Why Obama refrained
Posted: Friday, November 25, 2011 7:01 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — The failure of the congressional super committee to reach a deal invited a chorus of complaints about President Obama’s absence from the negotiations that began in the fall after partisan wrangling in Congress brought the government to the brink of defaulting on the debt. Congress created the super committee and passed a law, which Obama signed, that calls for $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over nine years to take effect beginning in January 2013 should the super committee fail to shape its own deal.
The 12 members who represented both congressional chambers and both parties obviously concluded that the arbitrary cuts known as sequestration were preferable to their signing off on specific spending cuts or revenue increases that would alienate their respective political bases. Obama kept his distance from the bargaining no doubt assuming as did most Congress-watchers that the super committee was likely to fail, and that there was no point in his getting involved in a fools’ venture.
There are political interests involved in the president’s positioning, just as there are in the Republican argument that he should have been more engaged as a matter of presidential leadership. There are also constitutional imperatives that Obama respected in keeping his distance. Never before has there been a super committee (and given this experience, there will probably never be another one). And a search of the history books will likely not find any president bringing an entire committee into the White House for deliberations.
That would have crossed the line between the executive and legislative branches, and Obama has no constitutional authority to impose his will on Congress. He can bring congressional leaders into the White House and jawbone them, and he has done that on several occasions during his presidency, with mixed success. Obama has enviable skills of oratory and leadership, or he wouldn’t have made it to the White House, but on a scale of one to 10, compared to presidents who have gone before him, his ability to convince and cajole members of Congress falls on the low end.
Lyndon Johnson was the master. He had been majority leader in the Senate and understood from the inside how the place worked, and how to get senators to vote with him. He used his physical stature, towering over most people, combining threats and blandishments to get other politicians to do his bidding. He lived and breathed and talked the language of politics.
Obama, by his nature, prefers to be above the battle. He looks at politics more as a necessary evil than the lifeblood of what he does. The idea of leading by bullying is as foreign to him as polite policy discussions must have been to LBJ.
Obama did wade in last summer and met privately with Republican leader John Boehner in an attempt to reach a “grand bargain” to cut the deficit, raise taxes, and rein in entitlements. When it became apparent that Boehner could not get Republicans in the House to support such a far-reaching deal, the Speaker walked away from the talks, at one point refusing to return the president’s phone call.
One of the lessons the White House took away from that experience was recognition of the limits of Obama’s power. The Republicans are so dug in on Capitol Hill that no amount of Obama’s involvement would be enough to turn them around, or so it seems. Obama’s original mistake may have been in appearing too reasonable. His opponents took that for weakness. In the year ahead, as each side makes its case, Obama has little choice but to move even farther from Congress, driving a stake through bipartisanship and turning the normal constitutional division of power into open warfare.
Published in The Messenger 11.25.11