Democrats in Congress say they have grown frustrated with Obama because of his lack of leadership in their ongoing battle with Republicans over spending cuts, but with nothing in Obama’s career to suggest that he is one for political rough riding, it is odd for Democrats to express dismay that Obama isn't leading the charge.
During the bloody 14-month fight over ObamaCare, Obama opted not to fully engage until the final three weeks. Since Obama declined to take the lead when it came to a multi-trillion-dollar law that will forever be associated with his name, Democrats should know that he isn't jumping into the fight over funding the government for six months.
But in Congress, Democrats, both moderates and liberals, continue to wonder why Obama is not doing more to resolve the current impasse on spending; and they are defecting from the ranks of the faithful. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said it the most sharply last week when he charged that Obama had “failed to lead.” But we are hearing similar refrains from many of his colleagues.
One would think that by now Democrats would know how this works: Obama is above the fray and they, alas, are the fray.
On his health-care law, his stimulus spending plan, his energy policy, his debt commission and more, Obama has been very content to allow congressional Democrats to muck out the legislative stables before he gets his hands dirty. In each case, Obama had suggested a goal (such as universal health insurance, economic recovery, fees on carbon emissions, a balanced budget and the like) and then tasked Congress with delivering it. The strategy has given Obama some operating room and plausible deniability when Congress has failed (as in the case of global warming) or, more often, delivered something broadly unsatisfying (such as ObamaCare).
When Obama goes on the campaign trail for himself and bemoans the way people “in Washington” operate, Congressional Democrats should understand that he’s selling them downstream, because his brand relies on him staying aloof from all the political heat. However, Democrats learned the hard way in 2010, that there is a high price to pay for doing the dirty work of executing the Obama agenda. We will never know how many Democrats might have been spared defeat in November if the president had been more deeply engaged in the making of his own health-care legislation. Not only would he have been there to share the blame for a process that was widely seen as flawed, but his direction might have brought a swifter conclusion.
Instead, Obama let Democrats chase their tails on health care for so long they did not wrap up work on the highly divisive legislation until March 2010, not leaving enough time to separate themselves in the minds of angry voters.
Showing his courageous nature, Obama has worked hard to disassociate himself with some of the law’s unpopular provisions since the mid-term election. The Obama administration has freely granted waivers on some of the more onerous obligations imposed by ObamaCare and even offered states more time to try to wriggle free of expensive entitlement provisions. It must have seemed a cruel irony to some defeated House members when Obama compared his compromise on the extending tax rates in December’s lame-duck session of Congress to the health-care battle, chiding Democrats who were upset over his cave-in on a core campaign promise.
Obama accused his fellow Democrats of seeking “a purist position and no victories for the American people,” on taxes just as they had sought a government-run health insurance program. As if covered in Teflon, he said it was “the public option all over again,” even though it was his idea. Obama was the one who proposed the government-run program in 2008 and savaged Hillary Clinton for failing to include one in her 2008 campaign plan. But rather than fighting for it, he let his fellow liberals follow him out onto the “public option” limb and then sawed it off.
This is the guy who Democrats now expect to fight John Boehner tooth and nail over funding for National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood? Not gonna happen, folks.
Obama’s above-the-fray approach even extends also to international matters. He says that he is “tightening the noose” around Muammar Qaddafi, but the ones left dangling at the end of the rope are the rebels facing Qaddafi’s better-supplied military. As has consistently been the case, Obama's words are empty rhetoric. Obama took a similar approach in Egypt during the populist siege of President Hosni Mubarak. In Egypt, things have so far worked out as Obama had hoped. In Libya, things are shaping up less attractively. Do not look for Obama to herald that “at every juncture” in the Libya that he was “on the right side of history.” Obama is not exactly a profile in courage.
Obama’s aides and admirers suggest that this detachment is a form of strategic disengagement – that Obama is building consensus and then steering it in the right direction and preserving his power for important moments. His communications director told the Associated Press this week that Americans don’t want the president “serving as a cable commentator for the issue of the day.” Except for on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the building of the Ground Zero mosque and Kanye West’s behavior at the Grammys and who is going to win the NCAA basketball tournament. Their position is nothing more than political double-speak.
As 2012 nears, Obama’s refusal to wade in to the nitty-gritty of policy looks more like a strategy of self preservation than a cerebral leadership style. It may help the president avoid the daily grind of politics it also opens him to perceptions of cynicism, weakness and, worst of all, irrelevance. With congressional Democrats facing another rough election cycle, Obama will be tempted to continue to let them continue to thrash about on the Hill. But if he doesn’t find a way soon to engage, voters may forget why his presidency matters.