own economy we’re dealing with and we the people ought to be kept up to speed regarding what they plan to do with it; a little boxing could draw our interest.  The President’s own inclinations are against it, but both his principles and his political self-interest may demand it.

The Gallup Poll does not lie: President Obama’s honeymoon for having bin Laden killed is over.  It’s time for him to take his message for fixing the economy and investing in our future to the public, lest the Republicans 86 it in Blair House–or on the 14th fairway.

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One thought on “President Obama Really, Seriously Needs to Lead

  1. Kukri

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/congressional-budget-office-warns-of-debt-explosion/2011/06/22/AGNwb2fH_story.html

    The CBO’s latest report is very disconcerning. “The national debt will exceed the size of the entire U.S. economy by 2021 — and balloon to nearly 200 percent of GDP within 25 years — without dramatic cuts to federal health and retirement programs or steep tax increases, congressional budget analysts said Wednesday.” -Washington Post

    As much as I understand the desire to fund all of these new investment and infrastructure projects, how can we undertake new goals when we can barely take care of the current goals and current projects?

    We have made little if any progress on the debt ceiling discussion, and the deadline is approaching August 2. Our 2011 budget was 6 months late, and as you know our budgets run on 12-month cycles, with the fiscal year starting/stopping on October 1. If the debt ceiling debate really runs until August 1, that leaves us barely two months to discuss the 2012 budget…. is that going to be 6 months late as well? This is not sustainable. Our various federal departments, particularly when it comes to undertaking regular projects or hiring employees, was basically at a standstill for the first 6 months of the 2011 budget, and it’s not improved much now that we’re debating the debt ceiling. How is the government literally supposed to function?

    Last month the President made a big speech in favor of immigration reform. I understand the need for reform, but God dammit, he knows there is no chance of passing it with this Congress, so why is he even bringing it up when there are much bigger issues right now, like the economic catastrophe that might be looming August 2?

    Reply

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